Sunday, June 26, 2011


It’s Sunday, early evening right now. I step outside the little hotel on the square at Souillac – a village in the heart of the Perigord region of France. I walk over to the restaurant where Ed and I ate last night – just two steps from the front door of the hotel. Are you open for dinner tonight? I ask. Yes, sure. A table for two then? The hotel proprietor is there, chatting to the restaurant people. She catches herself. No, for one, right? Vous etes abandonee! (You’ve been abandoned.) I nod. For one.

We are in the middle of a heat wave in southwest France. It is now, at 5:30, 99 degrees outside. It’s hard to believe that just yesterday, we left Sorede.

Ah, leisurely, friendly Sorede. Where we said goodbye to the bakery people...

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...and we had one last breakfast at the café-bar (with the coveted, baked Saturdays only mille feuille!) and said goodbye there as well...



....and packed to the ceiling our Smart-for-Two car (and they mean for TWO, not for two plus suitcase plus collapsible canoe, camping gear, seven bottles of wine and two olive oils) and we faced the west.

What a blue sky day! Painfully beautiful! Hey, Le Canigou: you're showing off your fine contours!


Ed, is it safe to drive when I absolutely cannot see out the rearview mirror?
If you were in a truck, could you see out the rearview mirror? Pretend you're driving a truck.

It’s a long drive to Souillac. Nearly five hours. We pause twice – once to admire (from afar) the Medieval town of Carcasonne...


...another time to eat a picnic of leftover foods – yes, still working through those cheeses. With a fresh baguette.

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And now the scenery is really beginning to change. And the image does too. Sorede is all sea and Pyrenees, with a Catalan spirit that is in your face evident. Souillac is the Perigord: caves and cliffs and dark forests. Mushrooms, truffles and walnuts and foie gras. When I was here last, some three years ago in March, it was so brooding – all those castles and goose livers and cold stone houses – that I left a day early and headed for the ocean. I missed the enormous Midwestern sky.

But I've focused on Souillac for us this time for good reason, I think. It’s on the Dordogne river and at a good place of the river: if you canoe from Souillac for, say, about five days, you’ll go through some of the best river paddling in France: a naturally splendid coastline, some medieval villages just off shore and – important for me and for the on-the-fragile-side-canoe – not too many rapids. It’s probably the calmest stretch of the river. There are boulders, but if you’re careful, you can stay upright.

It’s not that I don’t have trepidations. The canoe is not very commodious. We can carry little beyond camping gear and some change of clothing. We’d have to count on doing most of our eating in cafes and restaurants in the occasional villages along the way. Those same cafes and restaurants would also have to allow us to refill water bottles and to recharge batteries on cameras and computers. Should they have WiFi. So there is that to mildly fret about.

And storms. Heat wave, with the possibility of storms after. Ed and I have very different attitudes about storms. I dislike them and hide at the first faint sound of thunder. Ed rolls his eyes at weather predictions and if a storm does rumble through, he continues whatever he is doing until the thunder is deafening.

But still, we’d picked the river, brought our gear, and now here we were, on the bridge overlooking the Dordogne. Nice river. Welcoming river.


Let’s get some better maps – Ed says. We leave our gear at the sweet little hotel (Saint Martin) by the church -- right here on this square...


...and go to the Tourist Bureau where a young woman acknowledges that she knows very little about paddling on the river. She can tell you about caves and mansions and foie gras, but rivers are not her thing. Still, she has some literature on camping grounds. But we don’t want camping grounds. We want camping sauvage (in the wild). Camping sauvage? – she asks. Non. C’est interdit (not allowed).

I’m somewhat shocked. I’d searched the Internet and I know that the rule is you can camp anywhere in France, so long as you’re at least one hour from a paved road and it’s only for the night, but somehow, I thought rivers were exceptions. People posted about camping on sandbars here. So is it like FORBIDDEN! Or is it forbidden, wink wink, everyone does it?

Perhaps as a government spokesperson, she cannot say that it’s really okay. So we ask at our hotel – monsieur and madame claim to know the region, the river, the habits of the Perigord people.

Camping sauvage? Not allowed – he says. Not allowed – she confirms. I suppose you could do it, but be careful. Why? – I ask. The waters may rise and your sandbar will disappear – he explains. Or, there may be village boys or young men who will disturb your tent – that’s her concern. If you do it, don’t put your tent out in the open.

Ed is absolutely unperturbed. It seems to him more of a wink wink situation. You’re not supposed to be completely naked on the beach. People are completely naked on the beach. You’re not supposed to cross on a red light. You do it anyway.

I protest. We’ll land in jail. He looks at me with a huge amount of pity. Anything else you’d like to put on the list of things to worry about?

And that’s when he suggests that he go down the Dordogne alone. We did that in Scotland: when the waters got too rough and my kayak flipped over, I did not want to continue. I weigh his suggestion now and I have to say, it’s probably a good one. Ed loves to camp in the same way that I love to eat breakfast at a café, preferably with a pain au chocolat. I'm a fair weather (broadly speaking) camper. He likes it when it poses a challenge. We've eaten plenty of breakfasts at cafés. It would be unkind to talk him out of the camping part of the trip, challenging as it might be.

We go back on line and look at places by the river where I can get a cheap room and wait for him toward the end of the stretch we had mapped out for our paddling. And we find one – a rural restaurant that rents out simple rooms above.

The plan is for me to paddle along with him for a couple of hours the first day (Sunday) and then leave him with the boat. I can hike back to Souillac. He can go down the river on his own.

We eat dinner on this first night in the Perigord (cepe mushrooms for me, beloved snails in garlic butter for Ed)...

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....and the meal has a tiny bit of a wistful aura to it. Even as both Ed and I know that the reason we are such good traveling companions is because sometimes we acknowledge that we really have nothing in common and should, therefore, occasionally travel alone.

We do share the dessert though. Local strawberries with chantilly cream.