Author Archives: Aaron Hill

About Aaron Hill

My wife Nicky and I have swapped our static desk-bound working lives for a more adventure-filled open-air existence on the road. We are currently travelling around Europe by motorhome. You can read all about our recent travels here: https://aaronandnickytravels.wordpress.com/about-us/

A Liebster Award nomination – Zen and the art of new blog appreciation

LiebsterAward

Out of the blue we were nominated for a Liebster Award by Jane at bonvanageblog.com

Many thanks to Jane for introducing us to the concept and handing us the opportunity to ramble on at length about things that interest us with no need to feel (too) self-conscious of our indulgence.  Jane & Tim write a travel blog with a similar theme to ours, all about their travels in Europe in a motorhome – please click through and give them a visit.

One set task of the process was to ‘spread the blog love’ and nominate other blogs for the Liebster Award. We are not prolific followers of other blogs, or at least not ones that are just starting out.  There is only one blog that we currently follow that qualifies for being nominated for this Liebster AwardLiving this Life Out Loud so we will call out to Julie to see if she is interested in continuing the tradition and passing on the ‘blog love’.  If we come across any other blogs we will return and update this post to expand its reach.

UPDATE 2:  Julie posted her Liebster Award response post here – check it out. 

UPDATE 1:  We’ve spent a lazy morning with a cup of tea and, whilst being lovingly nuzzled by a well-fed cat, managed another look through blogs we follow and discovered a few more worthy candidates to celebrate:

Motorhome Moments  –  Meet Richard & Kate, currently chasing the winter sun

Followourmotorhome  –  Meet Andi & Paul as they motorhome around Europe in Boris

And to finish, here are two other blogs, that we find inspiring and hope you will too

Paddleagainstplastic – Cal, Jack and Zoe

In their own words, they are “Inspiring positive environmental change through adventure”.  We very much appreciate their passion, drive and commitment to their goals and the sentiments behind it as they help clean up the seas around one of our favourite parts of the UK – the Scottish Western Isles.  Please read their blog and support their efforts.

Groundwerk – Heath Johnson

Although this blog doesn’t quite comply due to already having a few too many followers, I’m bending the rules a little to add it in, as the motivation and effort inspires us.  Heath is walking thousands of kilometres across Europe, from Spain to Cyprus, to raise money for three very worthwhile charities.  Have a read, follow and donate if you can.

Thanks for reading.  Our questions and answers follow below:



What country, city or continent would you most like to visit and why
Continent – Antarctica, as it’s the most inaccessible and the last on our wonderful pale blue dot we are yet to visit.  We love the history of all things related to polar exploration (especially loved a visit to the Polar museum in Tromso).  Seeing penguins in their natural habitat is a long-held dream, a visit to Scott’s hut near McMurdo would be spectacular, along with the opportunity to stand at the South Pole.

Country – Currently we would choose to visit Madagascar, for the varied wildlife, jungle and mountain terrains and the fusion of South-East Asian and African culture.  It has long been on our list, so we’ll hopefully make a visit soon.

What was the most inspirational time in your life so far
This is utterly impossible to answer, even with the benefit of hindsight and time.  Certain individuals from my school and university days taught me the potential for living a life beyond what I originally thought was possible for a poor boy from the backstreets of Northern Ireland.  Growing to understand the size, scale and breadth of available paths through life were the first steps in grasping what is potentially achievable.  Opening up the world, through snippets of conversation, books and old maps led to taking tentative exploratory steps and to daring to dream bigger dreams.  But meeting Nicky on those terrible, rainy roads of Russia, a like-minded partner-in-fun with a similarly deep passion for sporting activities and travel, was likely my most inspirational moment.  She opened up another huge aspect of the world to me, sharing adventures, and has been inspiring and pushing me on ever since.

