After leaving the incredible, balancing beauty of Rocamadour we soon had to turn and back-track a little. Our first chosen route out of town was closed for remedial works, so we chose a smaller, windier route over bumpy hills and through the open countryside. It was a warm, clear morning and a quite beautiful choice, thickly lined with tall yellow trees lit up in the morning sun, and we loudly sung its praises as we rolled along it mile after wonderful mile.
As we were passing, we paid a flying visit to the small town of Souhillac. We stopped in their central aire for ease of parking, before walking around the centre, seeing the Sainte-Marie Abbaye de Souillac. The impressive Romanesque building was constructed in the 11th and 12th centuries with a triple-domed chevet. The floor plan is a traditional Latin cross, said to have been inspired by Haghia Sophia in Istanbul. We circled the abbey and a portion of the old town, enjoying stretching our legs. The tourist office was shut, as expected in low season, but we were still able to use the town’s free Wi-Fi to update our downloaded off-line maps. We sat on the ground in a small patch of warm sun in a pretty square deep with yellow, fallen leaves. As we utilised the free Wi-Fi we watched the antics of a group of young French girls, posing and smoking to look as cool as possible as they chatted loudly in incomprehensible (to us) French.
We had planned to stay in Carsac-Aillac, but when we parked on the aire we got stuck fast on the grass, each attempt to move dug ourselves ever deeper into a literal hole. We tried six times to roll a little further back, in the hope we could find solid ground and gain traction, but only put ourselves into more grief, further down the grassy slope. With one final endeavour, with chocks kicked solidly behind our front wheels, we rolled a little back onto each chock then drove off with a short, grippy start. Each try gained us a half metre, then chocks were reset and we went again. After numerous attempts we finally escaped and Benny regained sure footing on the flat gravel. We had practically destroyed an area of their grass, churning it up in a myriad of places. There was no one around so we tidied what we could then sheepishly made a swift exit. Never before did we have so much relief in being able to drive off a site.
We guiltily drove on to a different aire, at the nearby hamlet of Groléjac. This proved such a contrast – a free aire with services, set out on a spacious plot with large individual bays formed in neat limestone gravel separated by well-tended strips of grass. We were the only motorhome in residence, and we felt very glad to have such a nice alternative so close by – the beauty of travelling by motorhome in welcoming France. We had a short walk locally to see the nearby village and the river frontage. We found the road bridge and later, following the riverbank west alongside neat woodland and planted coppices, the old steel railway bridge, part of a long cycle path on the old train route. We saw a dog-obstacle course being well-used by trainers as we followed the fast-flowing Dordogne to eye-up a spot listed in our Wild Swimming France book, but found the water was much too wild to contemplate a swim.
The original reason we had looked to stop in Carsac-Aillac was to cycle the local voie verte route, an old train line now designated as a cycle path, leading into the regional town of Sarlat-la-Canéda. Fortunately, the very same route continued along into Groléjac, so we could easily complete the same cycle from our new home, with even a few extra miles of track to enjoy. The forecast was looking much better for the following day so we procrastinated, leaving off from contemplating the cycle until then. Instead we passed the afternoon mooching around the aire, with another short wander in the early evening sunset hours. We relaxed, had a slow sumptuous dinner and later opened a bottle of red as we re-watched the feel-good movie ‘A Good Year’ for a welcome shot of French longing.
We welcomed the morning with a big fry-up, a rarity for us, as despite the shining sun above us the day was going to be very cold. We wrapped up warm and headed along the voie verte and across the pedestrian bridge in the direction of Sarlat. The route passed through passages of autumnal trees, bending over tunnel-like to enclose the path, but thinned just enough to allow shafts of light to penetrate and dance on the fallen leaves. We passed deep gorges dynamited out of rock to allow the passage of the original train-line. The voie verte ran out near to the centre of Sarlat town, so we had to make our own way from there. Rather than following the busy traffic road into town, we chose to head up and over a steep hill, a tough winding climb, then had a brake-melting descent down a narrow weedy path, popping out close to the medieval centre of Sarlat-la-Canéda.
There were Christmas market stalls and cabins in the process of being constructed, and lights in the process of being hung. The streets in the centre were quiet of cars and had pedestrian priority even though some cars were allowed through. We abandoned our bikes in a quiet corner by an Artisan foie gras and wine store and continued on foot. The old medieval centre was a delight; speciality stores selling leather goods and local foods were integrated neatly into the ancient stone buildings, leading shoppers and browsers around through narrow alleyways and passages, past churches and numerous small bronze statues. We passed through the huge grey steel doors, fifteen metres high, of the covered marketplace for a browse of the colourful stalls. It was a beautiful town, very neat and inviting.
We returned by the same leafy route, only realising on the return leg how much we’d worked rising along a gentle incline all the way into Sarlat. We hardly had to pedal going back to Groléjac, so we had lots of heads-up time to fully enjoy the surrounding views as we mostly free-wheeled home through the glorious trees. We spent another quiet night alone in the peaceful aire, looking out to an all-encompassing black blanket filled with twinkling stars.