When you’re walking, the entertainment is free: The warble and trill of birds backed by insects’ intermittent buzz, the perfectly composed vistas in Nature’s seasonal palette, the warmth in your own muscles as each step carries you onto new ground.
This is what my husband and I learned on our weeklong walk through southern France. We decided to by-pass Paris – with all its concrete, traffic, and pricey attractions – and spend our vacation enjoying the rural countryside along the Dordogne and Ouysse rivers on a self-guided tour that ended in the medieval town of Rocamadour. In four to seven hours a day of tramping, we were amazed and amused by the sights and sounds to which the price of admission was only our willingness to spend the day outdoors.
The Dordogne region is rich in history. Ancient paintings within limestone caves along the river valley date from about 10,000 to 20,000 years ago, when Cro Magnon hunter-gatherers used flint to create detailed and sophisticated renderings of bison, mammoths, woolly rhinoceroses and other animals. In the centuries that followed, Romans, Franks, Arabs, Vikings, Crusaders and others left their mark. The region’s many castles and fortresses sprang up during the long power struggle between the French and the English.
Today, agriculture – think truffles, walnuts, melons, and wine – is the regional economy’s foundation. Even with tourism playing a significant role, the area remains largely rural and unspoiled, a pastoral landscape whose beauty could put the City of Light to shame.
We began our trek in the town of Meyronne, where we stayed at the Hotel La Terrasse, an imposing feudal-era chateau that looks down on a wide spot in the Dordogne. A spiral stone staircase led up to our room, an elegantly renovated chamber that still had the heavy timbers of its provenance.
Our trip had not started auspiciously. We landed at Charles de Gaulle Airport after the 7-hour flight from Raleigh, and before we even got out of Paris, my backpack was stolen as our train was about to leave Austerlitz station. With no option for chasing it down, we kept on our way. The next morning found us at the Gendarmerie in Souillac, my husband using his recently brushed-up French language skill to file a police report.
But France is far enough north that the spring days were already long. Though the visit to Souillac police ate up the first half of the day, plenty of sunny hours remained. We replaced my stolen backpack and sunglasses, laced up our trail shoes, and returned to Meyronne by early afternoon to begin the 5-mile walk to our next hotel.
My husband is a lifelong backpacker, but I am not made of such hardy stuff. I like my pack light, my showers hot, and an actual bed beneath me at night. Our tour organizer, Inntravel, met all those needs, making it possible for us to hike the 50 rural miles together without endangering our marriage.
The company, based in York, England, specializes in “slow travel.” Slow travel has roots in the “slow food” movement and grows from a mindset that puts emphasis “less on manic sightseeing and more on taking in your surroundings at a relaxed pace,” according to the website of IndependentTraveler.com. Inntravel folks set up our itinerary with stays in little hotels rich in history and most meals prepaid, and they arranged couriers to move our luggage from place to place. Then they provided us detailed directions and let us make the walk for ourselves, at our own pace.
That first day, our walk led us out of Meyronne along a country road and eventually onto a narrow track through a mossy forest at the foot of the region’s signature limestone cliffs. Since ancient times, the cliffs have provided cave-like shelter and the honey-beige rock that is still the main building material in the Dordogne valley.
We ascended away from the Dordogne and settled into forest bordering its tributary, the Ouysse, to emerge from a narrow valley just up the road from the caves of Les Grottes de Lacave. A little further on, we reached the bridge to our next hotel, Le Pont de l’Ouysse (translation: Bridge on the Ouysse). The centuries-old stone bridge right in front of the hotel was in rubble, and we had to go a bit farther to the more recent bridge. The elegant hotel awaited us, with its Michelin-starred restaurant.
You know that stereotype about French food and its butter content? Can’t disprove it by us, nope. Scallops, duck, even steamed vegetables all swam deliciously in butter on our plates (and replenished every last calorie we’d walked off). A restaurant meal typically includes an appetizer, main course, cheese and dessert. Ravenous as we were when we sat down, we never made it past the main course.
