Tuesday, November 11, 2014

Dordogne Day 3 - Bustling markets and deserted villages

We began where we had left off the day before, by visiting another château, this one was slightly different from the rest though. Château de Commarque is a ruined castle deep in the Perigord forest. We arrived well before it opened, so once we had taken the 20 minute walk through dense woodland to get to it, we had the place to yourselves.

Founded in the 12th century as a wooden tower, predominantly as a means to discourage the Beynac family from their unending quest for land and power, the castle didn’t quite have the effect it was intended for. Once the Beynac’s had acquired it, they built the stone fortifications that came to be expanded on until the 18th century, and the remains of which can be seen to this day.

A shot of the morning sun as we walked to the château.

The site is also important for its earlier history, for there is a prehistoric cave located under the foundations of the castle. Restoration and archaeological works have been going on there since 1994, so access is restricted to some parts of the area.

The rock walls that face the remains of the castle are pocked with man-made holes and scoops, where wooden joists and beams from medieval dwellings were built against them, with the rock face making up one of the walls. There were even large shelf like indentations gouged in to the stone that were possibly used as storage areas or small shrines. The whole place was quite atmospheric on a cool, quiet morning.

Various markings in the stone from previous occupants.

We then took the short drive to Château de Puymartin, a rather splendid edifice with the firm lines and clean stonework of a well maintained tourist destination, but no less imposing for it. Unfortunately we found out rather abruptly that it was closed Saturday mornings, which seemed a bit of an odd time to shut up shop.

So we motored off to Sarlat, a beautiful medieval town that, thanks to the fact that modern history has largely passed it by, has remained well preserved, and one of the towns most representative of 14th century France. It was also possibly one of the busiest towns in France that day, as the weekly market was on and the place was heaving.

Looking along one of Sarlat's main thoroughfares.

After finding somewhere to park, helped no end by the fact our car was so tiny, we took a short stroll into town and joined the throng. Once we were through the outskirts of the town, which were lined with the sorts of stalls you would find anywhere in England; second hand books, cheap clothes etc, we came to the medieval centre and suddenly things became more interesting.

With a glut of food stalls, carrying everything from olives, breads, pastries, herbs, truffles, walnuts, strawberries and smoked meats, plus of course the obligatory stands of the local foie gras, a product the region is famed for, it was truly a feast for eyes. And thanks to the various stalls cooking up local dishes, for the nose as well.

We found a few quiet spots away from the crowds.

The place was equally full of both locals and tourists, more tourists then we’d seen anywhere so far, we certainly weren’t out of place with our cameras. The pace though was incredibly slow, there were that many people, so we decided to head off into the myriad of cobbled alleys that branch off the main route like veins in a well preserved leaf.

We tried getting some pictures of the local architecture, but at that time of day, with the harsh sunlight staining every wall with black shadows, it was a lost cause and we’d had enough after an hour or so. After getting a coffee and a sit down, we made the processional walk back to the car and headed off to quieter places.

St. Genies on a sunny afternoon.

And they don’t come much quieter than St. Genies. We drove through the village a couple of times as it was so pretty, before getting out and having a wander, and we literally had the place to ourselves. The couple of shops that called the village their home were closed, and there was not a soul about, it was eerily quiet. Also, I noticed there was not a spec of litter anywhere, and all the buildings seemed fresh and almost too perfect, it almost looked like a show village, like an example of an ideal village.

After strolling around a while though, people did start to show up one by one, they looked like they had come from work, all manual jobs judging by the vans, it was Saturday after all, and I assumed they were back to get a home cooked meal for lunch.

One of the many quiet streets in the village.
Classic architecture of the Perigord region

We took some shots of the traditional Perigord architecture, picturesque and pretty buildings under a deep blue sky, and the full glare of the midday sun, which was starting to get into its stride and really warm up.

Not wanting to hang around, we were soon off to the next destination, namely St. Amand de Coly. Stopping in the car park located just outside the village, we clambered up a path that headed into woodland, and took a few shots of the scenic community, trying to disguise the bright green tarpaulin that someone had thoughtlessly draped across their roof, I assume because of some building work, but without a moments consideration for our needs.

