New York to France
Sometime in the spring of 1999 Andrew suggested another cycling trip in France for the week after Labor Day. He had been looking into the Dordogne region, a land of prehistoric caves, rich foie gras, truffles, walnuts, and rolling hills. The cycling company we’d used in 1998 did not offer the region he wanted to visit, so he’d located a bicycle rental company that would supply us with bikes wherever we wanted to ride. Throughout the summer we ordered high-resolution maps of the area from France and planned and re-planned our itinerary. Andrew made hotel reservations via fax, and we both stocked up on the supplies we knew we’d want for the ride. I decided to take a gel seat cover instead of packing my beloved wide saddle (a decision I regreted later). Andrew bought a new helmet.
On Friday, September 3, Andrew’s birthday, we flew from New York to Paris, then early Saturday morning cabbed to Gare du Nord. The train took us to Souillac and a bus took us the last half-hour to Sarlat. Our hotel was just a couple blocks from the bus stop.
Before boarding the plane in New York we watched a very annoyed woman pitch a fit at the desk. She looked like someone I used to work with, but I thought “Nah, couldnt be.”
We were not seated together on the full plane, and we were both in middle seats surrounded by college kids from Connecticut going for a year in Paris. They were all guite nice, but we both thought some of them were no where near ready for a year abroad.
Seated on the plane awaiting takeoff, I hear my name and look up. It is a woman who works for my Turkish client, in fact, she’s the person who arranged my Turkey trip in 1998. She is visiting France with her young daughter. I tell her I’ll come chat after takeoff. Soon after I hear my name again. It is the angry woman, who is indeed that former co-worker. The girls around me are impressed that I know two people on the flight who I’m not traveling with. I’m amazed.
Later I seek out both. My Turkish friend says business is bad at Pacha, after terrorist bombs in March and the Earthquake in August. While this is not surprising, I’m sorry to hear a that a good client is having difficulties. My former co-worker is now with IBM and traveling on business to Paris and Frankfurt.
Our bikes await us at the door of the hotel. Only one has paniers, both are men’s frames, neither have water bottles, and one has toe cages. Its too late to call the company, so we go out to a cycle shop and Andrew buys paniers and a water bottle (I brought mine).
The hotel pool is quite cool but I enjoy it anyway. After our swim, bath, and a rest, we stroll through old Sarlat. We’re anxious for dinner although it is too early. We review the menus at two of the three restaurants that are recommended in the Cadogan guide. At last we deem it a marginally proper hour and enjoy a lovely meal, the highlight of which is a garlic and sorrell soup. We sleep like the dead.
The Capital of Prehistoric France: Sarlat to Les Eyzies Loop
We meet our first hill just out of Sarlat and walk up for three kilometers. Then its downhill most of the way to Les Eyzies. We stop at Font de Gaume, which has the best cave paintings in the area (Lascaux being closed to visitors) to reserve for a tour. The earliest available is at 5 p.m. We buy that ticket and also book for the 3:10 tour at Combarelles, which we passed two kilometers back.
The museum closes from noon to 2:00. It’s 11:30. We decide to do it now. It is stocked with flint knives and arrowheads, bones, and beads, which we do not find compelling. We finish in thirty minutes and adjourn to a creperie for lunch. As we finish eating an American couple, Pat and Lloyd Wheeler from Annapolis, MD, asks if they can join us while we finish our wine. They are at the mid point of their six weeks in France, three learning French on a farm and three cycling and camping.
We chat for a while until it’s time for us to ride back to the cave.
Our first tour is just four of us. I manage to understand enough of the French to get by. We walk through the narrow passage into the depths in dim light from half-concealed fixtures. Periodically we stop and our guide uses hand held lamps to illuminate the engraved figures of bison and deer.
We ride back to Font de Gaume for a tour with a much larger group. Here they must stage for more people so the lighting is more dramatic–the line of visitors is up just so by height, and voila! the lights come on to reveal the paintings of bison, antelope and horse.
I select a route home that has a steep hill at the start–get it over with–I figure. This backfires when we have to go down and up yet another hill after that. There’s always another hill. We get home in about two hours–the same as it took to get there.