What are you passionate about?
The values of Humanism; equality, honesty, inclusiveness, critical thinking and the reliance on evidence over wishing.  Being treated fairly and treating others with the same courtesy.  Understanding the obvious fact that we get only one ride, one shot at this glorious, incredible life or ours.  We have the precious gift of consciousness for such a short moment; to miss this single, fleeting opportunity to fully live would be asinine.  Making sure we don’t waste it drives us.  We’re passionate about facts, evidence, reason, logic, truth. We’re fervent about the intellectual simplicity and elegant beauty of science, a guiding light of rationality in the expansive dark sea of superstition and ignorance.

We are passionate about living life.  We love the natural world, its ecology and conservation, and searching for our place within it alongside all other creatures.  We love the open spaces, the wild countryside, and living the active outdoors life the Scandinavians like to call friluftsliv.  We are passionate about reading, learning, seeing and experiencing new things, having an active, inquisitive mind, exploring both the physical and the cultural aspects of any given place.  We love mountains, the buzz of a hard-earned peak or the after-glow from a long trail run.  We care deeply for our fitness and our health, ensuring the longevity of our adventures through sensible body management, exercise and diet.  We love cooking and eating, exercise and resting, reading and writing, playing and listening to music, chilling and dancing.

What is your favourite book and why?
We read so many, in such a range of topics and genres that it’s incredibly difficult to pick out true favourites.  I’ve picked out four that jumped to mind, though I’ll no doubt think of twenty books I prefer more than these just as soon as I post, but here goes:

Paul Auster – New York Trilogy, as a study in timing, threads of coincidence and meaning, of loss and grief, acceptance of fate or driving desires, a complicated, exceptionally written book for those willing to give it the time it needs to sink in.
JRR Tolkien –
Lord of the Rings, as the definitive fantasy book, with the history and story and deep characterisation that defines the genre.  A far-reaching story of sacrifice, strength and defiance of evil, the only book I have re-read on more than one occasion.
Paul Theroux – The Happy Isles of Oceania,
as both a travel book (kayaking around the south Pacific islands) but also as a study in dealing with grief and loss as he comes to terms with his marriage break-up.  Moving and inspiring on many levels.
Jostein Gaarder –
Sophie’s World, as a beautiful, accessible story-telling way to tiptoe readers into the complicated history of developed thought and philosophical musings, assisting future understanding and the development of key thought-processes.

What is your favourite time of year?
Long days of dry, sweet warmth, the summer sun soaking into your skin on long mountain hikes and cooling river swims.  Crisp autumn days, bright with burnt yellows and deep red colours, on leafy paths under empty blue skies.  A hard day’s skiing, followed by a winter-time roaring fire and a glass of warm mulled wine as the snow falls gently, soft and white, outside your frost-marked windows. A budding spring as the weather finally turns, holding the vast potential for growth yet to come, us out cycling under pleasant, clear skies as the countryside awakens from the chilly frost and returns to green.  Each season holds its own wonder, each turn of the clock brings something new.  There are no favourite times, just favourite experiences.

What other interests do you have besides blogging
I’m not sure blogging is a real interest, but more a way to keep in touch with people at home and a vehicle to help us remember where we’ve been and what we’ve seen.  But it has been a good way to meet other like-minded people, and to feel in some small part a member of a large community, from a blogging, a travel-writing or a motorhoming perspective.  There is such diversity across each discipline, and this has opened up a new range of insights, ideas and opportunities to us.

Our main interests are plentiful; cycling, hiking, running, wild swimming, kayaking, sketching, music, movies, literature, cooking, beer, wine and whisky.  We lead a relatively simple life, unencumbered by unnecessary material things but rich with time and experiences.

Do you prefer the beach or the mountains
We definitely prefer the mountains, but sea coasts are a close second.  Mountains can be cycled down, skied across and hiked all over, offering such a variety of vista and experience.  Beaches are, to us, a means to access the sea for swimming and kayaking, rather than a place to linger lazily for a day. We have enjoyed the odd day lying on a towel, soaking up rays and reading our books to the low murmur of gently-lapping waves, but it’s such a rarity when we want to do so.

Wide, flat beaches can be more appealing under a huge, brewing storm, with wild waves crashing high on the sand and a wind that blows you sideways.  A bracing walk in those conditions can shift cobwebs and build appetites.

