Wednesday, August 10, 2011

Dordogne Diary, Day 1

One thing I'll happily admit to is an utter ignorance about French geography. I really don't know, except for large hunks of Paris and much of the landscape surrounding where I live, where anything is, at all. But I'm making a bit of progress at the moment, thanks to a couple of friends from New York, who have a, well, I guess you'd call it a cottage, in the Dordogne, and who've invited me up for a couple of days. Since I have nothing to do in Montpellier at the moment except to obsess over when my agent's going to sell my book, I can do that just as well from up here. Wherever it is.

As far as I can tell, here's where I am: I got on the train in Montpellier at 9 yesterday, and at first, the route was familiar. When we got to Narbonne, however, we headed north, and I actually got to see La Cité, the famous medieval fortified section of Carcassonne, out of the corner of my eye as the train came into the station there. We continued northish (I don't have a map in front of me just at the moment) and I got off in Toulouse at noon. There, I had an hour's wait, but there was nothing much calling me to explore. It was, however, a bit colder than where I'd just left, which was a bit ominous: I hadn't packed for cool weather, figuring it was August, high summer, and it was warm all over the place. But maybe not.

One thing I've always wondered about European train travel is whether people actually enjoy riding backwards. I'd found a Senior Bargain Fare to where I was going, which cost four euros more than second class and got me into first, but even there, 3/4 of the riders were going backwards, on the TGV, at high speed. I eventually spotted a seat aligned to the direction of travel and went and sat there. Anyway, the hour passed while I watched the cops rouse a sleeping skinhead with a bag of 9% beer and sent him on his way, and finally the train to Agen, my next stop, was ready to go. An interesting phenomenon presented itself just before we left in the form of a somewhat well-dressed beggar  who hit the two first-class cars saying very quickly that he hadn't had anything to eat all day and needed a coin or two. I felt like telling him that all I had in my pocket was €3.80 (my friends were going to refund my fare when I got to where I was going, wherever that was) and bet him that I had more on me than he had. But the nature of his hustle was that he had to work two cars very quickly between the arrival of the train and its departure: getting caught on the train would be a very bad idea. And, much to my utter surprise, he scored with one of the passengers and scooted off.

The ride to Agen was astonishingly boring. I realize how important it is to French people to eat what's grown locally and as we passed field after field of sunflowers, I began to worry. I mean, sunflower seeds are okay for a snack, but... There was also no place to right myself during the two hours to Agen, and although we slowed down quite a bit for construction on the way, we picked up towards the end and I was nauseous by the time I got off the train. Here, I was going to spend the money I had left on a sandwich. Of course, that required my finding something better than the buffet du gare, which looked skanky. I rolled my bag around the immediate area, but there was, much to my surprise, nothing but real estate agents along the street. Was I in France? Where were the bakeries? I never found out; I walked over to an old church, but there was nothing around there, either, so I reluctantly went back to the station and claimed a ham-and-cheese sandwich. It was quite good, although French ham still puzzles me, a subject for further discussion some other time.

The train to where I was going, a town called Les Eyzies, was barely the size of a Montpellier tram, and similarly shaped, almost a capsule on wheels. The monotony of sunflower fields (I should have noted that a few weeks ago this would have been a more cheerful monotony, but sunflower fields all die at the same time, with the heads all pointing the same direction, which is creepy, although the farmer, who's after the seeds in those heads, finds it convenient) gave way to a more varied landscape, with hills and the odd astonishing structure whizzing by. There seem to be a lot of old chateaux and castles and churches out there, and I'll have a chance to find out more before long.