Leaving the hotel for a late dinner it looks like rain so we take jackets. Good thing–while we are eating the clouds open up. We picked the second of the three recomended restaurants. We’re served a fish soup, pate, lotte (a delicate white fish), and dessert. We window shop on the way home as the rain has stopped.
Thunder, Lightening, and Long, Steep Hills: Sarlat to Rocamadour
To Rocamadour. The morning dawns wet after a night of storms. We set off after confirming the bike pickup with the company. He tells andrew that he’s aware of the screw up–my bike was switched with another. Well, so long as he’s aware… I do wonder about the man who wanted a bike with toe cages and got a woman’s frame with paniers instead. I think I got the better end of the deal.
We stop at the train station and buy our return tickets to Paris. Then we seek out the bike path we know will take us a ways toward Souillac. It’s a paved-over rail line that provides a long, gentle downhill run for many kilometers before ending abruptly.
After that we have to take to the roads, and the storms take us. The first time I put on my hood my rear view mirror breaks off of my helmet. Unfortunately, I don’t miss it for some time, so it’s long gone. We try the small roads among cultivated fields instead of the main road, but they run out after a while and it’s into traffic for us.
We shelter for a while under a roofed resevoir outside a house. Yard dogs bark madly until the rain gets heavy, then they disappear, presumably indoors. We know when they come back that its stopped enough for us to go. A long hill leads into Souillac after a couple more pauses for shelter from the thunder storms.
I’m concerned about having the strength to make it to Rocamadour. The weather really makes riding hard, both physically and psychologically. We stop for lunch in Souillac–sandwiches and beer at a busy bar. We skip the church that we’d planned to see and press on in the drizzle, which seems to be stopping.
After a brief stop at LaCave, which has a cave that we skip, we start the uphill climb that I dread. Pushing our laden bikes up and up, we climb to 300 meters. Mostly its too steep to ride. But I’m undeservedly proud to ride up and over the high point.
After 3.5 hours up we roll into Le Hospitalet and our hotel.
Would St. Amadour Have Appreciated the Tourist Industry?
We shower and do laundry, then walk over to the top of the cliff that supports Rocamadour.
Rocamadour, or Rock of Amadour, has been a pilgrimage site since the 12th century when miracles began to occur there. An elevator in a sloping shaft cut through the rock carries us down to the sanctuary level.
The Michelin Green guide tells us that pilgrims often climb the 223 steps of the Great Stairway “kneeling at every step.” We only take them in the downward direction to get to the village level.
We stroll (unable to move any faster) down through the tourist shops. It’s a disappointing mix of Disney marketing and genuine medieval. The buildings cling to the side of the cliff with a tenacity that only the boldest modern architects would try. The shop keepers lure in visitors with of t-shirts, religious icons, and novelty food.
We watch a tourist bus that has approached town along a cliff-hugging road reach a switchback turn that it can’t possibly make. A man guides the driver through the necessary five-point turn to head the bus back up the hill from wence it came.
Disappointed by the touristic atmosphere and exhausted from our ride, we don’t bother to explore all the nooks and crannies that the city has to offer. The swarms of fanny-pack toting bus riders, obviously catered to by the village, reign supreme here. We’ll save our limited energy for exploring the more authentic, lived-in, real villages on our itinerary.
We have a beer, and watch the sun and shadows on the gorge. There’s a modern village to the east of the old site where, we guess, most of the locals actually live. We study the road down the cliff face (the one the bus came down), which switches back a few times before reaching the bottom of the gorge, then climbs up the opposite site.
The the downward slope looks so steep we’re probably going to have to walk our bikes down, then walk them back up the other side. If we go that way. We decide to explore other route options.
We return to our hotel (via two elevators, no steps) for a lovely dinner of fois gras, duck, Rocamadour goat cheese, and walnut cake.
Look, Up In the Sky!
The morning starts out grey, but soon shows signs of clearing. After breakfast we watch two hot air balloons ascending from out of the gorge past Rocamadour. They seem to brush the buildings before ascending and disappearing into the clouds, which seems rather frightening. We assume they’re a balloon tour, although we haven’t seen any advertising for such a thing.
Along with other visitors, we chase them along the road for a short distance before they climb far above us and vanish.
