Saturday, October 19, 2013

Day 3: La Dordogne and Castles

We woke up on our first morning on the ground in France to the smell of coffee and the sound of children -- the three sons of the other family staying in our B&B. We breakfasted with the family -- two parents, three kids and a Frency granny -- and our hostess, Anne, on croissants and fresh bread and butter, yogurt and jam. Conversation was lively, and we were happy we'd chosen a bed and breakfast instead of a more solitary hotel stay.

After breakfast we headed out on foot, leaving our car in the parking lot, to check out the castle that had been floodlight the night before and visible from our window. It's called Castelnaud, and it's a medieval fortress that has been renovated and turned into a museum of medieval warfare. The morning was cool -- 49 degrees with mist hanging over the river -- but as we walked up steep cobblestone roads and stone stairs up to the castle, we quickly warmed up. By the time we emerged from the castle in the afternoon, the day was positively summerlike.

 The museum was right up our alley. We loved walking up the narrow, steep stone staircases winding through the corner turrets, we loved noticing the differences between original castle materials, and newer, machined replacements, and we loved the exhibits -- trebuchets, catapults, armor, canons, etc. The castle is built on a rock cliff, and so when you enter the floor below you is not smooth because it is actually just the rock surface the place was built on. When you step out into a courtyard or onto a rampart, the view of the valley below is panoramic. You can look down the valley and see the next castle down in each direction, and joke about how you see your neighbor getting his trebuchet ready to roll over to your walls. There were two large groups of students moving through the museum, and I liked eavesdropping on their guide's lectures to learn tidbits like about how the lords enjoyed the privilege of the hunt.

 After the museum we walked down the cliff to a brasserie on the riverbank and ate a pizza and a salad - with foie gras and cheese, of course. We could see the village canoe company from our table, which interested us very much because one of my big goals for this trip was to kayak or canoe the Dordogne River. But the shop appeared deserted, which was not unexpected -- our hostess had told us that the local canoe companies might open for the weekend but not on weekdays at this time of year. Just as we were finishing, though, we saw someone go into the shop's shed and come out with a paddle. I walked over and caught the guy just as he was dragging his kayak down to the river, and asked if he worked there. He said yes. I asked if they would open tomorrow, and he said no, that we should go to La Roque-Gageac, the next village down the river.

 So after lunch we made a short stop at our B&B to freshen up, and then walked down the road to La Roque-Gageac. That walk was not as easy as our walk across the bridge to Castelnaud. There was little to no place alongside the road to walk, and the road was busy. I hit a stinging nettle bush with one bare leg. But after about half an hour we arrived in the village and found a canoe company that looked open. Only problem was, no one was there. By this time it was about 4:30 p.m. The sign said that you could only canoe if you started out by 5 p.m. So we waited around for about 15 minutes and then gave up and took a walk around the village, which according to the sign is rated one of the most beautiful villages in France, instead. The village is very steep, with stairways and roads winding up a cliff face. There were windows high in the face of the cliff, making it apparent that someone had at some point inhabited caves way, way up there. A red hot air balloon rose slowly from a little farther up the river. It was nice.

After we came down, we saw that there was no someone at the canoe shop, so we went back to confirm that they were closed for the day. He looked at the clock and said yes. But they would be open tomorrow? Yes. And did we need reservations? No. The canoe man was very nice, and I was feeling good that I could handle everything in French. I said I'd see him tomorrow, and he said, "avec plaisir."

 We walked back to the B&aB, stopping to check out a castle on the way that turned out to be private property. When we got to the B&B, all we did was grab a wine opener and we were off again, this time in the car, to a garden just up the road where we thought we could eat a picnic dinner and watch the sun set. The garden turned out to be a pay-to-enter thing, and it was closed, but that was just as well, because there was a lush picnic area at the edge of the site -- this was also on a cliff -- and absolutely no one else there. So we took a picnic table on the grass, just outside an ancient stone barn, and ate our bread with truffle mustard and drank our wine, first facing away from the sun because it was just too bright, and then watching the cloud streaks in the sky turn pink as the sun disappeared behind the opposite cliff. A peacock and a few peahens wandered up to see if we might offer any handouts, and a cat showed up just to make friends, but the peacock chased it off. We sat in that beautiful, isolated spot until floodlights turned on to the walls and castle that the garden was built around, and floodlights turned onto the castles across the river as well. We just couldn't believe how much we'd packed into this first, beautiful day in France. We corked the wine and drove back to the B&B, where we found our hostess and her dog, Rose, out for the evening, snuck into the kitchen for a couple wine glasses, and hung out in the living room using the Internet for about an hour before heading to bed.

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