Where did you go for your most memorable holiday
Even ignoring the last 15 months of travels in Benny, see our page on previous travels to outline how difficult such a question is to answer.  We have had so many wonderful and incredible experiences all over the world that picking just one memory from them all is impossible and would do a huge disservice to other equally-deserving destinations.

If we need to pick just one, we’ll single out our Greenland camping / kayaking trip for its glorious icy setting.

Do you prefer a sunny or a rainy day
Sunny days can be filled with anything, on rainy days you have only a few good options.  Sunny days offer all manner of possibility so will always be our preference.  To temper that, too much sun is beyond my useless, pale celtic skin to deal with, so scorching days in foreign climes can be quite limiting and repressive in many ways.  If I have a long run planned, then a light rain would be preferable to a hot sun, but warm and dry will always win out over grey and dull.

If you had a day all to yourself how would you spend it?
This depends on where we are and what the weather is doing, and what we’ve been up to recently.  Ideally – A lazy breakfast then a long walk or cycle in the morning, followed by a cooling swim in a calm, fresh lake.  Content with the day’s exercise, the afternoon would be baking bread or cakes, and reading our latest books with cups of tea as we awaited our masterpieces from the oven.  A local post-cake walk for some sketching or photography practise and then, with the sun set and dinner eaten, we’d open a bottle in front of a roaring fire and snuggle up to watch a movie.

What books have you been inspired by and why?
Adventure travel books in any genre always leave me wondering about how much more we should be out doing, how much harder and further we should aim and struggle for, before the twin curses of age and infirmity overcome us and deny us the opportunity.  Climbing multiple mountains, skiing across ice sheets, cycling or running around the world, swimming or kayaking around islands; what to do?  Our current life is wonderful, but is lived at a level we could still achieve 20 years from now, so should we now be pushing harder, ensuring we have reached the full potential of what we are truly capable of?  This is the telling question that often surfaces with book-led inspiration.

A short selection of books ranging over different interests:

Fearless –  (biograpjy of Freda Hoffmeister) – Joe Glickman
Blazing Paddles: A Scottish Coastal Odyssey
Brian Wilson
The Worst Journey in the World
Apsley Cherry-Gerrard
Mad, Bad and Dangerous to Know
– Ranulph Fiennes
Touching the Void – Joe Simpson
White Spider – Heinrich Harrer
Moods of Future Joys – Alistair Humphreys
Arabian Sands – Wilfred Thesiger
Force of Nature – Robin Knox-Johnston
Born to Run – Christopher McDougall

On an entirely different tack, quirky travelogue books of simple adventures also appeal to a different aspect of us, like A year in Provence, or Driving over Lemons.  But there is time yet in our future for such classic, relaxed living.

What would you say has been the biggest challenge of your current lifestyle?
Being patient and accepting of the loss of privacy and the cramped living quarters of a life in a motor-home.  We have daily differences on how things should be, and the sooner I learn to accept Nicky’s way is the right one, the easier my life will be. 😉  We gave up a lot to follow this lifestyle; the comfortable ease of our busy, professional lives and seeing friends and family, possessions and the easy comforts of home.  A large part of the challenge has been in accepting the loss of those things and now learning to ensure we make the very most of every moment we now have.

 What has been the biggest benefit of your chosen lifestyle?
Time; an embarrassment of time, so much that we waste far more than we ever would have before, and often don’t even feel guilty about it.  We can go where we like, or stay still, on our own schedule and daily whims.  It’s so liberating not to be squashing our many interests into mini-chunks of time scheduled in accordance with society’s expectations of us.  We are learning and experiencing more, being healthier and more active with every day we spend away from ours desks.  A life fulfilled.   A&N x


liebster-award

Liebster Award images appear courtesy of the Global Aussie – thanks.

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Arrival at our house-sitting commitments – willing staff to two adorable cats

Leaving Monpazier we made our way south and west, skirting around the main town of Villeneuve-sur-Lot to reach the municipal area of Allez-et-Cazeneuve, where we would soon be living in a comfortable renovated former boulangerie for a few months, early next year.  This was the location of our second upcoming house-sit, and we’d arrived to both familiarise ourselves with the property and to spend time with British owners Monica and Ken.