We’ve selected a route along this edge of the gorge rather than going down the steep hill and back up again. It starts with a six-kilometer coast (3.5 hours up the day before is 20 minutes down today) down a road that winds down into the gorge. We cross a small bridge over the Aizou then commence the climb up the other side. It’s a six-kilometer gradual climb that we manage to ride (with frequent rests for me), not walk.
At the top I select the slightly longer route because it is more level, according to the elevations on the map. Bad decision. We cruise through a small village and the road turns down hill. Now we’re on a road in a valley heavily trafficked by cars and trucks. Just past the construction zone for the new north/south highway, we take a side road that will reconnect us with the shorter route. It heads back up hill, although it’s a deceptive climb that appears to be staying in the lowlands. As we approach a village we notice on the map that it climbs to 300 meters just beyond the town. Up we go again, and I’m not sure I can do it. But I do, and a bit later we dash across a highway (that we would have had to ride on had we stayed on my earlier chosen route) and start a downhill run to Le Vigan.
Tasting the Earth’s Treasure: Gourdon
We have lunch from a buffet at what appears to be a truck stop. The truck drivers have the right idea–the selection of cold cuts, salads and vegetables is very good. The town’s historic church is not open to view, so we press on to Gourdon.
After a nerve-wracking ride through the busy suburbs we enter the old city and find a street market. We stop to buy fabric and finished tablecloths and napkins.
On to our hotel where we clean up and go out to see the sights. The market is shutting down by now, so we’re glad we stopped on the way in, although it felt like impulse buying at the time.
We hike up to the esplanade in the center of town on sore legs and feet. The view of the surrounding hills from the former site of Gourdon’s castle is lovely. Climbing down, we pick up pastries at a boulangerie and beer at a grocery and return to the hotel. A group of German cyclists, all with colorful matching panier, are checking in. We step into the elevator to go up one floor. They take the stairs.
At dinner there are two tables of Germans occupying one end of the room. Their guide gives them, and, unfortunately, the rest of us, a lengthy speech over appetizers. We do our best to block him out.
Andrew selected this hotel for its restaurant, which is supposed to be excellent. The meal is a highlight, but there’s too much of it (the late afternoon pastry and beer wouldn’t have had anything to do with that . . .). We sadly forego cheese and dessert. For an appetizer I have a truffle omelette that would be more than enough for any breakfast. But I’m curious to try this classic dish that’s supposed to show off the effect of truffles. The flavor is something wonderful, no surprise given that there thick slices of the black fungus mixed in with the eggs. The truffle slices alone have very little flavor, but the omelette as a whole is remarkable.
Where’s that Mountain? Gourdon to Siorac
The chilly morning mist in the valley requires a coat, and so do the caves we tour. This takes an inordinate amount of time. First we must see a cave full of stalactites and stalagmites. Our guide goes on and on using various lights to highlight them. They really are amazing, but there’s a limit to our interest.
Finally he takes us to another cave entrance and pauses there to lecture for a while about primitive man. All in French, of course. He asks questions and the others offer answers. I’m afraid that he’ll point at me and I’ll not know what to do. We are finally admitted into another cavern of dripping minerals, where at the back on a dry wall are drawings. With the huge collection of stalactites and stalagmites here, we’re not sure why we had to see the first cave–I guess we missed the subtleties of spelunking. Back in the entrance cavern he points out a small collection of column capitals, carvings, and sarcophagus covers. These, are apparently, various debris collected and placed here to enhance our visit.
All of this takes until after 11:00 a.m. By then the mist has cleared and we can see the hills before us. The first few are steep and I let my exhaustion show unflateringly. But eventually we connect with the D51 which winds along a stream. The hills here are comparatively mild.
We stop for lunch in Daglan, a storybook village where a road crew is power washing the cobbles. Lunch is garlic soup, hearty salads, and cold beer. When we move on I find the rough road and headwind a difficult combination. Andrew has warned of a mountain yet to climb, so I’m cycling in dread.
Along the winding country roads we passed tobacco farms, fields of cows, and lots of corn. Once andrew stopped to watch a hawk circling ever higher over a field. A couple kilometers later a similar bird glided by just above and ahead of me, engaging a crow mid-flight off across a meadow. Spectacular.
