Thursday, June 30, 2011

the mighty Dordogne

We are done. Twelve hours of ferocious paddling down the Dordogne River, from Souillac to Coux-et-Bigaroque, split between two days.

The canoe is drying in the courtyard of our restaurant with rooms in Coux. Tomorrow morning, we have some early buses to catch so that we can reunite with our car – up river in Souillac. We’ll then drive four hours back into the Languedoc region, for a final two nights in France, slowly, slowly moving closer to Barcelona, where, right after the Fourth of July weekend, we’ll fly home, to be at the farmhouse Tuesday.

Time now is precious and posting is far harder than in the days in Sorede where we easily could take two hours to mull over and decide if we should move from one side of the room .to the other.

Let me say in a word that the river journey was, indeed, fantastic. Let me also say that in many many ways we were extraordinarily lucky.

I knew that when we left yesterday morning. The skies remained gray and the weather forecast indicated showers at least until noon. Not optimal paddling weather. We leave our lovely little restaurant with rooms...


... fortified with a hearty, bready breakfast indoors...


(It’s that cool: of the sixty or so breakfasts, lunches and dinners we’ve had this month in France, I’d say no more than five have been indoors) ...and drive to Souillac. As the crow flies, it can’t be more than forty miles. As the river winds – that’s another thing.

In Souillac we buy several baguettes, cheese, tomatoes and a tiny bottle of wine. Those kinds of supplies can go far.

If we had wanted to set out early – forget it. By noon, we are still putting together the canoe and puffing air into its bladders. Ed chooses this time to say to me – you know, I really do not like this canoe. Back on Craigslist it goes when we return. Too wobbly? Too dainty! Fragile. And one of the bladders has a leak. As does his cushion, it turns out. By the end of the first half hour of paddling, he is sitting at the base, in a puddle of water. At each stop, I use spare underwear to bail out as much as I can.

Should we patch anything? I ask. There is, after all, a patch kit. Ed reads the instructions. Needs to dry for 24 hours. Worthless patch kit. We leave it in the car.

12:10 pm and we are on the Dordogne. I keep my rain jacket on. There is a threat of rain and indeed we go through a period of rain. Here’s the first lucky break: it lasts for less than two minutes.


After, the skies stay cloudy, but the air is warm. No need for a jacket.

I am, of course, a terrible boating companion. Ed, shouldn’t we go that way? Careful now! I see boulders to the left. It’s his fault. He tells me he can’t see as well with me in the front and so I have to take some responsibility for the routing. I take this job seriously. Too seriously perhaps.

But you know how these rivers flow: sandbars, boulders, fallen branches – they shift the current in mysterious ways and if you do not find the optimal place to direct your boat, you’re either going to get stuck in midriver, where getting out is no fun, or you’re going to bump around rocks until your bottom blisters. Or, in our case, the canoe trips, rips or does some other nasty thing.

Since it is cloudy and a weekday, there aren’t too many others on the river. Things are quiet. Subdued.



But then, even at peak times in the most popular spots, things are pleasantly quiet anyway. No radios, boom boxes, none of that. And, in the total of four days we (more Ed than me, but me as well) have spent on the river, we never encountered a single motorboat or jet ski or anything at all that would disturb the peace of the river. If a fisherman had a motor on his boat, he did not use it: a standing paddle, oars yes; never, not once a motor.

By three, my arms are feeling the strain. Why are you working so hard ? – Ed asks. Well that’s easy – he fires up my competitive streak. If Ed can do it in two days, so can I. Preferably in 1.95 days.

Sometimes, my paddling speeds things up (Ed has marked the time he passed any bridge and so we are able to compare). At other times, the wind hits us in the face and our boat drags, loaded down now with another person and her camping gear.

We pause for lunch. On an island, with water rushing over beautiful pebbles on both sides. But it’s too cool for swimming. By four, we’re paddling again.