Allez-et-Cazeneuve (boulangearie)

Allez-et-Cazeneuve (view from gardens)

They are both keen open water swimmers and occasional triathletes, like us, although their challenging, long-distance swimming exploits put us to shame.  We had long chats about travels and possible future adventures as we toured their property and ate wonderful home-cooked food, fresh from the garden, washed down with very tasty home-brewed beers.  We were greatly impressed by Ken’s artistic skills, expressed through his classical guitar playing and photography.  We had a local guided walk around the nearby leafy countryside, before checking out their sizable vegetable patch and lands.  After a slow breakfast and more animated chat, we said our goodbyes until our return in the New Year, after which Monica and Ken will be sunning themselves on the opposite side of the world.

La Reole (river view from house)

La Reole (canal walk)

We drove a further hour west to the outskirts of La Reole, into the small hamlet of Barie to meet up with Jane and Roger, with cats Tilly & Ozzie, the hosts for our first winter house-sit.  Another British couple living in France, they own a large stone farmhouse backing on to a kiwi orchard, with the river Garonne running fast by the front – such an idyllic, rural setting.  We got our bearings of the property, learning of its idiosyncrasies, with a constantly-refilling glass in hand.  We had a wonderful dinner and chat, then relaxed into what will be our room for the duration.  Later we had a local riverside walk with Jane to help gain our bearings as Roger dealt with a last-minute plumbing issue.  With us settled in, they left early to drive back to the UK to meet up with family and together fly to Australia for Christmas.  We awoke the first day under glorious blue skies in South-west France, our home for six weeks, as the willing staff of two adorable cats.

La Reole (kiwi orchard from bedroom)

La Reole (patio with Ozzie)

There will likely be fewer posts from us over the next few months, as we’ll not be passing through interesting, beautiful places that cry out to be described or recorded, but instead living a more insular, quiet existence.  It will be more a journey of self-discovery, a personal tourism, as we adjust back to staying still and having a consistent, daily schedule as we look after pets, a home, a garden, again.  Staying in one place for a few months will also free up even more time for us to utilise, play, learn, engage with or sleep through, depending on our mood and energy levels.  We are starting our house-sits with grand plans to occupy our time; along with catching up with the many things we miss from our previous lives like gardening and cooking, we have set ourselves specific goals to fill our hours:

Physical:  Set up a daily exercise task of stretches, weights and core work, to get stronger and more flexible.  We’ll run more, longer and faster to an organised schedule, getting fitter with an eye on completing a marathon in 2018.

Mental:  Learn / improve our spoken French, spending at least a half hour (or more) talking, listening and playing app-based games, alongside listening to podcasts during exercise or walks.  And watch a few French movies too.

Musical:  Learn to play the piano.  This will be totally from scratch (for me, not Nicky), but there’s one in our second house-sit, so we have the means and opportunity – all we need is the will and dedication.  Learning to read music is also a part of this.

Culinary: Bake many various breads (and cakes), testing and learning different styles and recipes and seeing which ones are the most successful.  Tweaking and finding the best options for simple bakes in Benny when we’re back on the road.

Literary: Read lots of books not yet read, and aim to produce and develop more interesting and challenging writing pieces, rather than simple, descriptive diary-entry blog posts.  We have plenty of ideas, but no execution as yet.

Writing out these five goals, each set in a different field of study, is one small step towards making them happen.  Creating the time to undertake them, by organising two restful, relatively long-term house-sits, is the second small step on that long path.  All remaining steps will be subject to us garnering the requisite determination and resolve to use our free time productively.  Whether we manage to complete all of these self-enforced tasks, no matter how much we wish to do so, remains to be seen.

We’ll post occasional updates of our progress to help keep us honest.