The road improves as we go through another town and enter into a long mostly downhill run. As we reach the outskirts of Siorac I ask what happened to the mountain. Andrew says it was the town we rode through before the downhill run. I had hardly noticed the hills.
The road improves as we go through another town and enter into a long mostly downhill run. As we reach the outskirts of Siorac I ask what happened to the mountain. Andrew says it was the town we rode through before the downhill run. I had hardly noticed the hills.
We follow signs in Siorac to our hotel, which is a rambling amalgam of several buildings along a square. Our bikes are parked out by the pool. Our room is a garrett with a two-room bath larger than the bedroom. I brave the cold pool while Andrew reviews a 40 page fax sent from his office. Andrew disposes of the work before dinner via three or four phone calls.
Dinner in the hotel is a sad affair with disappointing food and an enormous tour group taking up the large dining room. Our room is hot and we leave the door cracked open until just before retiring. Reviewing the next two days, we briefly consider moving on rather than staying here a second night. But the prospect of doing a loop ride tomorrow without luggage is too enticing.
Pilgrimages and Prehistoric Bears: Siorac Loop
We view the church and cloister where a false shroud is housed as an historical artifact. For centuries Cadouin was a pilgrimage destination, then earlier this century scientists determined that it’s shroud–supposedly the cloth wrapped around Jesus’ head after his death–is actually an 11th century weaving with Islamic writing on the decorative fringe.
Poor Caduoin hasn’t been the same since.
I spring for the bicycle museum at about $5 each–we came all this way, why not? An elderly couple presides over the three or four rooms of antique cycles that seem to be their private collection. It’s impressive, if pedestrian. Once again we contemplate all the ways we could market the sites we’ve seen–miniature bicycles, poster and postcard reproductions, heck, even in-line skates stamped with “I got mine at the Cadouin Bicycle Museum.” But alas we leave empty handed and with most of our money in our wallets.
We pick a route back to the river that’s on a small road and fairly direct. It begins with the steepest climb yet on a narrow, suspect road. But it soon connects with a more trafficked way and the landmarks match up with the map. We pedal and coast along the ridge between farm houses and fields where poultry reigns over vehicular traffic. Andrew tries his foot at pullet polo, and we determine why the rooster crossed the road, but not the chicken (who went first).
Then it’s down, down to the river and across the cringle to the double bridge at Lemouil.
We cross the Dordogne and Vezere rivers and pedal on along flat, rough roads in the afternoon heat. At last we enter Bugue. We lunch on pre-packaged egg sandwiches, pastry, and beer at a charming bar/boulangerie/cafe. The proprietress kindly fills my bottle with ice and water–a real indulgence.
We push our bikes up the hill to our final cave, Baru Bahau, the bear cave. Here the guide annotates her narrative with English summaries, requested before we arrived by a lone English cyclist also on the tour. She shows us bear claw marks and ancient engravings of horses, deer, and bison. Andrew’s guide book had waxed poetic about primitive man sharing this cave with bears, but I’m not convinced by the evidence presented. Sure, there’s evidence of bears along with primitive man, but it’s not at all clear that we’re meant to believe that they were in the cave together. We’ve already learned that the caves where our ancestors did their best painting were not places where they lived. So I’m inclined to think the bears hibernated here, and the people came in to paint and engrave at different times.
Back in Bugue we buy provisions for supper so as to avoid a second dinner in the hotel restaurant. We pick up a baguette and a bottle of wine, some pate and rillettes, and some cheese and fresh fruit. Having slurped up my precious ice water while it was still cold, I buy a bottle of water as a refill (the only water we buy on the entire trip). We hit the road for the 10 kilometer ride home. Our pace, which measures out to be about eight miles an hour according to the GPS, suggests that we are quite tired.
Aging Stars, Old Castles, and Worn Out Legs: Siorac to Sarlat
Neither of us are looking forward to the afternoon ride back to Sarlat. We delay it first by visiting Siorac’s chateau museum, which houses a collection of furniture, decorative arts, and tableware. We’re at the gate promptly at 10:00 a.m. and are admitted by a man who turns on the lights for us. Viewing the four rooms of kitchen implements and china takes little time. Once again we envision how to expand the collection and market the place with replicas, recipe books, linens–the works. As we prepare to remount our bikes the guard comes out, locks up, and drives away. We decide they must limit their guests to two per day. No wonder they can’t afford to expand.