At any rate, by this time I'd been travelling for six hours, and was ready to just be somewhere. I was counting down the names of the towns: Belvès (which was clearly the Belgian Elvis), le Buisson (the drink), le Bougue (the bug: obviously the drink was absinthe), and, finally, my destination, Les Eyzies. (Yes, I know those "translations" are bogus, but you have to keep yourself amused). I spotted my friends Brian and Melinda immediately although the 12-year-old with them was unfamiliar: last time I'd seen him he was pretty much a newborn. He was busy filming stuff; apparently he has a movie in mind. We jumped into the mini-van and blasted off. The countryside we'd come into on the train was of huge limestone cliffs with gaping holes in them. Yes, these were caves, and yes, they'd paid host to cavemen. One of these caves -- I'm not sure where it is -- is called Cro-Magnon, and that's where some unusual skeletons had screwed up the nice linear progression of human evolution. Les Eyzies itself is basically a tourist-trap devoted to prehistory, although it's a serious tourist-trap, and I intend to return.

Still, we headed away from there, and up over here, and down there, and the road got smaller and smaller to the point where it was no longer possible for me to figure where we were. We plunged down a small lane and there were huge, tan cows, the color of some of the people in Montpellier at this time of year, mooching around a field. Then the road plunged more, and we were where we were going, a small farmhouse where Melinda has spent time for the past 20 years, kindly allowing Brian there after meeting him. I'm on the back porch right now typing this.

That's the main house, but I'm not staying there. Instead, they put me into the former pig-sty.

Worse, the sanitary facilities are next door, on one end of the farmhouse. It's private, but just look:

It's an outrage!

We went to dinner in a neighboring village which may or may not be named Prozac, and just went to a bar on the main street. Not where I would think to go, and the menu was pretty thin. If, that is, you discount the €12 dish of duck confit with fries cooked in duck fat. I'd never had this before, and it's duck that's been slowly cooked in its own fat, then preserved in it for a while, then reheated. In other words, it's like velvet duck (not the Chinese dish). Man, was it good. Served with a small red pepper stuffed with, um, something delicious on the side. In order to maintain its reputation, though, the bar served the worst red wine I've put past my lips in ages. We made up for that back at the farmhouse by opening a bottle of organic grenache, BarleYrolle put up by the composer Marc Dalbavie (brother of my old friend Christian Dalbavie, who appears way earlier in this blog at Vinisud 2010), about 20 miles away. Astonishing nose of ashes, coffee, and, um, dirt.

Pig-sty or not, I slept like the dead, despite the sounds of something eating the roof. Brian told me they're called fouines, they're nocturnal, they're sort of like weasels, and they're protected by French law. I just pretended they were the folks upstairs, and by the time I woke up this morning, they'd been replaced by lizards sunning themselves on the rocks. Too bad I don't like to swim: the pool looks nice.

Anyway, I'm trapped here for the next few days, although not exactly: Melinda's off to Le Bougue right now buying a battery for the other car, and I'll be allowed to drive around and see some of the local sights once it's running and she and the kid, Harry, are off to Paris for a few days. There are caves, there are all those chateaux and so on...

I think I'll survive this .

Stay tuned.


  1. You poor thing, I wish you all the best in that wretched pigsty!

    Will you try and get over to Sarlat? You're not too far away. I went there years ago with my parents and there was a super market (amongst other lovely things). It's still there.

  2. What an interesting tale; what a pretty place.

  3. Sarlat is nice and not far away - a straight shot east right down the D47 but very, very touristy. You can do a great loop, Sarlat, then south to Beynac, then west along the river (lots of bicyclists) to St. Cyprien (really,really good town for markets) and then north on the back D48 backroad back to Les Eyzies. But where are you in relation to Les E? (Eric)

  4. Also: as you've notice, lots & lots of place names there end in "ac." It comes straight from Gallic. "Acos" means 'place of,' Proz acos (for example) is Proz's place, and eventually, post Romans, "Prozac" Enjoy! (Eric again; I'll get an account)

  5. Thanks for the travelogue tres amusant, Ed. On my next visit to the region I'll certainly plan a relaxing stop off in Prozac.

  6. It is an absolute outrage that your staying in that horrid little hovel!
    (Whatever... that place looks like heaven. Maybe they'll adopt you!)

  7. Looking forward to the next installment describing all the indignities you are being subjected to, you poor thing.


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