It is helpful to know where the good stops are. Where Ed had his beer, for instance. You could lose time figuring out which village has what, and most often, you have to walk some before you reach a place serving food or drinks. And so at 7 we stop where Ed paused and we examine the eating possibilities and decide that actually, his bar-restaurant looks quite good for food. For instance, a cup of onion soup followed by an omelet with fresh chanterelle mushrooms and homemade fries.


The skies clear while we are eating dinner. The forecast told me they would, but the fact that they followed the sage prophecy of the weather person is insanely wonderful for us.

I’m not sure where the time flew, but it is nine by the time we are on the river again. I’m okay about violating a rule not many seem to be able to articulate for us with any precision – the one about not being on the water in the evenings or early mornings – but I’m not okay about navigating rapids when the sun is just approaching the horizon and the river is flowing west and you can’t see a damn thing out there. It is that bright.


Ed says – it’s just for a few minutes. I left a stick marking a good campsite. Just after the first rapids. Look for a stick.

A stick.


We never find it, and still we are lucky, because we do land in a space that is even better (by Ed's account): a spot that is on a easy flat surface, behind enough branches that we are not seen from the water, far from roads so that perhaps we are even (sort of) in compliance with the camping rule that permits you to pitch a tent if you are far from roads. A spot next to another set of rapids that gurgles and splashes and lulls you into heavenly dreamland in no time flat.


Except for the froggie conversation and the bird warbles which go an all night long. I wake up to a chortle, fall back asleep, wake up again to some frog or bird noise and so it goes.

It is, in fact, a wonderful way to sleep.

Let me pause now and continue with the next day later. But I want to end with this thought: Ed would say that any camping is good camping. Not so, I want to say.  Looking down the river the next day, I can see that there are long stretches with no good places to pitch a tent. We had the benefit of Ed's past experience and again, luck.

And here's something else: we’ve had many, many camping days and nights in our travels when the bugs were so ferocious that you could not venture out of your tent to eat a meal, or even brush your teeth or splash water on your face. Not so here. We have no bugs. The sky at night is ablaze with stars and we keep the rain fly off the tent. We know we wont need it. Such great luck.

Still, isn’t it the case that when you learn not to be bothered by an absence of luck, life is far far less stressful?

The air is cool in the evenings here, even on sunny days. I wake up (thanks, frogs!) just before sunrise, I walk over to the river and wade the shallow waters. The mist is bouncing off the river, the light turns pink, then golden...


A perfect sunrise.


...oh, undoubtedly it is for these mornings that I continue to take that chance and hope for luck, in the anticipation of those better camping moments...

(photo by Ed)

...when the air is cool, and the mosquitoes have gone elsewhere and there is a fresh scent that reminds you that this planet is one hell of a beautiful place.

Wednesday, June 29, 2011

ducks and roosters

As the cool winds push away the Sahara heatwave, bringing in clouds and plummeting temps (seventies, daytime), I’m placing things with greater care now into a suitcase and separately into my dry sack for the canoe trip tomorrow. There will be a brief lull in posting, but not for long: I want to paddle hard and long because it would be terribly embarrassing to do the trip (with two of us working the paddles) in a stretch of time over and beyond what Ed put in to get from Souillac to Coux.

And what about this day? A good part was spent zigzagging between villages, trying to get the scoop on bus and train schedules. Much as I love public transport in France, when I search for information on connections between the tiny villages, I am often stumped. And I’m not the only one. We go to the village two kilometers from Coux (Siorac-en-Perigord: a train passes through it!) to learn about buses or trains back to Souillac. No train. The tracks are being serviced until July 1st (a day too late for us!). There is substitute bus transport in the interim. To Sarlat. From there, another bus will take us to Souillac. And the schedule? At the train station, the train station, they don’t know the schedule. Can’t sell you tickets either. For that, you have to go to the next, larger village.

Ah. So, excuse me for asking this, but I am truly curious: here you are at the ticket office of the train station at Siorac-en-Perigors and you cannot say where the substitute bus stops?  And you can't sell tickets either? Why do they make you sit here then? Oh, we make sure that the train passes through this village safely. If you want, I can call the station people at the next village. Please do. No answer. We drive on.