We further delay our climb to Sarlat by following the river’s meander around to Les Milande, Josephine Baker’s chateau. We are promised a display of furniture, which would make the climb to this hill-top castle worthwhile. We’re issued a printed self-tour.
We try to follow it through empty rooms where a recorded guide plays in French echoing off the bare walls. As we try to match the rooms to the guide (and fail) it digresses into the history of Josephine. Toward the end it ignors the room descriptions altogether, telling us about events that occurred in them instead. This would be a problem if there were much to see in them. Since the furniture is gone, the only really interesting items are several rather gruesome stuffed birds of prey and a life-size, and life-like wax figure of Josephine in her prime.
Finally in the kitchen we read of her eviction and retirement to Monaco. All homeless idealists should be lucky enough to be taken in by royalty.
Outside we visit the live birds of prey housed in an open aviary and peek into a windowed aviary at a colorful collection of love birds, budgies, and cockatiels. We decline to stay around for the raptor show in the afternoon.
On around the bluff to Castlenaud we go, pausing under the shadow of Feyrac, but not climbing it’s steep drive for a tour.
We stop for lunch at a touristy snack bar right on the river where I have a pizza and Andrew has an enormous salad. We also decline to climb up to Castlenaud for a tour, enjoying instead a walk down to the riverside where a fleet of kayaks and canoes is available for rent. That looks like a very pleasant way to tour the river.
In the restaurant parking lot Andrew asks a man with a trailer full of bikes which is the best route to Sarlat. He confirms our suspicion that the less direct route that follows a stream offers the gentler ascent.
Off we go, and it’s just as hot and tiring as we feared. Soon the road bends upward, but we keep pedaling. An hour and a half later we reach our hotel in Sarlat. Traffic on the last bit is very heavy — everyone is coming into town for Saturday market.
A swim, a bath, and re-introduction to our luggage later, we stroll into the village for a drink and dinner. For some reason I order a litre of beer, to the great amusement of the waiter. I don’t finish it but even so it leaves me buzzing. We decide to revisit the restaurant of our first night for the garlic soup.
They seem to remember us. Andrew asks the gamine, nose-pierced watress if would be possible to get the soup recipe and receives a resounding “Non” in reply. Clearly a common, annoying request. It only inspires us to analyze the soup, as well as the amazing potatoes, carefully for later reconstruction.
Let the Power Shopping Begin! Sarlat Saturday Market
We attack the Sarlat food market–reported to be the best in France–first thing. It is already crowded. After an initial reconoiter we start making purchases.
I have the hicoughs, and one cheese vender accuses me of starting to drink too early. Then he turns back to his associates to share another round of fresh oysters and red wine.
The food market features many produce, bread, cheese, meat, seafood, and candy stands. Several offer locum, or Turkish delight, in a wide range of flavors. Some have the chocolate dipped walnuts that we sampled early in the week during our chat with the Wheelers. We stock up, as they will make good gifts.
We secured food for the train and our supply of foie gras and jarred truffles, which we packed into a colorful country basket. The baskets were commonly available, but none were being sold as flamboyantly as they had been last year in the Loire. Still, I wanted to add another one to my collection, and bought a small one as a gift. Our final purchases included lunch, a pair of earrings for me and a shirt that Andrew had been admiring in a shop window since the previous Sunday night when we were window shopping.
At last we returned to the hotel and gathered up our luggage for the trip to Paris.
Old Friends in an Old City: Weekend in Paris
Our Paris hotel is, for once, not a mystery, at least to Andrew–he stayed here last spring. Enscounced on a quiet street near the Bastille, the hotel Castex is remarkably inexpensive for Paris. We are obliged to lug our bags up four flights (to the unfairly numbered third floor) to our immaculately clean room. We mess it up a little by eating our Sarlat-imported dinner, then go out for a walk.