A&N x

France – St-Cyprien, Belvès & Monpazier

We left the stunning Jardins de Marqueyssac and arrived in St-Cyprien, our chosen spot for a few days of, relatively, nothing.  We parked in the designated motorhome area in a large mixed parking car-park on the edge of the town, with a direct view up to the central church.  We bought a 24hr parking ticket that included usage of electricity points, so plugged in and cranked up our heating, as whilst the days were bright and clear, the nights were getting very cold.

st cyprien (benny in aire)

st cyprien (church tower)

We didn’t even manage to walk the few hundred metres into town on the first afternoon, but did visit late morning the following day, for a brief look.  We passed the church and a few pretty squares, and enjoyed the valley view from the steps leading to the hilltop cemetery.  We called into the tourist office and found a local riverside walk and decided to follow the route later when the day warmed up a little in early afternoon.  We crossed an old steel-lattice railway bridge, now a pedestrian and cycle path, across the Dordogne River and walked along the southern bank, east towards Allas-les-Mines.  We passed swans on the river, walking between strips of thin, managed woodland and along dark leafy paths, chilly without the sun.  We walked fast, with purpose, to keep ourselves warm with effort.

st cyprien (crossing old railway bridge)

st cyprien (bridges over river)

We rose steadily upwards through the trees then descended into the settlement of Allas-les-Mines, grown around a cement works that dominated the landscape and local economy.  We crossed another much smaller bridge over the river to return along the north bank, cutting through scruffy fields that looked deliberately ignored, possibly forming part of a managed defensive area to stem the river flow in times of flood.  Passing over one small hollow here we both let out a synchronised ‘woahh’ as the air temperature dropped significantly, like we’d suddenly entered a walk-in freezer.  A few steps later we returned back to normal ambient air, slightly shocked by the chilly pocket of air we’d passed through.  It had been good to get in a walk, covering around 14km on our loop.  We passed a lazy evening around the aire, listening to the ringing church bells and watching the busy flow of traffic in and out of the car-park.

st cyprien (riverside trails)

st cyprien (town vew)

With two days of doing very little happily achieved, we drove off south. Unable to stop ourselves, we soon stopped again for a town explore, parking in a designated aire that was little more than a waste ground gravel-patch with bins, and walked into the centre of Belvès.  This was to be our penultimate visit to a beau village, at least for a while.  Set on the River Nauze, the village sits elevated on the side of a small rounded hill, surrounded by hordes of chestnut trees in the valley below.  We arrived at the stone church first, then followed a casual perimeter path that allowed a wide overview.  We reached the central market square where a few stalls were still open for business, the only place that looked busy between the empty, scruffier surrounding streets. We may have been suffering from beaux villages overload, but even on this bright, blue-sky day, with the stone lit up, we saw precious little that truly inspired us.

belves (town view)

belves (market square)

Moving on ever-southward, we arrived in Monpazier and parked in the town’s free aire, set behind their salle de fêtes and fire station, very close to town.  We walked the few hundred metres into the town, entering by one of the many arched doorways through the protective perimeter wall of the bastide rectangular plan.  In 1284 King Edward I of England, also then holding the title of Duke of Aquitaine, was responsible for establishing this specific model bastide settlement we were now visiting over seven centuries later.  We reached the central market square, surrounded by its stone colonnades of low arches, definitely the town’s main attraction feature.  An ancient looking timber covered market stood tall at one corner, with the 13th century St. Dominique church set a short way behind on another.

monpazier (market square arches)

monpazier (main square)

After our visit, we spent the afternoon lazing around the aire, sketching in the sun, where the air temperature felt at least triple that of the shade.  A French van arrived later in the afternoon and, after looking around a while to choose their spot, they decided, in classic French fashion, to park on the sliver of road serving six designated spaces, blocking them all entirely should any other van arrive.  We had another walk into town after dark, to experience the market square and church façade lit up with moody, atmospheric lighting.  A week-long harvest celebration had just finished in the town the day before our arrival, but our stay over the weekend was still to prove a noisy one as the nearby party room was still in full use, finishing off all the party spirit, especially late and loud on the Saturday night.

monpazier (night shot)

monpazier (az at covered marker)