But, there is pleasure in tracking this phantom train/bus down. We’re seeing villages that would otherwise not draw us. They are without a “reputation.” We detour, for instance, over hills, fields and forests...

DSC07883 the more northern town of La Bugue. It’s market day there Tuesdays and though the town itself is rather severe at first glance (or, is it that gray skies bring out the Noir (black) in Perigord Noir?), strategically planted flowers and, of course, the market add warmth and color.



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At the market, I get a bit caught up in the frenzy of selling and buying. But, with Ed's gentle coaching (Let's not purchase that... you don't need a table cloth with roosters... it doesn't matter that it's cheap...) I emerge lightly enough: we buy two peaches and a pillow cover. That’s all. Well no, not completely – also a box of Bergerac rosé. Boxes do not splinter into glass particles when packed. Surely there’ll be room for a five liter box somewhere.

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We follow now the more northerly Vezere River as it flows into the Dordogne – right here, in the tiny village of Limeuil.


It’s a beautiful sight – two mighty rivers joining as one.

Then, back along the Dordogne, we stop at Le Buisson-de-Cadouin – the larger town with the more “ept” station people who tells us exactly where to find the bus stop in Siorac come Friday and sell us the tickets needed for it.

There isn’t much to Buisson, except that it offers good connections to places in the Dordogne Valley and wise women at the station office who tell us about them. We stop for lunch here anyway. Ed tells me – I like this place. It’s sort of down and out, probably wondering why all the tourist traffic went elsewhere.

We find an interesting more contemporary café-bar and Ed orders the formule lunch – three courses for 11.50 Euros. (A lovely salad with tomatoes and mozzarella, a duck confit, and chocolate cake.) That’s a lot of food, so I opt instead for the wonderful salad Perigord: with duck foie gras and duck gizzards and the Perigord nuts, along with lettuce and tomatoes and a sprinkling of the precious corn kernels. And I steal bites of Ed's cake.



The gray skies are only suggestive of rain. We stroll back to the car, admiring along the way old houses and weather vanes. Ed swears he can make one for the farmhouse back home. Fantastic: here, Ed, this is how it should look:


Wise people would go for a long walk now, but we are not wise. We return to the room with the little balcony. I read, Ed sleeps.

And then it is dinner! More snails, more duck, this time with potatoes and cepe mushrooms -- mmm...


... more ice cream, with chantilly cream – I am remembering the words of the wiser than us woman in the village next to Souillac who tells me to watch my foods here, in the Perigord. I will. Tomorrow, as we paddle down. They say it may rain in the morning. Isn’t it good that somehow we always manage to get a late start on things.

Tuesday, June 28, 2011

coup in Coux

Monday at five, school ends for children of the village of Coux-et-Bigaroque. Anyone with a mom worth her pretty sandals finds her waiting outside, ready with towels to zip her offspring to the village beach (less than a kilometer down the narrow road).

And so if you were to be on the Dordogne river at anytime after five, you’d have seen the village children (and not a few adults) cooling off on this second heatwave day in southwest France.


I happen to be toddling along toward that beach myself. My restaurant with rooms, the super cute family run Le Chambellan, is in this village. (The village is smaller even than Sorede, as measured by the number of bakers – one, the number of bars – one and it’s a tiny one, and the number of restaurants: one – the one that is my home. The closest grocery is across the bridge, in the next village.)

I am hot. It’s been an in and out of the car kind of day and since for reasons of economy and stubbornness I do not use the AC there, I am sure that if you cracked an egg on any part of me, it would fry.

The first thing I notice as I plunge into the Dordogne is that it’s significantly warmer downstream from Souillac. There, it was bracing. Icy even. Here, it’s, well, warmer.

The second thing I notice is the unmistakable red canoe on the horizon. With a black paddle. It could only be Ed. It is Ed.

The man of great paddling ability (and great stubbornness) did the five day trip in two days flat.


