Friday, October 21, 2011

Two For the Road: The Dordogne

While we may not be Audrey Hepburn and Albert Finney in a white Mercedes convertible in Stanley Donen’s Two For the Road, we do love exploring the back roads of Europe. We left the rolling hills of Sancerre in our gray Skoda Octavia and headed for the Dordogne, land of white limestone canyons, medieval castles, foie gras, and truffles. Being in the middle of nowhere with Joe – where it’s us against the world, in a sense – and never knowing what’s around the next corner, is my kind of adventure. It may not appeal to all – in fact some have told me they would find it downright dull (or lonesome or terrifying!) -- but we’ve always enjoyed exploring the byways of France all by ourselves.

Over the past twenty years or so, the Dordogne has become a popular spot for both international tourists and country-home-buying-Brits alike (the pound’s favorable position vis-à-vis the franc in the 90s spurred the buying spree, not to mention the area’s beauty and wealth of English history from The Hundred Years War). The tourist trade has kept pace with the appetite of the crowds’ and flower-bedecked hotels, cafes and restaurants now sprout from every formerly abandoned nook and cranny imaginable. About a seven-hour drive south of Paris, the Dordogne’s narrow roads are jammed and the castles and hill towns crawl with tourists through the summer. Countless canoes, kayaks and gabarres (flat-bottomed sightseeing boats) create noisy gridlock on the meandering Dordogne River. We rented a canoe one brilliant fall afternoon and paddled our way 12 miles downriver from Vitrac to Beynac past feudal villages clinging precipitously to cliffs and lonely chateaux high on the distant hills. The garrulous owner of Canoë-Loisirs from whom we rented the boat told us he had 10 canoes on the water that day; in July and August, he rents all 800 every single day – his entire fleet! After mid-September, however, the crowds disappear, many of the hotels and restaurants close for the season and although British accents are often heard in even the tiniest of towns, the region regains its quiet, authentic charm.

In some ways, the Dordogne reminds me of the Cotswolds, a lush area of England northwest of London dotted with hills and adorably quaint villages and winding streams around the bend of each. We visited the Cotswolds for three days after the London Book Fair several years ago, driving up and down and back and forth on hedgerow-lined lanes from Oxford to Stratford-Upon-Avon. While the Cotswolds boast colorful little half-timbered cottages with thatched roofs nestled next to babbling brooks, the Dordogne has medieval castles and fortresses that rise impossibly over rocky bluffs. In an effort to see as many of the Cotswold hamlets as possible, each with its own personality and charm, we spent a good amount of time in the car, jumping out every now and then to snap some pictures and stretch our legs. We’ll have to come back and thoroughly explore our favorites one day, we promised. And we hope one day we will. On this journey through the Dordogne, however, we decided to forego the windshield tour (many of the “must-see” towns are as far as 40 miles away from each other) to stop, explore and enjoy just one or two villages (we chose Beynac and Sarlat-la-Canéda). It’s all in keeping with our “this ain’t boot camp” pacing but since my natural inclination is towards the see-everything-the-guidebook-recommends style, I’ve had to work really hard to keep my traveler-on-steroids urges in check. Rocamadour, Souillac and Autoire will have to wait for our return. We had lunch in Beynac on a terrace by the river and then hiked the steep footpaths, peeking into tight alleys and ivy-covered passages, all the way up to its daunting chateau that towers over the valley. On another day we wandered the narrow cobblestoned streets and admired the gorgeous golden sandstone buildings of Sarlat on market day, agreeing with Michelin’s assessment that the town is “improbably beautiful.”

It turns out that our Dordogne-discovering tempo has been just right, leaving us plenty of time to enjoy our perfect accommodations back at the Le Vieux Logis in Trémolat. Our three-night stay at this 18-room Relais & Chateaux property was the first hotel splurge of our trip. Any description I attempt will not adequately convey the subtle beauty of the gardens or the romantic solitude of this wisteria-covered former farm and priory. We booked the “simplest” room at the inn but were pleasantly surprised when upgraded to a first-floor “déluxe” room that looked out on the back garden. The walls and ceiling have dark exposed beams (from the time our wing of the hotel was a tobacco barn), the floors are terra-cotta tiles and patterned curtains and bed linens in bright Provincial blue and yellow brighten the room. Joe and I wore ear-to-ear smiles as we were escorted into our accommodations. The incredibly professional service (always softened with warm smiles) of Relais & Chateaux properties is consistent and without equal.

We have two alarm clocks here at Le Vieux Logis. Joe’s watch rings at 7:30am and then the bells of the solid 12th century Romanesque church on the town square around the corner, chime at 8, although it’s tough to get out of bed and leave our beautiful room even with these two gentle nudges. It’s the promise of exploring the extensive garden outside our three huge windows that finally gets us up and out. Le Vieux Logis is in the tiny picture-perfect village of Trémolat, at a sharp bend in the Dordogne River. Claude Chabrol filmed his movie The Butcher here, thereby taking advantage of the towering plane trees and hamlet charm. We’ve been keenly aware of our limited time at this wonderful property and have done all we can to enjoy it. We have a family expression Chris coined when he was about 9 years old while we were staying at the Wilderness Lodge in Disney World. This magnificent hotel, designed and outfitted as an authentic Pacific Northwest hunting lodge, has a stunning atrium entrance with dozens of overstuffed easy chairs, comfy sofas and a large working train set. Aaron Copeland’s Billy the Kid and Rodeo/Hoe-Down playing in a continuous loop help set the stage. We were in our room settling in and Chris was just itching to explore the hotel with 6 year-old Caroline and run up and down the open hallways that overlooked the ten-story atrium with its giant wooden chandelier. Desperate to speed up the unpacking process, Chris came up with this unique appeal: “Come on family, let’s go – we need to take advantage of the lobby!” From that day forward, if we stay somewhere that merits it, Bohr family trips always include plenty of time for “taking advantage” of the comfortable public spaces of our lodging. Thus, with Chris’s entreaty echoing in our ears, we took advantage of the lobby, the gardens, and the various cozy salons of Le Vieux Logis by taking in every detail and relaxing in them for as long as we possibly could. Even the prospect of seeing more castles of the Dordogne couldn’t lure us away.

We stayed late at Le Vieux Logis on our final morning – until high noon, in fact – but it was finally time to take our leave. Time to get back in the car and back on the road. Next destination:  The Lot.

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