A day on the Dordogne

26 Jun

Overlooking a wide loop in the river, the chateau at Beynac-et-Cazenac was gifted in 1115 to the sisters of Fontevrault Abbey and seized at century’s end by Simon de Montfort, the fifth Earl of Leicester and a prominent crusader. Expanded in the centuries following, with the architecture of the seventeenth century – age of sun king Louis Quatorze and his workaholic alter ego, Jean-Baptiste Colbert1 – especially well represented, here’s how it looked from my canoe last Friday but one: river flowing east to west; right to left.

Saturday brought rain but our tent, last seen on Harris and now two hundred metres upstream on a site with pretty much all the home comforts and a few, like bar and heated pool, besides, shrugged it off. Sunday morning, mist shrouded the river; musk, its source a mystery I tried but failed to resolve, cloying the dawn air.

With Jackie sleeping I pulled on shorts and t-shirt, made coffee, grabbed camera and wide lens, then headed for the cobbled lane curving steeply up to the chateau.

By eight am the sun was up and burning away the mist …

… replacing its soft ambiguities of form with a hard chiaroscuro.

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That afternoon we drove upriver in search of likely put-ins. I’d paddled twice on the Dordogne, in ’98 and again in 2009, but in hired canoes like these.

The deal being you canoe downstream, and are brought back by minibus with canoe trailer. The river runs fast. Paddling¬† back upstream is out of the question but, dependent on others who want at working day’s end to go home, the option of staying on the water to savour these long June evenings is ruled out

Ideally, we’d go downriver and, my canoe being inflatable, bus it back to Beynac. Not possible. Buses are few and far between, connecting Perigeux, Sarlat-en-Canede and Bergerac but not the villages and tiny ports of the Dordogne.

Our plan was to park by the river, put in and paddle a few miles. I’d then walk back for the car while Jackie took it easy. We’d repeat as many times – three as it turned out – as time, energy and inclination allowed. It suited since the roads tend to link the outsides of those lazy bends the Dordogne goes in for, giving a favourable ratio of river miles to road miles.

It suited too since I like walking as much as canoeing and, though the day was hot, a consistent breeze freshened the air as I hiked past flower and meadow, village and ancient farm building, cliff, wooded hill and walnut orchard.

A walnut orchard, one of the many on la Route de la Noix du Perigord.

I have a beautiful Edwardian wardrobe of walnut, its mellow hues still as delightful to me as the day I bought it for a song Рand £450 Рfrom a Sheffield antiques dealer ten years ago. The bark of the walnut too is attractive, its deep barley-stick corrugations reminiscent of willow.

A bakery, I thought, from some distance.

But no. A tile factory, operating as it might have a hundred years ago.

I’m about to find the source of that intoxicating musk. These watery carpets can be seen on the limestone rivers – Wye, Lathkill and Bradford – of the White Peak, but aren’t plentiful. They also bedeck the trout streams, gin clear and strictly dry fly only, of Hampshire’s chalk downs. On the Dordogne they abound.

Plucking one and lifting to my nose I took in that same heady scent the mist, hours earlier, had carried thick and heavy as honey.

We were on the water till close to nine. Perfect day.

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  1. Colbert, protege of the hugely influential Cardinal Mazarin, is credited with describing the art of taxation as plucking the goose so as to obtain the largest number of feathers with the least amount of hissing.

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