We decided to spend a second night in Monpazier, rather than move on again.  We had less than an hour to drive to our pre-arranged meeting with our house-sitting hosts, so we didn’t need to be closer.  It was a bright, clear day but very cold.  We braved the chilly air and walked around the village perimeter, this time beginning with an external loop that took in small portions of the nearby countryside on quiet roads.  We later sat at what was becoming our favourite spot, a picnic bench just outside the south façade of the city walls, near the pétanque playing areas and overlooking the yellowing, tree-covered rolling hills behind.  We passed a quieter Sunday night in Benny, reading, chatting and watching movies, feeling relaxed and rested without the all-embracing need to plan any more travels.

monpazier (church and arches)

Monpazier (n wanders streets)

Leaving Monpazier we said goodbyes to all our sight-seeing, for a little while at least, as we headed off to undertake more static responsibilities – we had two almost back-to-back house-sits arranged, to take us through Christmas and New Year, and then all the way through to March when we return to the UK for annual servicing and maintenance.  This, we hoped, was going to be a different, and warmer, winter experience in the south of France than last year’s.

France – Les Jardins de Marqueyssac

We arrived directly from our visit to La Roque-Gageac, and had a bite of lunch in their large, empty car-park as we waited with anticipation.  In winter the gardens are only open from 2pm – 5pm, so we had a short time window of opportunity for our visit.  We paid our entry fee, the first visitors of their quiet day, and walked through the small gift shop into the gardens under deep blue skies.  The warm light of the afternoon was perfect today for seeing the wondrous gardens.

Jardins de Marqueyssac (n with chateau)

Jardins de Marqueyssac (nicky with view)

Opened to the public in 1997, Les Jardins de Marqueyssac were created from over 150,000 box hedges, all delicately sculpted and tended to form intricate curves, spheres and spiral patterns.  The château sits in the heart of the main displays, but the wilder, more natural woodland stretches behind with over six kilometres of paths to wander.  We watched some hedges being diligently tended, with string lines and scissors, by the neat, careful staff, ensuring no stray twigs or leaves disturbed the complex forms.  We had seen many photos of the gardens before, but had somehow not really expected to find the same exquisite views so easily discovered and recreated.  This was one living, visual attraction that does not suffer change with the seasons, but remains a constant, evergreen landscape.

Jardins de Marqueyssac (spiral and chateau)

A small nature display and aviary form a part of the gardens, but the hedges take centre-stage.  We approached the 19th century grand château, passing by several peahens and peacocks lazily mooching around the grounds.  Some time and money has been spent on the renovation of three rooms internally, but the main focus since opening has been on the detailed restoration of the gardens.  After a leisurely look into the beautifully-presented rooms, we left by the rear door of the château to be faced with square hedges cut at various angles, like a box of giant green lego pieces had been scattered loosely in the lawn.  Nicky suggested that they looked more like enormous Weetabix.  We walked on, up a steep, cobbled path lined with lavender and sage, rising enough to now have a wonderful overview.

Jardins de Marqueyssac (chateau room)

Jardins de Marqueyssac (square hedges)

We visited the recreated skeleton of dinosaur bones found during works in the gardens, now displayed behind glass in a purpose-made pavilion.  We enjoyed extensive views from the stone wall and tiny terraces out over the Dordogne valley, soaking up the welcome heat from the afternoon sun.  Following the named ‘cliff walk’, we headed deeper into the woods, passing timber archways and steel bird sculptures.  We reached a high-railed platform, from where a Via Ferrata route around the lower cliff-face begins, accessible under a separate ticket, but it was not open at this time of year.  We passed many hanging fantastical paintings scattered around the forest trails, of fairies and elves, dragons and otherworldly scenes, that helped create a sense of magic to the simple woodland surrounds.

Jardins de Marqueyssac (feature garden)

Jardins de Marqueyssac (balls and swirls)

We saw a few wild roe deer bounce past in the extensive woodland beyond the subtle garden fencing.  We passed a wishing well and a few small waterfalls, gurgling more like a water feature in a large garden.  We reached the wide Belvédère viewpoint, a protruding balcony set 130 metres above the river, and paused here a long while to enjoy the extensive 200 degree panorama from the recently visited La Roque-Gageac right around to Beynac, another Beau Village on the horizon.  We watched large black birds circle in spirals above the valley as we breathed in the view, again smiling at our fortune of having arrived here on such a good-weather day.  We spoke briefly in French to some ladies whom we later found out were American.  Their first words spoken in English to us were an apology for Trump.

