I can think of something special to say about every region where we offer our bicycle trips, because otherwise we would not be offering them at all. But the region which is most special to me is the Dordogne Valley. The Dordogne River rises in the Central Massif of France and runs westwards towards the Atlantic. This river region is a land where the towns have hardly spread beyond the limits of their ancient walls, and the countryside is untarnished.
Most foreigners visiting the continent of Europe make straight for Paris, and rightly so; no country, save France, could have made Paris. Yet Paris is not France, any more than New York is the United States. The real life of France is elsewhere, especially in the farms and the little country towns. It is only by observing them that one can understand the toughness, the vitality, the resilience of that manner of living and thinking.
The Middle Dordogne runs through the country called Périgord Noir, or Black Perigord. It is a land of delights. These can be summed up as beautiful form, color, and detail. The Dordogne itself is graceful. Here it is not a great river, but a wide and lively stream. It is entirely natural, flowing along with varied current between banks that usually are tree-fringed, curving to meet cliffs or steep slopes from one side of its bed to the other.
It is a colored country. In spring the flowers succeed each other so fast that the hillsides change their tint daily; in the fall the woods hang orange against the blue sky. But the basic color, revealed in the cliffs, in the soil, and in buildings, is that of the rock. Limestone is naturally white. More often, iron and other metals have dyed the stone with a multitude of colors. In some places it is amber, in others pink. In the rays of the setting sun a circle of cliffs will burn as though the rock is on fire.
There is constantly varying detail. Every bend of the river, every turn of the road alters the view. The river holds its trees growing up and down in reflection. A golden village pyramids up to the church tower in steeped red roofs. A castle shows its turrets coquettishly to the valley below, for it was carefully designed to do so.
The highlight, no doubt, is the prehistoric caves near Les Eyzies. I have probably visited the Grottes de Font de Gaume twenty times with our groups, and continue to get goose bumps each time when I have the privilege of admiring them once more. The walls are covered with outlines, bas-reliefs and paintings still faintly visible. There are mammoths, reindeer, horses and most of all bisons, dating from about 25,000 to 15,000 years BC! The techniques of drawing vary, and are peculiarly interesting because they employ many of the devices of stylization used by artists of the post-impressionist and later schools. Some of the beasts are outlined in a heavy black pigment, while the rest of their bodies are colored in red or ochre yellow. In some cases the softness of animal fur is rendered by what seems like blowing the paint on to the rock.
But there are other things to see in this district. Sarlat is one of my favorite little towns in Europe. During Napoleonic times the town was cut from north to south by the ‘Rue de la République’, which turns its shopfronts to the passer-by. But leave it on either hand and you will see why the whole of Sarlat is a “Monument Classé”. Both sides display Sarlat’s treasure of old streets, alleyways and medieval houses. One of the town churches has been turned into stores, with its gargoyles hanging over the market place. That must be one of the most decorative squares in the world, with its irregular shape and buildings of many dates pleasantly harmonized. To be continued…
Look for part 2 on Thursday!