How did he do it?! Forget about stopping at all those lovely towns along the way. He paused once on the first day -- at a bar, for a Perrier (good ordering skills! he was served a Perrier and a beer), then stopped to pitch his tent late at night (it was gorgeous! – he tells me), and then one more pause the next morning for breakfast, in the scenic town of La Roque-Gagear, just one hour before I drove through that same town. There he went to a bakery, ordered a mille feuille (pointing helps) and went back to his paddling.

And now here he is in the village of Coux and my period of abandonment has come to an end even before it really got under way.

We swim across the river together – a greater challenge than you would think because where the river is both deep and the current is speedy, you need to fight it somewhat – then swim back again. I had forgotten how lovely it is to swim in a river. A gentle stroke upstream keeps me in place. Standing in shallow waters is like a foot massage.

At the village shore, children are splashing and giggling and I have to say, there cannot be a better way to spend a hot summer evening than right here, in tiny Coux-et-Bigaroque, at the Dordogne.

Earlier in the day, I eat bread from the now awarded Ed medal-of-bestness bakery in Souillac for breakfast, pack up the little Smart for Two (which does well for One, plus her suitcase full of camping gear, bottles of wine and oil, etc., supplemented now by a can of foie gras and two mustards with truffles), and head west along the Dordogne.


The road that links the villages along the river is pretty and without much traffic. The Perigord walnuts (look at photo above) grow in neat rows in between fields of sunflowers and, surprisingly, corn.

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The landscape flattens a bit as the river heads west. If I were to follow the river beyond Coux, say for another twenty or thirty miles, I would see a complete change in scenery: the grapes come back. Bergerac wines. Great reds and whites and fantastic rosés. ( Right now, rosé is far and away the drink of choice at the outdoors dinner or lunch table. I’d say it’s a ten to one ratio, where one is “other.”)  But, this area of the Perigord hasn't a trace of vines. Even as in the summer season, it has a stunning air to it -- full of ripeness and color. The peaked roofs and stone houses look less severe now. Forget about the tough times. Right now, everything's charming, beguiling.




I pause in my drive to take a photo of a far away chateau, I encounter a group of cyclists, including some Americans. Cycling (of the type to which I cannot aspire – very heavy on the hills) is tremendously popular in every region of France and I come across any number of groups now that include Americans. (Their luggage is transported for them, so they need only get on their bikes and speed to the next destination.) They stop as well to admire the view. Don’t tell me, one jokes. Yet another splendid chateau.


I’m in agreement: the chateaus do blur after a while. But the villages don’t. Each one seems unique. Most here regard La Roque as the prettiest and I can see why.

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I get out and poke around a little. It is hot, but not unpleasant. I climb the hill for a while, then turn around and continue by car to the next town. I visit a walnut shop and museum and then consider my chateau sighting. I would enjoy seeing one (and only one). Now, which one?

I pick Chateau des Milandes because it has a good story attached to it. Originally built in the fifteenth century, it became, in 1947, the home of Josephine Baker – the African American singer who moved to France and became tremendously successful here. After the war, she adopted some dozen children from all corners of the world and they lived here until she was forced to sell the place for lack of funds.


The chateau is now a Baker museum, displaying outrageously imaginative and revealing outfits that she wore on stage. Outside, there is a small café and I pause there for a wonderful lunch of ice cream (black currant, raspberry and strawberry) and cold Orangina.

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I see that there is a bird show in the courtyard at 3 and since I am here, it seems silly to pass it by.

Two men demonstrate the beauty and might of the falcons, owls and eagles. The birds fly off, but come back as they are tempted with raw meats and parts of animals.


It’s all rather odd – a small group of us listening to these two men talk about the birds, watching the birds swoop in then out again. But, the birds are beautiful and the demonstration isn’t too long and so I stay on the toasty, sunny bench and look on.



And now I am on the road again, heading to Coux, and shortly after, I am in the Dordogne, swimming toward the canoe of my occasional traveling companion.

