Cycling in ‘foreign countries’ can be a bit of a stretch, because one is not aware of the local customs, geography, motorists attitude to fellow travellers etc. But when a friend offered to bring my very own bike on the back of his car to a shared holiday in the Dordogne last Summer, I felt I really didn’t have any wiggle room to decline. He and his wife were driving there while my wife and I were flying and renting a car. So I dispatched my precious Trek One into his careful hands at home, and a few days later it was deposited on the doorstep of our rented house in Montignac, in the Dordogne.
For the unaware, Montignac is effectively the location of the famous caves at Lascaux where prehistoric man created some pretty memorable drawings and murals on the walls. The cave was literally about 1km walk from our house. Of course you are not allowed into the actual cave itself, to avoid damage to the drawings from human-generated CO2, but the cm-perfect reproduction is still a must-see in my humble opinion. A huge interpretative centre on the edge of the hill was due to open in late 2016, and it in turn will definitely take the whole experience to a new level. But back to the cycling.
This whole area is fairly rural, and apart from a few main roads – notably the one from Montignac to Sarlat – there’s not too much traffic. Plus most of the hills are relatively gentle and the backroads reveal an endless succession of tranquil images. One route that we took regularly was to head South, tracking the river Vezere as it wound down to the overhanging cave dwellings at La Roque St Christophe.
The relaxed route back took us through St Leon sur Vezere, designated (with that mania for labelling that the French have in bucket-loads) as ‘one of the most beautiful villages in France’. Well for once ‘they’ got it right. It’s a dozy, sandstone coloured village right on the river, packed with drowsy lanes, a beautiful church, a number of wonderful restaurants and an idyllic haunt by the river, ideal for a cycle stop. It’s called ‘Dejeuner sur L’Herbe’, where canoes pull in off the river and people in swimsuits fight over tables with the lycra-clad cyclists. Then both drink café crème in the shade of the willows, and teenagers swing out over the river on ropes before plopping into the warm and slow moving water. One day we went there, things took a surreal twist when a woman riding a horse (white, obviously, yes – the horse) walked down the bank and waded into the river to the deeper bits to cool both herself and the horse down. I had to convince myself that I had not been drinking and it was really happening – but I did get photographic proof with my iPhone. We became inordinately fond of this little village and came out there to dine from town on a few occasions.
Both times we ate at the same restaurant (Restaurant de la Poste, since you ask). The first time was merely great, the second time (why did you think we went back?) was divine. I had Salad Perigourdienne, Magret de Canard accompanied by Pommes Sarlardalise reeking with garlic, lardons and sautéed onions, and finished with a Tarte Tatin oozing with juice and crispy bottomed. All this perfection for – I kid you not – 22 euro. I did complement this with a large quantity of chilled Rose, it must be said.
What else stands out, cycling-wise? Well it does get quite hot during the day, so getting up and out in the cool early mornings was a positive. There was also quite a bit of wildlife to be seen at that early hour. We cycled past small Chateaux, duck and goose farms, rock dwellings and fields of sunflowers. In general we did loops of about 50-60k out of Montignac, just to get to know the area better and we kept working out different routes using the network of small (and safe) back roads. One route we especially liked was from Montignac up-river to the town of Terrason-Lavilledieu, and then a meandering route back through St Amand de Coly. Terrasson straddles the Vezere river and is a larger town, but the old centre is well-preserved, and really beautiful. Then St Amand is in a really rural setting, you get there on roads with grass growing down the middle – always a good sign in my experience. Plus hawks hovering over recently harvested cornfields, and wildflowers in the ditches. It’s basically a small and sleepy village, with a very old and beautiful abbey. And, as everywhere in France, there’s always a small bistro serving Café Crème and Pain au Raisin (for that sugar rush to get you home). Mmmmm.
Further afield, and having ‘banked’ our morning cycle ride, we’d head off by car to places like Sarlat-le-Caneda and its huge Saturday market. Other highpoints were the valley of the Dordogne river itself, the town of Domme and the elaborate hanging gardens of Marqueyssac, which tower over the village of Le Roque-Gageac and afford amazing views of the river below. It’s a lush, green, compact area of France and there are slow flowing rivers, stone-age-man caves, and rustic dwellings everywhere you turn. The food is great, the wine is chilled, the backroads are safe and scenic, and the people are friendly. What’s not to like?