France 2018 Road Scholar Tour: The Perigord’s Ancient Towns and Caves

Saint-Émilion is located north of the city of Bordeaux on limestone hills above the Dordogne River. There are many vineyards here producing wines that favor the soil and hillsides of this area. We are here to see an underground cathedral carved out of the limestone by monks.

This city is a very popular tourist destination and we are fortunate to be here in early spring and not on a weekend or holiday. Our bus parks at the city entrance that I marked on the map with an X. The streets are very narrow with only a few wide enough for smaller vehicles.

A panorama of the old city walls and dry moat. The Plane trees have had a trim which Sandrine says is done every few years. On into town we go passing Le Manoir, a former Jacobin church that is now a winery.

Inside, wine experts are judging the 2017 wines and their verdict of the best of the new wines will inform brokers as to what wines to invest in. We continue uphill, exclaiming over the old walls, cobblestone streets and amazing views.

The Church is in view.

We look around the small square while Sandrine goes to get a ring of keys to let us into the underground part of the church.

Down and down we go. How and why the monks excavated this hillside is still a question. Sarcophagi of ancient churchmen line some rooms and corridors. This cave is huge and empty. Only a few services are held here.

The sky is threatening rain but we are undaunted. Such great scenery to photograph.

Time for lunch! Sandrine has scouted the countryside for great little restaurants.

Wines of Bordeaux and salty dried sausage for starters. Back to the bus for a free afternoon and evening in the city.

Leaving Bordeaux and the Garonne River valley, the big bus heads for The medieval city of Sarlat. As we travel we hear a lecture on the history of the Perigord. We stop in Les-Eyzies for lunch. This is another town perched on the side of a limestone cliff that has been excavated into living and defensive spaces. Cro Magnon man was thought to live in this sort of cave place.

There is a replica of an ancient man on the cliff above the town. Some buildings are built into the hillside and above are lookouts carved into the cliff so enemies coming from the river below can be defended against.

Stopping at a truffle farm, we get a lecture about them, a demonstration on finding truffles and a taste. The black and white dog methodically searched under this tree. He stopped and pawed at the location then waited for his treat. Only tiny truffles are available now. Best picking is January and February.

The cave of Rouffignac-Saint-Cernin-de-Reilhac “Cave of a Hundred Mammoths.” Water is running off the cave entrance. We take an electric train into the cave to see the mammoths painted over 140 centuries ago on the walls.

Our hotel in Sarlat had a beautiful breakfast/ bar room. We check in and Sandrine leads us on a walk to the medieval city in the center of Sarlat.

Sandrine leads us through a maze of narrow streets in the old town to the Cathedral Saint Sacerdos with its cloister and graveyard. This tower located above the church had a beacon for pilgrims and was a safe place to stay as they traveled through.

Sarlat is a very picturesque city and we can imagine the throngs of tourists here in the summer and especially on market days at the city center. Geese are raised for meat and fois gras so a statue of them is not strange.

Another nice meal in a pleasant spot then back to the hotel to unpack for a few days.

Wednesday is market day in Sarlat and we have part of the morning free to take it in. It is early but the market is bustling. We buy a few things to have for dinner tonight.

Later in the morning we depart for Vitrac on the Dordogne river where we enjoy a cooking demonstration and an excellent meal.

After an elegant meal we were back to the bus for a short hop to Domme which the literature says is a typical “bastide” from the 13th century on the cliffs overlooking the Dordogne valley. We have a lecture on bastides on the way. This bastide that is accessed by a small train that takes us up the steep hill overlooking the river. It is no wonder that people felt safe in this walled city.

oOn to Gageac and the scenic Dordogne River with flat bottom boats and another steep limestone cliff that we climb part way up.

It has been a rainy spring and the river is up. The ramp down to the river is closed. Shuhan, a fellow Road Scholar, takes our picture. Back to Sarlat and some wine in the bar and dinner in our room.