(I am not going to talk about the effort I exerted in carrying my loaded with haphazardly packed wine suitcase up the stairs to the little hotel room. Yes, I plunked it down with force. Yes, one Banyuls bottle shattered. Yes, it was the one and only red wine that I was carrying back. Yes, it soaked into nearly everything in the bag. I noticed while towing the bag to my room, as it began to leave a trail of what looked like blood.)

Out of the water now. Canoe folded and thrown in the car. Ed and I stop at the village bar. Do you have ice cream? We ask. No, sorry. Okay, beer then. A wonderful ice cold beer on this hot hot day in June.

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We eat dinner at the little village restaurant (with rooms) and it is shockingly good. I know it should not shock me, but here I am experiencing double shock, because the price for the room with a lovely balcony, and breakfasts, and the three course dinner for two, taxes and service included, is 96 Euros (about $140). And the food – oh my, it is heavenly. We can order anything from the menu, provided that we order the same items (desserts may vary).

Easy. Omlette with cepe mushrooms to start with, followed by a fantastic dish of salmon stuffed raviolis over fresh spinach, all swimming in a leek and tomato broth, followed by a baked strawberry dessert. Ice cream for Ed. With chantilly cream. At the side --  a Bergerac rosé and carafe after carafe of cold water.

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Ed talks about his two days on the river with tremendous affection. He tells me he did not stop at 6 or 6:30, because unlike in Scotland, where fishing the rivers is a serious sport, here, the fishing was rare and rather casual. One fishing dad had his two toddlers splashing with their little arm inflatables at the side.

Nearly at every bridge, there are canoe and kayak rentals. There are people enjoying the river up and down – swimming, boating, picnicking. [By contrast, our July paddle down the Wisconsin River brought us in contact with motorboats, a few fishing people, also in motorboats, and little other recreational use. We appear to play in our lakes and damn our rivers. In terms of kayaking -- well, it’s tough to do a long paddle where there is no public transportation to get you back to your starting point. You have to have two cars, leave one at each end and then go back and forth collecting your gear at the end of the run. Which we did for our Wisconsin paddle. A pain. The alternative is to have rentals up and down the river banks. I don’t know why this isn’t a thriving business back home, but it isn’t.]

It was wonderful to watch – Ed tells me. He knows he has scored a coup. So much enjoyment all along the river. And no trash at all on the shores. You know, you really would have loved the entire run. In fact, why don’t I do it again, and this time you come with me the whole way?


We’ll stay in Coux Tuesday, return to Souillac Wednesday and paddle down in two days.

Monday, June 27, 2011

goose on the loose

No, not caraffe do do. Caraffe “do” (d’eau). As in “of water.” I think for Ed, the greatest challenge in venturing out on his own, especially in the more rural parts of France, is in making himself understood. With all his recent travels here, he’s picked up a smattering of the essentials: thank you. Bread. Cheese. But he gets things confused. Mille fleurs (a thousand flowers) instead of mille feuilles (a thousand leaves – his favorite pastry here). Bon jour when it’s night, bon soir when it’s day. Si instead of oui. Write down the word for toilet, he tells me now. Just say toilet, close enough, I tell him. Much here can be improvised.

We spend Sunday morning in town together. Picking up bread for him. (What a surprise, we found here a new form of baguette that he now loves more than any other; this one -- le croustilot. Only one left after we're done buying.)


...and cheese and tomatoes. Filling up on water.

Walking through the town... Oh! Goose on the loose! Watch out, goose!


And finally, we go down to the river and put together the canoe.

When Ed purchased it on Craig’s List, the seller told him it never fails to draw interest when you’re building it at the water's edge. Here, too, a local man, walking his dog, comes over to watch. You put some air in too, yes? I see, at the sides. How heavy is it? 13 kilo (slightly more than 20 pounds) for the boat itself? Let me lift it... Yes, yes...

I ask our onlooker if he knows about the rule in France that you have to stop boating by 6 or 6:30 pm and cannot begin again before 9 (or 9:30; opinions vary). This is another little thing that Ed thinks is possibly on paper only. But I’ve read and heard it said: the time before and after is reserved for the fishing men and women.