Jardins de Marqueyssac (view of la roque gageac)

Jardins de Marqueyssac (stone pavillion)

Thick moss grew haphazardly on the thatched conical roof of stone pavilions, making them blend into the thick, deep woodland setting.  Each twist of the path seemed to reveal something new, a different installation, painting or sculpture.  We reached a play area where there were ground sculptures of grotesque and comical heads, looking like they were emerging from the deep leaf cover.  Running beside and over them was a large, long tube of stretch elastic, a tunnel walkway suspended through the trees providing an interesting means of viewing the woodland spaces from above.  It was most likely meant as a play-thing for children to run through, but today it just had the big kids playing, to the humorous, head-shaking disdain of more sensible visitors who passed by.  They wished they could bounce like us.

Jardins de Marqueyssac (nicky in hedges)

Whilst we had been very lucky to have arrived on a stunningly clear blue-sky afternoon, we still felt that we would have enjoyed our time in the gardens whatever the weather.  The château was quite lovely, the shapely box-hedge displays did not disappoint, and a lack of contrasting floral colour did nothing to detract from the experience.  This was one of the very few places we have paid into where we came away thinking that they had undercharged us for the privilege of visiting – in England, the entry fee would be at least double the €9 we paid.  It felt like incredible value for the time, effort and skill displayed in the topiary displays, and was likely worth it for the hilltop setting alone, with the easy, autumnal beauty of the wide Dordogne valley sitting silently below our watchful gaze.

Jardins de Marqueyssac (valley view)

Beynac - driving through

We finally left the magical gardens and thought again of staying locally, but hadn’t been too impressed by the aire.  So we drove through the Beau Village, Beynac, under the shadow of its dominant castle, but didn’t stop to visit as we were a little jaded from the recent near-constant stream of stunning historical villages.  Instead we moved on to stay at another medieval village on the river, Saint-Cyprien.  Here we decided to stop all of our directed and deliberate sight-seeing and take a well-earned break, sitting still for a few days to properly absorb all we had recently seen.

France – Domme & La Roque-Gageac

After another night as the sole inhabitant in the lovely aire, we left leafy Groléjac and moved on, at least a little.  We drove only a few miles, on beautiful roads lined with red, yellow and orange trees flanked by burnt russet ferns.  The road steadily rose higher and the views over the countryside rose with them, on a scale of welcome beauty.  The striking drive was over much too soon, as we pulled into the almost empty aire on the outskirts of Domme.  We bought a ticket allowing us to overnight, settled on a spot, then set off under a very warm sun to explore the town.

Domme (parked in aire)

Domme (approach from aire)

Domme (town gates)

It was one of those perfect November days, with only a light flurry of white clouds tickling their way across the otherwise uniform blue sky.  The views out to the expansive Dordogne valley below were quite exceptional, lit up with autumn colours and warm stone houses.  The town sits high above a long, slow hairpin bend on the Dordogne River, the idle flow of the water looking very tempting for a swim on this sunny, bright day, although the air was sharply cold.  We could faintly see another of the French beaux villages, La Roque-Gageac far in the distance, lit up in front of tall limestone cliffs.  It was set to be a future target for our attentions, but today we would slowly wander and absorb the casual ambiance of the hillside beauty Domme.

Domme (terrace view)

Domme (walking the streets)

We walked into the main square, passing the covered market and church, before reaching a long tree-lined plaza with an ornate stone balustrade that opened out views right across the entire valley.  We lingered a while to absorb it all before walking the length of the public gardens, loving the deep contrast of the tall red-leafed trees against the clean winter sky.  There were very few other visitors to the town today, only a few local workmen digging up and repairing a tiny side street.  We walked to the defensive walls on three sides, weaving up and down the town centre, relishing each step as it led to a different perspective of the valley.  One lucky resident had a private circular château on a promontory at the end of the village, commanding expansive vistas of the valley to the south, west and north.