Art of the Perigord. Today we visit the site of the famous cave, Lascaux. To preserve the actual cave from algae and other human caused destruction, a replica of this prehistoric cave titled Lascaux 4 has been built near the original. The prehistoric artists depicted the creatures around them using pigments they found and then mixed the pigments with rendered fat. Using small oil lamps, they made art deep in these dark caves. These people did not live in the caves but there is evidence that bears hibernated in them.

This is a very popular attraction and even though it is early in the day, other groups are waiting their turn to go in. We wait for an English speaking guide.

A ramp takes us down to the entrance.

What motivated these artists and what was the meaning of their art and other symbols? Even the exact dates of this early art are not known. It was an amazing experience to visit this site.

The prehistoric people probably looked and dressed like this.

The rest of the afternoon was spent in at the National Prehistory Museum with its collection of artifacts from prehistoric sites in the Vézère Valley in Les-Eyzies. This prehistoric era was from 300,000 to 2,000 years ago.

Driving back to Sarlat we pass a Goose Ranch.

Dinner was at this cozy restaurant then a walk around the city lit up for night viewing. Tomorrow we visit St. Céré and visit the Jean Lurçat Museum in the morning and the cave, Gouffre de Padirac. Have a wine and cheese tasting and check into our hotel at Rocamadour.

I was interested to see fields of wheat, rape (canola), and alfalfa. Fruit such as apricots and nuts, chestnuts and walnuts, are grown here, too.

We stop at Martel, another stone walled city, visit the market square and church. I appreciate the fancy ironwork and painted doors along the street.

How can you not be in awe of such ancient spaces, rich with paintings and statues and carved doorways and pews. This town was also on one of the pilgrimage routes.

Now to the castle on the hill above the town that holds the Lurçat museum.

We leave the bus in the parking lot and climb. Jean Lurçat was an artist who created in many mediums. He decorated every space of his castle with the help of students and two artist wives. His most famous works were rendered in tapestries.

He covered the walls with boards, hung drawing paper and sketched, inserting instructions and paint colors like a paint by number kit, then sent it off to Aubusson to be made into a tapestry. He was very affected by WWII and his work reflects it.

Lunch here at Auberge de Mathieu. Our starter had dried duck breast, goose liver, caramelized onions, and good bread. Can’t say I liked the fois gras but I did like the espresso.

Off we go to the deep shaft at Gouffre de Padirac.

At the bottom, we walk to boats that take us along an underground river and to a huge cavern system with stalagmites and stalactites and flow stone.

We came back out the same way but took the elevator back to the top. No cave paintings in this cave. On to Rocamadour!

This hill town was a pilgrimage site in medieval times. The cathedral is at the cliff top with the Bishop’s residence below. A great stairway leads up from the town with a sign of the cross at each switchback. The faithful would kneel and pray at each site. We stop for photos and the bus takes us through a curving, one lane tunnel down to the town. We check in to the Beau Site Notre Dame Hotel. Our room is an interesting one that looks out onto the hillside. I can open the window, sit on the sill, listen to birds and smell the blossoms nearby.

Narrow pedestrian only streets and the grand staircase.

The following day our field trip is to the cave of Pech Merle which is older than Lascaux.

To preserve the cave, tour groups are limited to 40 minutes. A guide gives a good lecture explaining the cave drawings before we enter and he keeps close watch of the time while we are inside. There are ancient footprints that were left in mud that hardened to stone.

Lunch is at a neat place which was once a mill. The mill stream still runs by.

Creme brûlée for dessert.

Back at Rocamadour we stop on top, visit the cathedral and cave and walk down.

There is a black virgin in this church.

Dinner on our own this evening. We have a nice meal with Carol and Phyllis. I think I had a frittata and frites!

The next day has a longer drive along an expressway. The bus stops for a bathroom break at a convenience area. We are going to Albi today where Henri Toulouse-Lautrec’s works are on display in a museum dedicated to him. Albi is the town of his birth but he spent most of his short life in Paris.


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