Looking across to the St. Amand de Coly.

The village is dominated by its fortified church, in fact I’d probably go so far as to say, no other village is as dominated by its church as much as this one is. It is enormous, and dwarves all the structures around it. The most imposing part of course is the lofty bell tower that commands the front of the building.

You can see the long bell rope hanging down from the tower.
Or the front door bell as Sarah referred to it.

Dating from the 12th century this gothic/roman style church is, despite its rugged 14th century fortifications, which include 4 metre thick walls, numerous positions for archers and several blind staircases designed to mislead attackers, considered one of the most beautiful of its kind in the country.

We had a wander inside, enjoying the quiet, still atmosphere that seemed all the more distinctive and remarkable, as it often does, when contained in such a massive enclosed space. Despite the large windows, the light was losing an endless battle with the shadows, and the whole atmosphere was pleasingly muted.

The angle of the shot doesn't really capture the huge interior space.

We then wandered into the village itself, its small, attractive and deserted streets lined with fine examples of the local Perigord architecture, all tiled roofs and yellow stone walls. Some of the buildings still have lauze (stone) roofs which are the traditional roofs of the area, but very few remain.

After that we stopped off at Montignac, a small town sat on the Vézère River, with a row of charming balconied houses along the river front. We picked up something to eat, namely two oversized baguettes and sat next to river to eat them, unfortunately there were no seats available, so I had to sit on the ground, like a dog.

A view across the river Vézère.

In the late afternoon sunlight we drove into St Leon sur Vézère, a lovely village set in a curve on the river it takes its name from. I was struck with how perfect it seemed, not perfect as in spotless and empty like some of the villages, but perfect as in lived in and welcoming. The sort of place you’d like to up sticks and move to, all with the certain knowledge you’d live out your days there happy and contented.

I mused on this thought as I sat in the shade of a memorial in the church grounds, listening to some of the locals chatting away nearby. I couldn’t understand a word they were saying of course, but they all seemed entirely satisfied and at ease with life, or at least I imagined them to be, how could they not, living where they do?

Got a shot of the church and accompanying willow trees along the river from another ridiculously narrow bridge.
I had to lean into the structure to stop passing vans catching my camera bag and towing me through France.

The village also has a certain grandness about it, firstly the church is a delight, built in the 12th century in the shape of a cross, it is one of the oldest in the region, and has a perfect setting, right on the river bank in the company of some beautiful willow trees. Then there is the large manor house, the Manoir de la Salle, and not one, but two impressive châteaux, one of them is open to visitors, but the other is in private hands. Not bad for a little medieval village.

A shot of the round, plump walls of the church.

But all this grandeur sits comfortably with the honey coloured houses and jumbled alleyways that make up the rest of the village, I think partly because they are all made of the same local stone, with its warm yellow tones, and partly because the village itself just has a timeless quality to it, that isn’t found in many other places.

It immediately became my favourite place we’d visited so far. Which had a certain rightness about it, as it was the final place we’d visited that day, and we were heading home the following morning.

A sunlight dappled house.

We stopped for a coffee in a little cafe that was tucked away in a hidden courtyard, before having another wander around. Unfortunately getting any decent pictures was a challenge, the sunlight was still quite strong, even though the afternoon was drawing to a close. And the harsh shadows didn’t do such a warm and welcoming place any justice at all. In the end I gave up and just strolled around, lost in thought and imagining my new life in this little piece of French heaven.

A rather handsome house sat opposite the church.

Poking round the small alleyways was a pleasure.

We then took a leisurely drive back towards Limeuil, stopping here and there to look at the views, and spy on the myriad troglodyte habitations that mark the cliffs around this area, an area designated as the cradle of civilisation in Europe, and it’s not hard to see why.

Stopping just outside Limeuil, we got a couple of pictures looking over the village as the last of the colour drained from the sky behind it, before heading back to camp and rustling up some dinner, which neither of us wanted thanks to our huge baguette encounter earlier.

A last look over the landscape.

We were up the next day to begin the exhaustive inventory of the caravan contents, before heading home.

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