Domme (N and view)

Domme (boats on river)

Late in the afternoon we headed off for our second walk of the day.  We first headed back towards Domme, before dropping downhill on a steep muddy-grass path marked as a cycle route, to reach the valley floor.  We continued on to reach the tree-lined banks of the Dordogne River.  We walked through a grove of walnut trees to reach a point on the river banks where we could easily access the water, and stopped here for a while to play with our cameras and practise photography.  The flow was light close to the bank but the main body of the river was raging and bubbling.  From here we returned back up the same route and back into town.  We walked along the stone walls and through the gardens again, enjoying the differences in the valley due to the now late-afternoon light.

Domme (chateu and windmill)

Domme (aire sunset)

We saw a few more people around in late afternoon, mainly tourists taking photos, than in the morning.  The view was still utterly compelling as we found yet more routes through small squares and streets.  We approached to look at the private site on the end of the hill, noting that the quirky circular château also had a tall stone windmill, complete with timber sails, in their garden.  Each step took us deeper into the real Domme, seeing a solid, working, residential town, not just a beautiful tourist attraction.  We later returned across the hillside to the aire, satisfied we had seen most of beautiful Domme.  We were greeted by a sprawling, messy sunset on our arrival back at Benny, with deep reds and burnt oranges flickering over clouds and the silhouette of the bastide town on the near horizon.

La Roque-Gageac (overview from river)

La Roque-Gageac (town view)

The following morning we awoke to a light frost, the frosty whiteness sticking all the loose fallen leaves to the picnic table beside us.  We got moving reasonably early, with a plan to jump over to the next beau village, La Roque-Gageac, only a handful of miles along the valley floor.  We soon arrived and parked up, before walking first to the banks of the passing river to take in the wonderful reflective view of the town’s collective façade.  We slowly traced a path along the front, enjoying the setting and the stillness.  Huge rugged limestone cliffs protected the village that clung to its face from behind, and almost camouflaged it from the front.  We found a narrow, stoned path leading steeply up through the buildings, to reach a local access road behind that offered panoramic views across the valley.

La Roque-Gageac (backstreets)

La Roque-Gageac (view to river)

La Roque-Gageac (ivy doorway)

We passed tall cypress trees, fluffy pampas grass and neat timber doorways lined with red ivy, leading into stone houses balanced on the steep slopes.  We saw a church, a château, several circular corner turrets on ivy-covered buildings made from the same stone as the cliff.  The clear day gave us exceptional views along the river in both directions, and back to Domme, sat high on the hillside. We reached the Hogwarts-looking school at the end of town and returned slowly along the pretty front, between the main façade and the fast-flowing Dordogne River.  The village setting was quite spectacular and we never tired of looking at it under the hazy glow of the morning sun.

La Roque-Gageac (river facade)

We backtracked a little to the village of Cénac, to buy some bread for lunch, before returning back through La Roque-Gageac and beyond, to have a look at a nearby aire.  It was €15, sparse and right on the road, so we decided to push on a little further rather than lingering in this valley.  It was still early and we had not moved far, only a few miles, so felt we should go further.  Besides, we still had one more place to visit today – Les jardins de Marqueyssac.  

France – Groléjac & Sarlat-la-Canéda

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.

Carsacaillac (abbey building)

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.

Carsacaillac (town streets)

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.

Grolejac - free aire

Grolejac (riverbank and bridge)

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.

Grolejac (dordogne valley)

Grolejac (az with bridge)

Grolejac (coppices)

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.

Sarlat-la-caneda (n on bridge)

Sarlat-la-caneda (n on vioe verte)

Sarlat-la-caneda (bikes at rest)

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.

Sarlat-la-caneda (main square buildings)

Sarlat-la-caneda (specialist shops)

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.

Sarlat-la-caneda (central square)

Sarlat-la-caneda (leafy cycle path)

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.