Wednesday, 25 June 2014

Forget the Wine, Look at the View!

Just possibly, dear reader, you may have formed the impression from my most recent Postcards that our idyllic life in this rural hamlet revolves around the consumption of quite passable food and the quaffing of cheeky “vin rouge”. Now, while this is not altogether incorrect, we do occasionally venture out into the wider tourist world beyond our front laneway.

A visit from our good Maleny friends, Kaye and Noel Kuskopf, was the occasion for a short tour to a neighbouring region, the Aquitane. They flew into Paris via Incheon, having enjoyed Korean Air’s fare-inclusive overnight stay in the local Hilton, Incheon, and the comfort of those few precious extra centimetres of seat space in Korean Air’s planes. A “low-flying” TGV train got them to Angoul√™me, our nearest major city.
Intrepid Travellers: Kaye and Noel arriving at Angouleme

We had determined to make their visit memorable. So, being in Angoul√™me, we kick off with a stroll around the old city, and promptly loose our way. Light rain falling, back streets, no beer tent or cafe in sight but “pas problem”, a pissing (sorry, passing)* group of students say “joust follow usezze”.  As accomplished guides we really are off to a great start!

Now, in Bardenac, a nearby village, there is a French restaurant run by the same family for several generations. It comes highly recommended by several English acquaintances as “typically French, many courses and (said with glee), bottomless red wine, but make sure you book in”.   Come Sunday lunchtime off we four culinary explorers go. The house is packed. “J’ai un reservation” I carefully say to the only waitress as she sweeps by. “A yes,” she replies, “Zee four Anglais pairsonnsss…come”.
Cheers to all at Bardenac. That's Val, Kaye and Noel
 in the corner. There were four other rooms. 

The meal, the atmosphere is just perfect. We four at a corner table, French families and French babble all about, no menu, no choices, just wait for what comes out of the kitchen (no tripe, I fervently pray). And true to reputation, vin rouge is indeed bottomless. Don’t stress, just go with the slow pleasant afternoon.

Oh bottom! I’ve done it again, broke into a booze and tucker tale. Back to the tourist stuff.

Bryan, Val and Noel bonding on the private terrace
of our hotel in Sarlat  with a fine local drop
A few days later we are off touring. First stop for two nights is the beautiful and renowned town of Sarlat. The narrow cobbled streets of the old medieval town
are lined with intricately carved facades built almost entirely of honey-coloured stone. In the afternoon sunlight just after a summer shower it’s so gorgeously lustrous. And our hotel is suitably quaint, to meet Kaye’s explicit instructions (“I want cute French places ONLY”). Their room, the only one in the hotel to do so, opens onto a private balcony so on arrival we all repair there for the necessary social bonding session.

The region is an extravaganza of highlights: haunted chateaus, ruins, breathtaking caves, villages, walking tracks, enough to engage even the most jaded tourist.

“Les Cabanes du Breuil” is a restored village of dry-stone roundhouses each with conical stone roof and is complete with chooks and proud roster. The development of this “simple” architecture over centuries of effort is amazing to our eyes. Their origins are mysterious. It is known that Benedictines were in residence in the middle of the 15th Century and that in the 18th local craftsmen occupied the site.
Dry stone roundhouses at Les Cabanes du Breuil
in the hill country near Sarlat

On a recommendation we take our visitors to the “Grotte de Font-de-Gaume” to view renowned stone-age cave paintings. We arrive in the afternoon to be told that all tour places had been sold. “You should come back tomorrow morning, but be sure to get here by 9am.” “Well, we actually are here now, can we buy tickets for tomorrow?” “No, sorry, you have to come tomorrow.”

We duly arrive before 9am to find a rather large queue at the office door. Only fifty tickets for this Grotte are on offer each day. A quick head count of the queue indicates that we are definitely in with a chance. "Zut Alors", close to opening time a squadron of young people appear, attaching themselves to those few other young people in the line, evidently the advance holding party. A computer display counts down the number of tickets still available at each site (the office sells tickets for six caves). It’s soon clear that we are now not going to make the cut for “Font-de-Gaume”. Plan B, hastily conceived, kicks in: take afternoon tickets to the “Grotte des Combarelles”, an offer we had knocked back yesterday!

For the 4.00pm session at Combarelles we four are the only visitors so we enjoy almost a one-on-one tour with the guide. Our cameras and bags were taken at the entrance and locked in a safe – no photos, and the caves are so narrow – don’t touch the walls!  Fair enough! The carvings are 13,000 years old at least. The line carvings are enchanting, each figure in beautiful proportion and etched in deft artistic strokes.

Now this bit is so truly French. While waiting in the queue at the “Font-de-Gaume” an English woman informed us: “Oh, but you should have booked tickets on line!” So, one can book tickets on line, days ahead, but one cannot buy tickets in person at the office for the next day!!    

Onwards to Rocamadour!  Our approach to the village was via twisting back roads through an undulating stony, wind-swept and dry plateau boarding on the Central Massif. Rounding a bend, on the opposite side of a deep gorge, there is Rocamadour, cunningly built onto the side of a steep gorge. We descend to the carpark at the gorge bottom, park and proceed to climb and climb back up through a garden park and several levels of streets, streets full of…of..: come on, folks, guess! Do I hear cafes, restaurants, bottle shops, soap shops, candle shops, craft shops, kitsch shops and the occasional real art dealer. I immediately think: “It’s a vertical Montville!”
A successful visit to Aladdin's cave of fine art

Cafe creme on a terrace hanging vertiginously over the chasm, restores our lagging strength such that we actually indulge in a little shopping. Girly things like lavender soap are on the list but then Noel finds a gallery tucked into a side alley. The artist, a charming bloke, is at work and successfully so. Both Noel and I depart the gallery lighter in the pocket but happy in spirit, proud possessors of several fine pieces. But just how did that happen...that artist must have been very charming.  

Seriously, the true heart of Rocamadour is it’s amazing set of religious chapels, six of them, and the Basilica of St Sauveur and the Tomb of St Amadour, a hermit, the discovery of whose undecayed body in 1166 tapped into the fervour of the age resulting in the establishment of the town as a great pilgrimage centre on the Road to Compostela. The basilica, cut into the rock wall, contains the famous Black Virgin and Child, quite small actually but a figure of great devotion. Oh and also several large model  sailing ships float in the bascilica's quiet air!!
The Auberge de la Fontaine, our hotel in Autoire

The final night's accommodation is at the Auberge de la Fontaine, in the village of Autoire. In selecting Autoire as a place for a bed, I had been seduced, not, unfortunately, by a French waitress (oops Val, I really meant fortunately,) but by the web blurb, to whit: “Autoire is nestled in an impressive cirque formed by high limestone cliffs. Small manor houses with turrets, delightful fountain surrounded by typical houses and the river below, contribute to the charm of this beautiful site” so says the on-line tourism blurb. And, the hotel looked so properly French  on the booking site. For once the hyperbole reflects the reality. Voila...Jackpot! The village is superb!

What else can I say? The village is gorgeous, the hotel is excellently French rural, the evening meal cheap and delicious and right across the street is a late opening wine shop with tastings. Noel, Kaye, Val and I are in heaven!

When we win the Euromillions millions this is where we will buy a manor house (as long as it has excellent central heating).

A bientot folks
Bryan and Val

·         With acknowledgement to all those “Allo, Allo” episodes.

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