Posted by: vlibrizzi | July 2, 2009

Summer Road Trip: Dordogne River Valley

DSC_0555The first stop on our month-long summer road trip was the Dordogne River Valley, home to great canoeing and amazing prehistoric cave art! 

We closed up our apartment in Fontainebleau on Monday and started our drive south that afternoon. We put “Beynac” (the town where we are staying) in our GPS, and to our surprise, the GPS said it was only 4 hours away. So, we took a leisurely drive down south and arrived in Beynac in time to grab a nice, long dinner. 

The only problem, though, was that Beynac was a pretty run-down town….and there was no river in sight. 

Our directions told us to find our hotel by first locating the river, which we couldn’t find. So, we started to panic, and eventually called our hotel. The owner chuckled a little (not a good sign) and in broken English told us that we were in THE WORNG BEYNAC!!! The Beynac where we wanted to be was another 2 hours south! 

DSC_0518So, we got back on the autoroute, grabbed a quick bite to eat along the way, and finally arrived at our hotel, the cute and charming Le Petit Versailles, in the OTHER Beynac just before midnight. So much for a peaceful drive down south!

But, we woke up the next morning refreshed and ready to start exploring this beautifully lush region. Instead of driving through the towns, we decided to rent a canoe on Tuesday morning to explore the area by water. 



DSC_0550We started our canoe trip from a town about 15 kilometers from Beynac. A van from the canoe company, Copeyere Canoes, came to pick us up in Beynac and dropped us off at the starting point of our trip, which was very helpful.

We leisurely canoed down the river, making stops at a town called La Roque Gegyeac (where do they come up with these names?) for lunch. You can see a photo of La Roque that we took from our canoe in the photo to the left. Then, after lunch, we attempted to stop at Castlenaud, a medieval fortress. I say, “attempting to stop,” because, honestly, we’re not the best canoe-rs. We definitely got beached and turned around a few times. In the case of our second stop, we couldn’t make the stop fast enough and just accidentally canoed on by. Whoops! 🙂

After the canoe trip, we drove our trusty Francois (a vehicle that we know better how to control than our canoe) back to Castlenaud and to a town called Domme. We visited Domme to see the great panoramic view from the top of the town (you can see a photo of our panoramic view in the first photo in this post). We also, of course, had to stop for some sorbet. It was almost 100 degrees on Tuesday, and we had spent most of the day outside…so we were in need of some way to cool down. 

DSC_0576After stopping in Domme, we finally visited Castlenaud. To be honest, I’m not usually so big on medieval fortresses, but this one was actually pretty cool. The people who own it have restored it really well and they have lots of interactive videos and touch screen games to play so that you can actually learn a lot about what it was like to live in a medieval castle. But, really, the thing that I liked most about visiting Castlenaud was that it was so cool in there! It would not be a place I’d like to visit in the winter (no, too cold and drafty for me), but in the summer when the bricks are cool and there’s lots of shade…it’s a perfect place to get out of the sun! 


DSC_0581We finished our first day in the Dordogne by having a great dinner of regional food—think: foie gras, strawberries, and walnuts…yum!—in Beynac at a place called La Petite Tonnelle. 

We took a stroll though the town after dinner and took a few photos (like the one to the left) of the town and the castle on top of the town (which was the rival in power and size to Castlenaud). 

The next day, Wednesday, we woke up early to go to see the prehistoric cave art. A few months ago, when we were just starting to plan our vacation, I told C. that I wanted to go to the Dordogne to see the cave art. He looked at me like I had two heads….me? cave art? 

But, I told him that I remember learning in elementary school history lessons about the cave paintings found in the 1940s by a group of boys walking their dog at Lascaux and how fascinating that seemed to me when I was younger. Seriously, could you imagine going for a walk in the woods and the stumbling upon a cave filled with paintings of buffalo and rhinoceros that were 15,000 years old! It is a place I’ve always wanted to visit. So, we added the Dordogne to our trip. 

Sadly, Lascaux (the place I read about almost 20 years ago) is now closed to the public. Apparently, too many tourists came to visit it and the paintings suffered irreparable damage from the oxygen the people breathed, as well as the fungus they unknowingly brought in with them on their shoes. 

DSC_0584An exact replica of Lascaux has been created so that tourists nowadays can see what those little boys saw in the 1940s, but we didn’t want to see a replica…we wanted to see the real thing!

So we went to two other caves that had actual cave art (you can see me standing in front of one of them in the photo to the left). We first visited the Grotte de Rouffignac, a cave where a guide takes you down on a train to see the drawings. The artists drew outlines in black pigment of horses, buffalo, and mammoths. In one room of the cave, the artists squeezed into the cave, laid on their backs, and painted all over the ceiling. No one knows why they painted what they did…there seems to be no order to anything, but it’s pretty amazing to see. 

lascaux-cave-walls-438085-xlWe then visited Font de Gaumme, the only cave where you can still see actual colored cave art. The other two places where colored cave art from this period were discovered (Lascaux in France and a cave in Spain) are now closed to the public. Of course, you cannot take photos in the caves, but I did find a photo of some of the art in Lascaux on the National Geographic website (photo to the left) so that you can see what it looked like in these rooms when we visited Font de Gaumme today.

With our guide and our very small group, we entered the air-controlled cave, walked through a few rooms, and were amazed with the size and number of paintings. The artists painted everywhere…walls, ceilings! And, the animals they painted were not only 1 dimensional. Instead, they painted the animals on curved surfaces so that if you looked at the paintings by the flickering light of a flame, the animals really did seem to come alive, become 3-D, and seemed to move on the walls! It was amazing to us to think that 15,000 years ago, artists knew a little bit about perspective…something that took modern civilization thousands more years to “discover.”

DSC_0594After visiting the cave art in the morning, we had the whole afternoon free, so we took a mini road trip to visit some other cute towns on the other side of the Dordogne river. We stopped in a town called Martel to buy some sweet Montballziac local wine and some foie gras.

Just as a side note, I know…foie gras is bad and we shouldn’t eat or buy it! But, we wanted to try the local foods, and foie gras is their specialty. Plus, at least we didn’t visit the farms (a tourist highlight) where you can actually watch the geese and duck getting forcefed! Yuck! 

Then, we drove to a town called Carennac to walk through the town and stop for a rest break in their cool church. 

DSC_0601Finally, we got to the town we had been waiting for….Loubressac! It was honestly, the cutest town we’ve ever seen in France! Maybe, it was the cutest town we’ve ever seen. 

The town is perched high up on top of a mountain (see photo of town to the left) and, therefore, has amazing views. 

But, in addition to the views FROM the town, the views OF the town are great too! Each house looks just like it came out of a fairy tale—clapboard windows painted blue or red, flower boxes, exposed wooden beams! We loved just walking around and trying to decide on what we thought was the cutest house. 

DSC_0603Then, before we headed back to Beynac, we stopped at a hotel for a drink on the terrace overlooking Loubressac and the Dordogne valley. The views were breathtaking and the wine was just what we needed after a long day of driving and eye feasting 🙂

Next, we’re off to Basque Country. We’ll stay in San Sebastien in Spain, but hope to hop back and forth between towns in Spain and French. We’ll be practicing our Euskara (the Basque country language) on the drive down south. So, a bientot, see you later, or, in Euskara, Gero Arte!

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