Sian Prior

Writer, Broadcaster, Singer, MC & Teacher

Gorging in the Dordogne [December 11]

Is it when the melted Rocamadour goat’s cheese arrives at our table the night before we begin walking? Or is it when the champignon shop owner in Autoire invites me to stick my nose in a giant jar of dried forest mushrooms? Or is it when I’m feasting on wild berries that hang over a dry-stone wall just outside Meyssac?

I can’t recall exactly when it dawns on me that our ‘walking tour’ through the hilltop villages of the Dordogne is actually an ‘eating tour’ but as you can tell, it is not an unhappy revelation.

The seven-day hike through south west France has been organized by Scottish company Macs Adventures; they plan our itinerary, book our hotels and transfer our luggage. All my companion and I have to do is follow the maps they’ve provided and hike from one officially designated ‘Plus Beaux (Most Beautiful) Villages de France’ to the next.

Our 120 km circular route will take us through the departements of Correze, Dordogne and Lot. I can swim a few laps but my walking fitness is an unknown quantity and ‘Lot’ seems an apt description for the 20 kilometres we’ll have to cover most days. Last stop will be Rocamadour, the spectacular medieval town after which the melted cheese is named.

We begin in the tiny village of Sarrazac. The Hotel de Bonne Famille overlooks a church whose muffled evening bells eventually drag us from our sunny balcony to dinner. The village seems deserted but by seven o’clock the hotel dining room is filled with travellers.

Meals have been pre-paid and the courses just keep coming: almond-flaked trout with buttery sauce; walnut-crumbed Rocamadour cheese and fig salad; pear tart with a strawberry jus followed by lemon sorbet flecked with grated rind, all washed down with a 2009 merlot. If only my French was good enough to order a wheelbarrow to get me up those hills tomorrow.

On the first morning we hike past steep paddocks of slow-munching cows before arriving in the near-deserted village of L’Hopital St Jean, site of a former leper colony. Two elderly women grip our elbows in the narrow main street and point to a tall stone tower above our heads, explaining patiently that in ancient times a fire would be lit at the top of the tower to guide religious pilgrims home.

In Collonges La Rouge the traditional grey stone buildings of Correzes are replaced by startling red sandstone dwellings, stained by iron oxide. In this 8th century National Heritage-listed village local artisans sell everything from silver jewelry to fresh sorbets. We stop to wipe off the sweat and enjoy a mid-afternoon glass of champagne in the sun before staggering to the hotel in Meyssac.

Our room in the nautical-themed Relais de Quercy overlooks an enticing swimming pool. The pool is closed for autumn, though, so we console ourselves with another four course dinner: a mixed plate of grated carrot, egg-onion-and-nutmeg tart and steamed beetroot with mustard sauce, followed by roast duck with baked potatoes and creamed spinach, and then more sorbet. A giant platter of mixed cheeses is carted from table to table – soft and hard, blue and white, wet and dry. The diners next to us look grief-stricken when the platter is unceremoniously lifted from in front of them and brought to us. I’d offer them a glass of our Cabernet-Syrah des Larmes (of Tears) but we’ve finished it all.

The route out of Meyssac takes us through sun-dappled forests and raked fields of walnut trees. I stuff my pockets with stray nuts that have fallen on the road and help myself to the blackberries that are draped over moss-covered fences.

Today’s hike is billed as 17 kilometres but after 18 kms we’re still a long way from our destination. My legs eventually rebel so we cheat and hitchhike the rest of the way. Our female driver explains that the empty cars parked beside the quiet roads belong to locals who are searching for forest mushrooms. Seems I’m not the only one obsessed with food gathering round here.

Beaulieu-sur-Dordogne (beautiful place on the Dordogne river) is eponymous and luckily we’ve organized a rest day in this 9th century town. At the back of the Hotel les Charmilles a narrow branch of the river rushes past a paved terrace where we sip on Kir Royales (champagne with berry liqueur). At dinner we choose a red wine called ‘Mille et une Pierres’ (a thousand and one stones) in honour of the stony paths we’ve conquered.

Our rest day begins with a late morning visit to the 11th century Abbaye Church, which is all that remains of the former Benedictine Abbey of St Peter. Above the southern portal stonemasons have carved an intricate depiction of the Second Coming, complete with angels blowing trumpets into Christ’s armpits.

The afternoon is one long languid picnic beside the Dordogne. If an icy dip works for the footballers’ aching muscles, it should work for us. Elderly locals stare as we brave the water, carefully avoiding the boats that drift past us in the glinting sunshine. At dusk we dine just across the river at the café Les Flots Bleus (The Blue Torrents) where the highlight is dessert; apple spring rolls with salted caramel ice cream. I can’t think of a better way to replace all that sweat.

Since the hitchhiking worked out so well we decide to cheat again. The next morning we order a taxi to take us to the top of the first big climb. Ambling downhill through the forest, we leave a trail of crumbs on the carpet of autumn leaves as we munch on super-sized meringues. We pass the ruins of ancient bread ovens and cross stone bridges over a stream that has been converted into a fish farm. Nature is one big food factory around here.

Mid-afternoon we ford another shallow stream and join the winding road that leads to our next stop, Le Port de Gagnac. Our accommodation at the Hostellerie Belle Rive, overlooking the River Cere, is full of antique furniture including a set of blacksmith’s bellows converted into a coffee table. The waitress brings us two different vegetable soups presented in one double-scoop serving plate. I guess that makes this a five-course meal then.

The following morning we cadge a lift with the elderly driver who is ferrying our luggage to the next village. Monsieur has an elaborate comb-over and plays us loud waltz music on his car cassette player while describing the twice-weekly dances he and his wife attend. He drops us at the entrance to the Chateau de Castelnau-Bretenoux. This 12th century castle was lovingly restored in the early 1900’s by an eccentric French opera singer with a bizarre collection of giant antique wardrobes.

We trek on through vineyards and orchards, stopping to buy vials of fragrant dried mushrooms in a specialist champignon shop in Autoire. On the hike into Loubressac we scale a small cliff and look back with amazement across the winding valley we’ve just traversed.

Day six we visit the astonishing Gouffre de Padirac, a 40 km complex of underground limestone caves. First opened to the public in 1899, the gouffre (chasm) now receives about 350,000 visitors each year. We take the lift down through a jagged, gaping hole in the earth and travel by boat along a subterranean river, past giant backlit stalactites and stalagmites. They all look like melting sorbet ice creams to me.

Our final day’s walk takes us along the steep Alzou canyon, a tributary of the Dordogne River. Rocamadour looms up like an architectural mirage clinging to the cliff at the gorge’s end. The main street of the lower town is full of tourist shops but rising above them at improbable angles are a series of seven sanctuaries carved into the sheer rock face. Fuelled by our last block of chocolate we climb the 223 stone steps up to the church of Notre Dame, destination of pilgrims and penitents for the past ten centuries.

The taxi back to the hotel is a no-brainer. We still have one more four-course meal to get through.