We were on our way pretty early, having divested ourselves of our dirty clothes, and replenished our ruck-sacs with fresh supplies for the next 3 days. The sky was low and grey, but at least it wasn’t raining. We had been invited to breakfast at Castel Merle, an hotel on a hill some 600 metres SW of Sergeac, and home to Chris and Anita – Julia’s brother and sister-in-law. It is perched on a craggy limestone outcrop with great views over the Vézère below. We made the most of their hospitality before carrying on.
From Castel Merle, there was a gentle climb through woodland to the farm of Chaillac. We are familiar with this little jaunt, and took delight in exploring the couple of bories that we passed, even though we had done this many times before.
What are bories? You may well ask. They are of characteristic appearance – small huts built from dry stone, without any mortar or foundations. Although they are known to have existed since medieval times, their function is open to a fair bit of conjecture. They may well have been shelters for agricultural labourers when it was too hot or wet for work. They may have been places to keep animals or provisions.
From the ridge of Chaillac we descended west through forest, and despite the dreadful weather forecast, there were occasional glimpses of sunlight filtering through the sylvan canopy. As we approached the Vézère, we skirted around the village of Peysac, and walked beneath a limestone escarpment running parallel to the river. This brought us to Les Médiévales de la Vézère, a theme park of wooden huts touting medieval pizzas and the like. Thankfully, it was closed. More interestingly, here stands the church of Peysac-le-Moustier with its stumpy tower and peaceful graveyard. At this point, we were very close to a famous and authentique medieval settlement, La Roque St. Christophe, just a few hundred metres down a quiet lane. But the official route took us on two sides of a triangle, over woodland paths. One must applaud the department (La Dordogne) and their tourist board for planning a route that keeps tarmac bashing to a minimum; but some of the resultant detours seem a bit contrived. In any event, we reached La Roque ….. and to our delight the café in the car park, Les Délices de La Roque, was open. So we had our mid-morning hot drink prepared for us; we sat at a table; we had access to loos!
Suitably rested, we continued just as the rain started. Within minutes, this had escalated to what we refer to as a Welsh downpour – the precipitation effortless and yet utterly drenching. The walk beneath La Roque St. Christophe is usually breathtaking – natural galleries in the limestone escarpment where humans had lived for centuries. A vertical village! But conditions were not conducive to gawping. With some determination, we splashed onwards.
Our route took us across the river towards the village of Le Moustier (amazingly the cars and vans slowed down when passing us on the bridge to save us from extra drenching) and for the next several kilometres, we followed the ridge to the west of the Vézère, through the hamlet of Lespinasse, and then on towards La Madeleine. Fortuitously we came across an open barn – ideal for respite from the rain, and for dining – pork pie, cheese, and Anita’s walnut cake.
We didn’t tarry; our instincts were to reach Les Eyzies as soon as possible given the inclement weather. La Madeleine is another riverside troglodyte dwelling in which the evidence of human habitation stretches back 15-20 millennia. But we pushed on – at the site’s car park we took a sharp right and climbed through dripping woodland. By this time, Julia had discovered that the Gore-Tex in her jacket and boots was no longer performing its waterproofing rôle. Her velocity increased – to prevent herself from getting cold, she subsequently told me. I found it difficult to keep her in my sights; I found it difficult not to believe that she was trying to shake me off!
Eventually the climbing stopped on top of the ridge, where the woodland opened up to provide what would have been a magnificent vista. But today, the view over the valley was…well…soggy. But it was all downhill from this point, and we made rapid progress down to the hamlet of Le Mas.
Thankfully, the rain was easing off. The lane took us over Le Manaurie, a stream babbling down to the big river, before our path took us down to the bank of the Vézère itself, at the point where it is crossed by a railway bridge. We went under the bridge, but the path fizzled out in a field of wheat. There were no more way-markers. The written guide advised us to take the path that followed the river! Hence we swished through the wet wheat, keeping the river to our left. We soon came to a hedge with a gate fastidiously made fast with rope and knots…and a sign: “Propriété Privée “. Away from the river is a road – a main road, the D47. To reach it, we had to climb out of the wheat field up a muddy bank. The D47 took us to Les Eyzies; thankfully, there was a low concrete wall between pedestrian path and vehicular highway to save us from the worst of the spray. Within a few hundred metres of our slithery climb, our path was indeed next to the river. We felt that the waymarkers had let us down; we felt that the written guide had been somewhat disingenuous – to write, “follow the tarmac”, or “walk along the D47” may sound somewhat prosaic; but by trying to follow the river, we had caused ourselves a bit of bother.
No matter. As we entered Les Eyzies there were significant chunks of blue sky, and a watery sun was casting shadows. The village/town was deserted. This, 8th May, is a bank holiday in France – to commemorate the end of Nazi occupation in 1945. Despite its puny size, it is the home to the National Museum of Prehistory. The town (let’s give it the benefit of the doubt) snakes along its main road, between river and towering limestone escarpment, replete with shops selling foies gras, wine, and prehistoric knick-knacks. It’s a grockle-trap, but without the benefit of candy floss or kissmequick hats.
At the far end of this main thoroughfare, it is crossed by La Beune, another river feeding the Vézère. As much as I find it hard to like Les Eyzies, I harbour irrational affection for La Beune! It runs north-east from Les Eyzies, and has carved out a beautiful valley which would warrant a two or three day walk of its own. On this day of rain, its water was jostling and jumping, seemingly in a desperate hurry to get to the sea. And here stands Moulin de la Beune – our place of rest – hotel, restaurant, and a hardworking, groaning mill-wheel. In the neat reception area, we were conscious of our bedraggled state, but the receptionist was buzzing with attentive concern; she arranged for our togs to be dried; she switched us to a room with a bath; she handed us an umbrella when we, now clean and dry, embarked on an evening meander through the town.
Having covered 22 kilometres, the longest stage of our walk, mostly through heavy rain, we decided to stay put and eat at the Moulin. This proved to be a good move – excellent food, attentive service, beautiful setting with a picture window onto the energetic wheel. The highlight of our meal was trout lifted from the adjacent Beune itself. Needless to say it tasted heavenly.