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.