Today’s entry comes from the south-west of France, an area noted both for its wine and its marvellous medieval towns and villages and variously known as the Dordogne or Perigord. The Dordogne is the river which flows through the countryside, whilst Perigord is the district around its capital town of Perigueux.
We took our family of eight adults and eight grandchildren, to a magnificent XVth century manor house deep in the countryside at Sourzac near Mussidan. With accommodation for up to twenty people, it had walls, up to four feet thick (120cm) in places with equally massive beams in the roof. I could walk into the stone fireplace in the big hall, and there were similar large fireplaces, filled with birch logs in several of the rooms.
The house, built on a slope, was furnished with antiques and tapestries and leather bound books lay around the rooms. It had three storeys and boasted a wine cellar, games room, four-poster beds, not to mention a huge sunken jacuzzi, big enough to bathe three or four youngsters at once. There was a swimming pool, tennis court, swings and even a gym for the active amongst us, plus several acres of grounds with quiet hidden corners for those who preferred life at a more leisurely pace. Off the kitchen was a courtyard where we breakfasted outdoors on fresh croissants from the local bakery and where we had a wonderful party to celebrate one grand-daughter’s 12th birthday, the sumptious meal prepared for us by Eric, the owner of the villa, who just happened to be a highly qualified chef.
Because we were in such a rural area, there was an abundance of wild life, even within the grounds of our manor. Having seen our collared doves fly the nest shortly before departure to France, I was surprised to be aroused on our very first morning, by the coo-ing of a collared dove. I thought our own nesting doves must have followed us to France to join us. Another very common bird in the grounds was a green woodpecker and the nearby woods seemed full of them. We could hear their calls throughout each day, and there were several birds one would expect to see in England, for example great tits, robins, swifts, swallows, house martins, house sparrows and starlings. Perhaps the most unusual were the buzzards. A trio of them soared above our house during most of our stay, their cat-like calls identifying them long before they came into view. Rabbits and a small red squirrel with a bushy black tail appeared in the grounds and the children were fascinated to see a pair of these squirrels fighting. There were lizards galore and the boys also spotted a long yellow-and-black snake that slithered away at their approach. According to their account, it was about four feet long (120cm) but I was unable to identify it. Similarly, I could not identify a flock of small chattering birds which arrived most evenings to settle on the poplar trees. They remained for a few minutes before moving away. Other evening visitors were bats which flitted among the roof beams, much to the delight of the children.
Armed with our school French, we ventured out into the countryside, visiting busy little towns with their historic buildings, wonderful churches, local markets and, of course who could resist the mouth-watering delights of the patisserie. I must say that the French roads in this area, whether rural, urban or motorways, are splendid with surprisingly little traffic. I wanted to visit St Emilion, famous for its wine, so a trip there was a high priority. My brochure delightfully described the medieval town as ‘middle-aged’. It is the focus of so many French wines: indeed, St Emilion, built on a hilltop among countless acres of vineyards, is said to overlook 1,000 crus. With its commanding tower, its ancient limestone buildings, narrow cobbled streets, wonderful courtyards and exquisite shops, the town is a delight. There are wine shops on every corner, many associated with nearby chateaux. One can buy all manner of objects associated with wine, even a potted vine for the keen gardener.
Strictly speaking, a chateau is a French castle; to qualify as such, it should have either a tower or several corner turrets of the kind seen on fairy-tale castles. This is not the case with those chateaux that produce wine. From a wine producing aspect, a chateau is simply a small estate or even a farm with vineyards. Chateau-bottled wines are made, bottled and sold on the premises, and not sold to a shipper. We visited Chateau St Pierre, and after sampling their splendid red wine, I couldn’t resist buying a case to take back home.
Another location on our itinerary was Perigueux, a medieval town of immense charm and beauty with long narrow cobbled streets and staggering views across the countryside. It is said that Perigueux overlooks a thousand chateaux, some being castles and others vineyards. Its food specialities are paté de foie gras, truffles and walnuts, and when we arrived the entire town seemed to consist of colourful market stalls selling products of every kind. Its five-domed Cathedral, dedicated to St Front, is the largest in south-west France but was undergoing repairs during our visit. We were allowed inside, however, and I found it surprisingly plain in comparison with many other European Catholic churches. St Front introduced Catholicism to this region and his work encouraged the arrival of monks from Rome – the Benedictines, Dominicans, Cistercians, Augustinian Canons and Knights Templar all arrived in his wake to build their monasteries, abbeys and priories. Their influence is still evident.
Another site of special interest is the Rouffignac Cave. We took eight excited children on the train that transports visitors into the bowels of the cave to see the stunning drawings but the guide soon silenced our lively brood by warning them that any noise might cause the roof to collapse. Six miles of tunnels contain some of Europe’s most important art work, dating back some 13,000 years, in particular a depiction of a mammoth. Its accuracy is proved by the recent discovery of a deep-frozen mammoth in Siberia, so how did those primitive artists manage to produce such accurate and vivid drawings so many miles underground in pitch black darkness all those years ago?
On the way back to Sourzac we met three Dutchmen who were on an 800-mile pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostela in Spain, passing through Mussidan en route. But that’s another story.
Posted by Peter N. Walker @ 10:52 AM GMT [Link]