Friday, October 25, 2013

Day 4: Canoeing the Dordogne

When I was planning this trip, the one thing I fixated on most was canoeing the Dordogne River. We'd glide past picturesque villages and castles, take in fall foliage, and maybe stop in one of the villages for a picnic or a drink.

We woke up on Day 4 of our trip kind of kicking ourselves that we hadn't squeezed the canoe trip into warm, sunny Day 3. It was market day in Sarlat, so we drove there as planned to shop for our canoe picnic. The sky was cloudy and a few raindrops fell, so we were concerned that we'd really blown it. Sarlat is a charming medievel village, with those windy cobblestone streets and half-timbered houses (bottom level a medievel stone structure, top made with timbers during the Renaissance). We bought carrots, radishes, two foie gras stuffed figs, a pack of smoked duck breast, some soap and a bra. oh, and a little round of strong goat cheese and half a loaf of heavy brown bread and a little jar of walnuts with honey. The first part of the market that we went through was all clothes and other goods -- piles of blue jeans, and the bras in little packets.

We were just wondering where all these great products from the French countryside were when we looked down another street and saw tables with produce and refrigerated cases with the duck classics:   Entire fattened livers, rillettes, breasts, and confit and gizzards. Other cases held rounds and slabs of cheese, big and small. We sampled slices of nougat and bites of foie gras and bits of cheese.

Then we sat down at a cafe with a good view of all the people -- the men in sweaters under jackets, women in skirts looking at smartphones as they walked. We wrote post cards to the kids. Then we rushed to the Post Office to send our cards to the kids before its Saturday noon close, and didn't want to walk back to the market so we bought two bottles of wine at Lidl, a French version of Aldi from the looks of it.

When we arrived at the canoe area in La Roque Gageac, the canoe stand was open as promised but the canoe man was gone, probably eating lunch.bSo we sat down at a picnic table by the river and ate our picnic. A few raindrops fell on us.

When the man came back, he took our 14 euros each, gave us life jackets and paddles, and pushed us into the river in our canoe. We were off, and almost immediately the sun broke through the clouds. la Roque Gageac looked more beautiful from the water, because the stone wall protecting the city from the river rose up beside us.

Then there was a bit of nature, then Catelnaud came into view and soon we were heading for the first bridge, aiming the canoe at one of the semicircular openings and noticing how the water quickened just there. We were completely alone on the river, save a duck or two. The company running the large tour boats seemed to be open, but perhaps no one showed up to take a tour because none passed us on our journey. We spent a lot of the trip taking long rests between paddles, swiveling our heads around taking in the views of the cliffs and castles. There were windows in the high cliffs, and the odd house set in the trees high up on the left bank, and all the houss and castles and churches were the same color as the cliffs because of course they were all built of the same stone.

When we came to Beynac, the village, on our right, we had to decide whether to pull over to go "boire" (drink) as the canoe man had suggested, or maybe grab a coffee. But we were enjoying our paddle and we did not feel like having anything, so we just paddled on, pointing out the restaurant where we'd eaten the first night and the pretty, steep village that we hadn't entered.

All too soon we were at the end point, marked by a tall white wooden cutout in the shape of a kayak. We made landfall and pulled up the kayak without much trouble, took off our life preservers, and looked around.

We thought that the trip would end at a village, but we actually found ourselves near a country lane alongside farmer's fields. We checked out the crops -- chard-looking greens growing out of huge tubers that might have been massive turnips or sugar beets. The fields were small by US standards, alternating with a few rows of this and a few rows of that. As we walked, a farm truck drove by, followed closely by a couple of small barking dogs. We sat down on a stump and ate a snack, and then the canoe man arrived to pick us up.

He told us on the way back that we were the only people to cnoe today. We felt sad for him since he had been sitting there, stoicly in his booth all day, with all the canoes and life jackets helpfully displayed. But when we returned there was a single older gentleman waiting there, and the canoe man said goodbye and walked over to talk to him. Looked like there might be a second canoer before the end of the day. We marveled at the fact that the weather was so beautiful -- and it was a holiday weekend since a two-week school holiday had just begun, and yet no one who lived in the area wanted to come out and canoe that day. It seemed funny to us because in the U.S., autumn is a big season for tourism in the countryside, but here, it seemed, once summer was over, the season was just over, no matter how nice it was out.

We decided to drive back to Sarlat for dinner, since we had not seen enough of the city at the market that morning. We walked up and down the little alleys, looking at old half-timbered buildings and shops, and reading restaurant menus. We walked up a steep street just because it looked interesting, and happened upon a nice looking restaurant in a garden outside a grand-looking building. There was one table occupied, but when I approached the people there looked up at me quizzically. I asked if it was a private party, or tried to, and they explained that the restaurant would open at 7 p.m. Apparently I had interrupted the staff dinner. I smiled and promised to return, and we enjoyed walking around for another half hour, popping into a bookshop just before it closed. We realized that a lot of our time in France would be spent waiting for the right time to do things -- waiting for a restaurant to start serving dinner, or for a museum to re-open after the two hour midday lunch break. But the waiting so far had always been pleasant because there was so much to see while we waited.

The restaurant was called Le Presidial, and we were the first customers to be seated in the beautiful flower garden at 7. Even though it was dark out now it was still plenty warm to sit outside comfortably. The wait staff was sweet to us and other parties started showing up and filling other tables -- all French people, which made us feel good about our find in this tourist city. Erik had cassoulet, and I had duck breast with peaches and potatoes Sarladaise. TIt came with green beans served in a little cup made from a crepe, and was delicious. We had apertifs and a small bottle of wine, but no dessert. As we walked back to our car we raved about how well everything had gone on this trip -- the sun coming out just in time for our canoe trip, finding the perfect outdoor restaurant on an unseasonably warm night, everything.

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