We seek out the corner of Rue Rosiers and Vielle du Temple, a corner described by Alex Karmel in his delightful little book, A Corner of the Marais. I’d come across the book after last year’s trip and, knowing Andrew’s fondness for the neighborhood, bought it for him. Karmel purchased a tiny garret apartment in one of the buildings on this corner. In his book he presents it’s history, as well as that of the surrounding neighborhood. The windows of the apartment are dark, or we might have been tempted to ring (and Peter Mayle thought he had it bad).
Sunday is museum and visiting day. We start out bright and early looking to revisit a garden that we saw last year in the rain. It’s not open, and hours are not posted. We wander on to the Seine and descend to the riverside, where the drive has been closed to cars. Cyclists and skaters zoom back and forth. We wander on to the Hotel du Ville and look at the stalls at a garden exhibit, then move on to the Louvre where, in one of the ancillary museums, we see an exhibit of fashions. It’s strangely staged, with gauzy curtains hanging outside of the glassed display areas. Rather like voyeurs, we have to pull aside the curtains to read about the clothes on display.
Having seen a poster for a gallery featuring a rather attractive painting, we decide to visit the place and see the real item. We take the Metro to the 15th and, after a pastry stop, find the gallery in an office space on the ground floor of an apartment building. It seems closed, but when we ring we are buzzed in to a stuffy room occupied by several women drinking champagne. One, overdressed and made up, offers her services. We inquire after the artist and she shows us to an adjoining room where his work is hanging. Andrew asks about the poster painting and she takes us halfway up a staircase to show it to us.
It’s not displayed in the best light there (not to mention we’re forced to stand two feet away from it), so she takes it down and escorts us into an office where she props it up on a credenza. Now it’s bathed in light from the window. She urges us to sit. She offers us champagne. We decline. She asks me, in French, if I like it. I say yes. She pushes the sale, explaining that the frame would be included. She describes the artist’s style and reputation. She suggests that when she sees something she likes she’s impulsive and must buy it. Andrew explains that he is not and asks if she has a copy of the poster. She does not. She offers champagne again. We decline again, and make our excuses of a pending appointment. We’ve both decided there is something not right about the composition. She invites Andrew to come back tomorrow and she’ll buy lunch.
On the metro back we speculate about whether she would really drop $6,000 on an impulse as she expected Andrew to do. And we chuckle about how she had no idea she was dealing with New Yorkers who’ve resisted Turkish rug merchants. She was good, but not THAT good.
Back in the 4th we go to the Place des Voges to meet an old classmate of Andrew’s, her husband, and their two children. They’re both professors at UC Santa Barbara on academic leave to do research for the year. Michael and I quickly discover that we have someone in common–my college friend Rich Sawyer was in graduate school with Michael. While I relate Rich’s recent family news, Michael tells me of his career plans. Suddenly the world seems terribly small.
We have drinks at one of the Place des Voges’s snottiest cafes, the type where the tourists go just to experience bad Parisian attitude.
When we part, Andrew and I wander toward the restaurant we’ve selected for dinner–one we’ve been to before and quite enjoyed. They’re not yet serving, so we wander on up the street to a Spanish restaurant for a sangria. It’s started to drizzle when we return to our dinner reservation, but it never builds into anything and we’re able to sit outside.
The next two days are a whirlwind of shopping. We buy French CDs at Fnac, kitchen equipment at Dalherin and A. Simon, and antique and new metal enameled signs at Le Papetrie Moderne. I find a gift for my dollhouse in a store full of expensive miniatures and a pair of posters at a favorite print shop. We lay in a supply of gourmet treats for the plane at Gallery Lafayette, and stock up on Hermes at Le Printemps. I find and buy a Longchamps handbag that I’d drooled over at Nordstrom and Saks in New York. We’re foiled by unpredictable Parisian shopkeeper hours in our attempts to look at watches and barware at two speciality stores. Somehow we cram it all into our luggage, and, even more remarkable, it all makes it home unscathed.
Our final French dinner isn’t, really, in that we find a Seychellian restaurant in the 5th. Since our sailing club is planning a trip to the Seychelles (in the Indian ocean) for October 2000, we decide to try it out. The menu is all fish. The decor is all tropical. The bar has sand on the floor. We’re enchanted, and well fed. We walk back to our hotel along the quiet streets, crossing the Seine on the Pont Sully just as two river boats go by illuminating the buildings on either side.
It’s magical as only Paris can be.