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Tourist Guide to the Dordogne - where to stay and eat, what to do, and what do see.

Southern France Guide - information on the Mediterranean and Atlantic Coast, Dordogne, Burgundy, Bordeaux, Rhône-Alpes, and

La Citadelle: Dordogne - pictures of the main cities of the region along with descriptions of the local attractions.

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Bill Oetinger  The Biking Life

   by: Naomi Bloom 1/1/2002

Biking Southern France -- Top 10 Reasons

If you're anything like me, you spend a good part -- maybe the best part -- of your life on a bicycle. So I decided to call this column "The Biking Life." I want to write about anything and everything involved in "la vie en velo" (French for "life on a bike"). And what better way to begin than with la vie en velo in the south of France? I'm thinking particularly about one of my favorite places to ride, the Dordogne. Situated in the eastern part of Aquitaine (where Eleanor came from) -- east of Bordeaux and south of the Grand Massif -- the Dordogne is actually a "department," a civic entity much like an American county that's part of a larger group of departments in eastern Click for an enlargementAquitaine known as "Le Perigord" and known for fine wines, pate de foie gras and beautiful countryside. Yet when tourists like you and I (not to mention the French tourism industry) talk about the Dordogne, they usually really mean the Perigord.

I've been cycling in the Dordogne on two occasions. The first was in 1999, at the invitation of French friends who live a few hundred kilometers to the east, near Albi. We'd originally met on a bike club, "Sister Cities" exchange trip to France in 1997. Funny thing. In 1998 the man who today is the captain of my (OK, our) tandem spent a total of nine weeks in the Dordogne, working for The Bicycle Outfitter as a mechanic and tour sag driver. During that time Jim spent countless hours pedaling (and driving) the best backroads in the area. So last year we decided to combine our experiences into a tour for some of our fellow bike club members. That was my second trip to the Dordogne and it was a fantastic tour. This year Jim will be leading a similar Dordogne tour for The Bicycle Outfitter. And you're invited. Why go? I'll give you ten great reasons -- five now and five more next month.

Number 10- Caves
French historians and tourism officials call the Perigord "Le pays de l'Homme," the home of prehistoric man. This is where the Cro-Magnons inhabited open cave shelters in the limestone cliffs along the Dordogne and Vezere rivers. And where they created the earliest known forms of art, which has been preserved for posterity (that's us). You can visit the Museum of Prehistory in Les Eyzies on the Vezere River to learn more about the paleontology and anthropology involved in studying these early artists. Even better, you can view the art in its original form. At Font de Gaume Cave in Les Eyzies, the original paintings are still accessible to paying tourists. Unfortunately, the original artwork in Lascaux cave, just outside Montignac, has been sealed off due to the effects of carbon dioxide and other deterioration. But touring the reproduction of Lascaux is an amazing experience in itself; artists and historians have spared no detail in replicating the originals that lie in the real cave beneath it. The limestone cliffs along the rivers in the Dordogne reveal more than primitive culture, however. Large medieval settlements sprang up in the huge open caves and shelves along the rivers. Preserved in much the same state as they were in the Middle Ages, the remains of these towns cling to the cliffs in a way that reminds me of Ansazi ruins in the Four Corners region of the Southwest.

Number 9 - Castles and chateaux
"Il y a une mille chauteaux dans le Dordogne," claim the French. "There are a thousand castles in the Dordogne." I know of no official count, but it could be close. Although most chateaux are private property, many are now historical landmarks where knowledgeable guides lead informative tours.

Click for an enlargementClick for an enlargementWe pedaled along country roads to Beynac, built during the Hundred Years War to defend French territory against the English, hunkered down at Castelnaud across the river. These two juggernauts exchanged hands many times throughout the war. Each offers a painless history lesson today. So after Beynac we rode across the Dordogne River to explore its nemesis.

Still more castles line the rivers and hillsides of the Dordogne. Like Chateau Puymartin near Sarlat. Or Les Millandes, once the home of jazz performer Josephine Baker, who turned it into a refuge for abandoned orphans. Or Hautefort, which "played" the role of the prince's castle in the movie "Ever After." These magnificent castles are accessible by bike and cyclists are more than welcome.

Number 8 - Churches
Some people go to France just to explore the ancient churches dotting the countryside and admire their architecture. As for me, once I've see one church I've pretty much seen them all. But in the Dordogne even I found churches that drew me from my bike.

Click for an enlargementOn the way to Beynac Jim led us on a short detour deep into the woods to Redon de l'Espic, a crumbling yet marvelous chapel dating hundreds of years back to early Medieval times.

On our route to Montignac we stopped at St. Amand de Coly, a tiny hillside hamlet surrounding a church built right into the hill. There we found an even more delightful surprise: a group of French locals, all wearing their clothes inside-out, stacking stones at the church entrance. "Pourquoi?" we asked. It turned out they were participating in a treasure hunt/car rally -- and they found us as fascinating as we found them!

But the religious site that impressed us most was the village of Rocamadour, an important stop on the pilgrim trail to Santiago de Campostelo. Built right into the cliffs along the Dordogne River in the neighboring department of Le Lot, Rocamadour offers five chapels, a chateau complete with parapets to climb, and the site of the remains of St. Amador, "the lover of the rock." Not to mention the 100 steep stairs the medieval pilgrims ascended on their knees to make penance for their sins!

Number 7 - Les petites routes
The back roads are the best-kept secret for a successful tour in the Dordogne. Why fight heavy traffic on the busy regional or national roads? The petites routes ("little roads") are well paved and well marked. What they are not is strewn with debris. No traffic either. Just the occasional tractor or farm truck.

They do climb, though. Most villages sit on top of a hill. Between villages there are ridges to cross. But none of the climbs are as long or even as steep as some you'll find in the California Coast Ranges. And the descents more than make up for the work.

Nearly every intersection on the backroads offers clear directional signs. Arrows point out the routes to nearby villages and points of interest. In town, just follow the "direction" signs: "Direction [name of destination]" tells you exactly how to navigate the streets that lead to the route and the site you are seeking.

Number 6 - French drivers
The French adore cyclists. French drivers respect us and give us plenty of room on the road. Even a gendarme or tradesman in his tiny half-truck will slow down and wait for the best time to pass...slowly. Indeed, if a car harasses or buzzes you, it's a good bet there's an American or German at the wheel.

It's also a good bet that a lot of those French drivers are fellow cyclists who spend weekends on the road with their local club. Stop to grab a bite to eat or snap a photo and they'll approach you with questions about where you're from, your bike, your shoes, helmet, etc. Of course, it helps if someone in your group speaks French, but most locals in this popular tourist area speak at least a little English. You may even learn a French word or two of bike jargon -- vitesse (gear), roue (wheel), freins (brakes), bidon (water bottle). Un peu s'il vous plait?

Numbers 5 through 1
The top five reasons for riding in France? Here's a quick preview:
Number 5: Hospitality
Number 4: Food and wine
Number 3: The land and the light
Number 2: The best guided tours
Number 1: Ah-ah! That would be giving it all away!

Details next month!


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