The first day’s varied terrain was just a preview; the second day’s 12-mile walk gave us the full show. We fortified ourselves on the Pont de l’Ouysse’s generous breakfast and headed uphill on the road toward the Chateau Belcastel, which stands on a cliff above the hotel but is closed to the public. Wooded trails led us over the hills above the Ouysse into the valley of the Dordogne, where we skirted fields of wheat and rapeseed tucked into a broad bend in the river. A one-lane vehicle bridge with a scary-skinny pedestrian curb took us across the river to paths that led up to a treeless promontory with stunning panoramic views of the river, the fields, the bridge, and the 14th-century Chateau de la Treyne, now a high-end hotel and restaurant.
I’d be lying if I said our feet were not feeling every one of those 12 miles by the end of the day. But a little foie gras and a bottle of good regional wine have remarkable curative powers.
The four days that followed brought us down all manner of paths and roads, where we made leisurely acquaintance with the flora and fauna – the wild orchids and euphorbia growing along the trail, the loudly singing bullfrogs at the spring where the Ouysse oozes out of the earth, and one western green lizard who scurried out of our way but paused on a rock while I took his picture.
Finally, like the pilgrims of centuries past, we walked up the narrow gorge of the Alzou river – and up, and up – to the cliff-hanging village of Rocamadour. Dating from the 10th century, Rocamadour is situated in three levels. Lowest is the town, from which flights of steps ascend to a group of churches. At the summit looms Rocamadour’s chateau fortress, built in the Middle Ages to defend the sacred complex. The city is a UNESCO World Heritage site.
That evening’s environmental music was the best of the trip. Outside our hotel in Hospitalet, a little ways beyond Rocamadour, we stood in the long dusk and listened. From all directions came the baa-baa of sheep, the grrrk-grrrk of frogs, and a chorus of birdsong featuring a standout solo that went cuckoo … cuckoo. (True confession time: I’m not sure I even knew that cuckoos were a real thing. Now I know.)
An enchanting symphony, I declared. No, corrected my husband, more like chamber music. And the price of admission couldn’t be beat.
If You Go
Numerous tour organizers offer walking trips. A 2016 study by the Adventure Travel Trade Association found that demand for “soft” adventure trips – such as hiking or biking – is growing across all age demographics. A quick google search will help you start your planning. Here are the organizers we liked:
Inntravel, www.inntravel.co.uk. The York, England-based “slow travel” company offers self-guided walking, cycling, and other tours, as well as custom-planned and privately guided trips in Europe and beyond.
Sherpa Expeditions, www.sherpaexpeditions.com. Self-guided walking trips in France include tours of Burgundy, Corsica, the Vermillion Coast, and several more. Options are available throughout Europe.
“Best of France,” by Rick Steves. Avalon Travel, 2016. A broad overview with enough detail to give you a sense of each region’s highlights.
“France on Foot,” by Bruce LeFavour. Attis Press, 1999. If you want to organize your own trip instead of using a tour company, this is your resource.
“Chateaux of the Loire Valley: Road Trips.” Lonely Planet, 2015. The lavish chateaux are worth at least a side trip, if you can fit it into your plans.
“Bruno, Chief of Police,” and sequels, by Martin Walker. Vintage, 2010. Languidly paced mysteries set in the fictional Dordogne village of St. Denis. Perfect plane and train reading for the trip.
▪ Start planning six months to a year in advance. You’ll appreciate spreading out the payments, instead of facing the whole bill when you get home.
▪ Give yourself at least a couple of months to get fit. Get a good pair of trail shoes, and make sure your feet can handle four to six hours of walking a day.
▪ Use plenty of foot fleece, aka Tramper’s Friend (trampersfriend.com), to prevent blisters. Once you get a blister, escalate to Compeed Blister Cushions (available online or at Walgreen’s), which are nothing short of miraculous.
You won’t find public restrooms on countryside walks. Be prepared.