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Scenic Saunter by the Dordogne


© St. Petersburg Times

SARLAT, France -- "There's a fine line between love and hate; maybe there's a fine line between up and down," said Bob as we trudged up a small hill. It sounded Zen to me, but the truth was, even when our small group of walkers felt tired, we kept going. Sometimes, it was a question of mind over matter, or of maintaining the rhythm of our long strolls. But mostly, it was the glorious views unfolding of the French countryside that kept us eager to move on.

In springtime, a guided, weeklong walking tour of the Dordogne region means heading down farm roads, skirting pewter-green fields of young oats, passing weathered stone walls brightened with red roses drowsy from the sun. The path may dip into the cool shade of an oak forest echoing with the call of cuckoos, or meander through a medieval village.

"After 15 years of travel, in and out of countries, capital cities and museums, it's the hikes we remember best," fellow walker Diane remarked about herself and her husband, Harold.

It's not surprising, I thought. France is noted for its stunning and varied scenery in places such as the Dordogne, part of the Aquitaine Region, about 60 miles east of Bordeaux. We began from Sarlat -- a lively market town during Charlemagne's rule (768-814 A.D.) that grew prosperous during the 13th and 14th centuries -- and in six days we had completed loops to Saint-Cyprien and Les Eyzies-de-Tayac, a total of about 56 miles.

On a typical day our group of 11 walked about three hours in the morning and a couple in the afternoon. The length of our walks ranged from about 10.5 to 13.5 miles per day.

The group was a mixture of couples and singles from the States and England. Each walker was given a detailed map, so the members of the group could set their own pace or wander off on a detour.

Our guides from Progressive Travels Inc., of Seattle, were John Brooks, an American, and Pierre Surun, a Frenchman. They took turns leading the group and driving the support van, which met us at pre-selected points about six times a day. The van carried supplies of water and snacks, as well as our extra sneakers and jackets. If we became too tired, we had the option of leaving the hike to return to the hotel.

The spring weather, typical of late May, was perfect for walking: cool, breezy and warmer at midday. On the last day it poured, and yet everyone walked in the rain; deep in the woods, we listened to the patter of raindrops on the leaves.

It was a rather slow pace, but it was common to life in the Middle Ages. The tour followed in part the GRs (Grandes Randonnees) 6 and 36. Many of the GRs are the original pilgrimage routes to sites such as Rocamadour and St. Iago de Compostela in Spain. During the 11th and 12th centuries, thousands of pilgrims traveled these paths. Throughout the French countryside a network of GRs total more than 25,000 miles.

Our loops took us among fields, forests and the sheer limestone cliffs lining the Dordogne River. In spring, brilliant blue miniature orchids grow among the wild flowers. "France has more than 150 varieties of wild orchid," Pierre told us.

Tiny ancient villages and huge historic chateaux were on the itinerary. Chateau de Puymartin (built in the 15th and 16th centuries) was constructed of golden limestone and has rooms furnished with antiques and decorated with murals and Aubusson tapestries.

Chateau de Beynac, with soaring walls and towers, stands above the Dordogne River; in the 12th century it was captured by Richard the Lionhearted of England.

Chateau de Castelnaud resounds with a history of sieges and is now a Middle Ages war museum.

On our last day, we emerged from a hazelnut forest to find the great ruined husk of 12th-century Chateau de Commarque. And there, through a broken window, a fitting frame, we glimpsed another castle, Chateau de Laussel.

We had the time to explore the tiny streets of the medieval village of Domme, founded on a rocky promontory in 1283 for its strategic location. Late one afternoon, from a restaurant terrace in the medieval village of Domme, we watched the light changing. It glanced across the countryside, softening the contours of a great panorama that contained the silver-gray Dordogne River running west among fields of maize and other grains. It was a luxury to linger in such lovely surroundings, as swallows swooped in celebration of the sunset.

The Dordogne is also known for caves decorated with prehistoric wall paintings. On our final afternoon, we toured Font-de-Gaume Cave. In the eerie darkness, the guide's flashlight shimmered along the walls, tracing the outlines of bison and horses painted in black and brown earthcolors; paintings created about 12,000 B.C.

Our last two nights were spent in Les Eyzies-de-Tayac, known as the "Capital of Prehistory" because remains of Cro-Magnon man were discovered here. In the cliffs above town, caves provided shelters for the practice of magic. For thousands of years, humans inhabited these caves and left bones, tools, utensils.

This trip was all about the luxury of savoring the deep countryside, la France profonde, slowly and in detail, with time to stop and smell the roses. If you go

Getting there: Many airlines fly to Paris from American gateways. Tour operators can help with plans to reach the starting point of their trips.

Progressive Travels Inc. conducts walking and bicycling tours in the Dordogne and Provence, in France, as well as in Italy, Portugal and Washington State's Olympic Peninsula. The six-day/six-night Dordogne tour included medium-grade hotels, plus breakfasts and dinners, for $2,095 per person. For information and a brochure call (800) 245-2229, (206) 285-1987; fax (206) 285-1988.

Hotels particularly enjoyable include the Hotel de l'Abbaye, Saint-Cyprien (call (33) 5-53-29-20-48, fax 5-53-29-1585), and about 15 miles north of Sarlat, the small Manoir de Hautegente call (33) 5-53-51-68-03, fax 5-53-50-38-52.

During our week, we enjoyed a variety of regional dishes -- typical lamb, duck and fish entrees for dinner, while lunches were always picnics. One day, John and Pierre treated us to a picnic of rillettes (pork terrine), duck and goose pate, six cheeses, fruit, salads, fresh, crusty baguettes, red wine from Cahors, and a Bergerac dry white wine.

Other companies with walks in France include: Backroads, call (800) 462-2848; Butterfield & Robinson, of Toronto, call (800) 678-1147, and Wayfarers, of England, call (800) 249-4620.

For more information: contact a travel agent or France-on-Call (900) 990-0040, which costs 50 cents a minute and is operated by the French Government Tourist Office. Or write to the Tourist Office at 444 Madison Ave., New York, NY 10022. Patricia Woeber is a free-lance writer living in Tiburon, Calif.

Originally published December 21, 1997

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