The source of the River Dordogne lies somewhere in the Monts Dore, close to the cheese making town of St Nectaire. It flows for 483 kilometres until it joins the Garonne River just north of Bordeaux, the two rivers merging to become the Gironde Estuary which spills into the Atlantic Ocean.
I’m planning on visiting only a small part of the river, but it’s a section I know very well, as I first had the pleasure of exploring the area in 2004. Then, I was using a kayak and a bicycle for transport and sleeping in a tent at various campsites along the river. Now, in the comfort of my motorhome, I can accomplish in one day what took a week back then.
I start my tour, as I did 11 years ago, at the town of Beaulieu-sur-Dordogne, whose name I have never been able to pronounce correctly. It’s market day and so finding a place to park is not easy, but I want to visit the church of Saint Pierre and reacquaint myself with the glorious tympanum which adorns the entrance portal. It’s one of several fine examples of Romanesque sculpture to be found in the region, with an Asian looking Christ, surrounded by angels and apostles. I’m drawn inside the church by the sound of a choir singing. Unfortunately, it’s only a recording but it makes pleasant background noise for my visit. In one corner is a Madonna and child, covered with silver leaf and surrounding it are several reliquaries.
The next stop on my trip down memory lane is the 11th century chateau of Castelnau-Bretenoux and the climb up to it is definitely easier with four wheels and an engine. It’s closed as this time of year, but I remember taking the guided tour around the restored halls, trying not to knock the antique furniture with my heavy backpack or laugh at the terrible translation of the English language handout.
Less than 10 kilometres downstream is the wonderful medieval village of Carennac which boasts yet another 12th century Romanesque tympanum on yet another church of Saint Pierre. This one features a Christ in Majesty, holding the Book of Judgement. Inside the church is cold and damp and I’m unable to access the magnificent cloister which was rescued from becoming a pigsty in 1928. During the revolution, many of the carvings of the church were destroyed or sold as works of art. Luckily a 15th century ‘Mise en Tombeau’, a representation of the entombment of Christ survives, as does a 15th century mural known as the ‘Dit des Trois Morts et des Trois Vifs’. It depicts 3 skeletons warning 3 cavaliers to reflect on earthly vanity, and was discovered in an old kitchen. During the summer months many artisans can be found working along the village streets. Back in 2004, there was a lavender workshop, where they distilled the fragrant herb, but I have no idea if it still exists.
Crossing to the north side of the river, I follow a narrow road which runs alongside it, overhung by the rock face. Right now I’d rather be on a bike or on the river in a kayak as it’s a bit of a tight squeeze in the motorhome. Luckily, there’s no oncoming traffic. Above, I can make out the tunnels and viaducts of the old Brive-La-Gaillade to Souillac railway line. Now this stretch serves only a tourist steam train in the summer.
The train runs from the nearby town of Martel which has seven medieval towers and an 18th century wooden market hall in the central square. On market day in August you could hardly move for fresh produce stalls and all the outside seating of the restaurants and cafes would be occupied. I remember watching the 2004 summer Olympics in a local sports bar with a chilled beer but today I’m tucking into a truffle omelette with warm brioche while planning my next move. But before I can leave Martel, I must revisit the Romanesque tympanum of St Maur church.
The village of Creysse is surrounded by walnut groves and bisected by a small, fast-flowing stream. I’m here to visit an old colleague at Camping Le Port but he has no idea that I am in the area, or even in France, and it’s at least 8 years since we have seen each other. However, as luck would have it, Pierre is right behind me in his white minivan, probably cursing at the ignorant British tourist driving a motorhome down a dead end farm track. Fortunately, his look of disdain turns into a smile as he remembers me and I’m greeted with open arms and a double-cheek kiss. We reminisce for a few minutes but he has to dash off to a local house he is renovating. He’d only popped back home to pick up something he had forgotten. What are the chances of that?
I leave the river at St Sozy but am soon reunited with it again at my final destination for the day, Souillac. I’d only ever seen the train station before so I’m excited to explore more. Virginia Woolf noted a distinct lack of tourists in the town and I’m probably also a rarity at this time of year given the excitement of the lady in the tourist office. She’s so grateful to have someone to talk to that it’s hard for me to escape and see the sites. However, it turns out that, apart from the church, the only real place to visit is the Museum of Automates (mechanical dolls and animals), which may have delighted a younger me but now just seems a bit creepy.
Back in 2004, my trip along the Dordogne also included a day trip to the pilgrimage site of Rocamadour. Before reaching the river, I stopped off to see how much it had changed. The revered Black Madonna is still perched on her altar in the Chapelle de Notre Dame, carved into the rock face, and the tomb of St Amadour still lies empty after it was pillaged in 1562 by the Huguenots. It takes me a while, but I also locate the legendary sword of Durendal which Roland supposedly flung into the rock above the tomb. Personally, I don’t think this rusty piece of metal dates from Roland’s time (he died in 778 at the battle of Roncesvalles on the Spanish border) or that it was miraculously flung into the rock from the Pyrenees. More likely, it was just another gimmick to attract the faithful. However, the biggest change in the town is that it is totally deserted apart from a few stonemasons repairing the wall of the church. Every single shop and restaurant is closed and I have to hike back up to the adjacent village of L’Hospitalet in order to get a cup of coffee.
The houses above the stream
The churches above the houses
The rock above the churches
The castle above the rock
(a well-known Quercy saying)