Ed says: if it were important, there would be a notice right here. He points to the bulletin board at the boat launching ramp. Our local guy doesn’t know. This satisfies Ed. I sigh. It's good that I'm not continuing down beyond this day. I would be there telling him to stop, even as he loves paddling at dusk.

And finally, the dry sacks are secured, the boat is ready, as are we.

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The river is as beautiful and as calm as I had expected. A few minor rapids around bends, but nothing troubling, for the boat or for me (or really my camera; since I have nothing else with me, getting wet hardly matters). And there are periods of such calm that it’s almost as if we were drifting on an undisturbed lake


With fields, forests and cliffs and caves at the side.


There are few people out and about. Only close to the bridges. Here, you have a family gathering for the day. Food and all.


But otherwise, quiet. This is the part of the Dordogne River (of all the segments for the planned journey) that is the most naturally pristine and beautiful. The villages will come later.

And indeed, it gives us a chance to admire such things as dragonflies. There are large clumps of tiny lilies blooming now. Beautiful for us, functionally perfect for the numerous dragonflies here.


And the birds! Lovely for us to listen to. And watch.



It is a hot day and I am glad I packed two separate sun screens. One will travel with Ed, one I keep for myself. We're plenty lathered with it now. The sun is strong. The river has a slight breeze, but it truly is an unusually warm summer in this part of France. Occasionally we hear the sound of a motor pumping water from the Dordogne and spraying it on the fields. It is a year of great worry for farmers here.

And so we paddle, but not for long. After close to two hours, I have to get out. I need to hike back to Souillac, with paddle, boat seat and life jacket in hand. And it’ll take me nearly twice as much time to get back along the tiny road that runs close to the river. And did I mention that today’s high in the late afternoon reached 99F?

Off you go, Ed! Enjoy your adventure!


I walk back. And it is an awfully pretty rural walk. Forests, yes, those, but then the road passes between fields and orchards and an occasional farmhouse will crop up and I think – so different from the farmhouse back home!


This is the region of not only beautiful sunflowers...


...but also the famous Perigord walnut. The trees are everywhere, now bearing the green fruits that will be ready for harvest in September (so a local tells me; honestly – I had no idea these were nut trees).


The road does not offer much shade and halfway through it, I roll up and push away bothersome cuffs and straps. The road is empty, the sun is warm on my back. I’m glad Ed relinquished a small bottle of water.

I pass by a home where a somewhat older couple appears to be living. She comes to the fence as I pass by. She’s laughing at my oddly disheveled attire. Take it all off, she tells me. There’s no one here! No, I do not follow her advice. Besides, it’s only an opening so that I would pause to talk. I tell her it’s even hotter where I come from. She asks how long I’m here for and I tell her about how lovely it is, how good the foods are... She nods appreciatively. Only don’t get fat on our foods – she says. I’m trying, madame, I’m trying!


I approach the outskirts of Souillac. A chateau...


...a bridge, I’m almost there. My water is long gone and I am good and hot. The boat gear, stuffed into my Ghana bag is feeling cumbersome.

I watch a handful of French roll up their pants and take to the river. One woman throws a heavy rock near her spouse, resulting in big splash. She laughs. That one, she is aggressive! - he shouts, then splashes her back.


It’s a great way to cool off. Here, the river is clear. The lilies are everywhere and wading through the more shallow stretches feels sublime. I should know: a few steps earlier, I took to the water as well. Wading among lily pads. The shock of the cool river was a tonic that I’ll long remember.


At Souillac, I return for a late dinner at the restaurant just by our hotel. I missed lunch somewhere along the way. Time to eat heartily. Time to savor a duck foie gras terrine.


And please, don’t tell me about the poor force-fed animals. The amount of animal cruelty that precedes the burgers we eat by home is a thousand times that inflicted on ducks or geese here. I’m with Burdain on this (you can watch the clip here): the happier the geese and ducks, the better the foie gras. These are not stressed animals. Predictably, the terrine is superb.

My day ends quietly. I wonder if Ed’s found his perfect camping spot. He usually succeeds. I know this about him.