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France – Christmas in Paris (mini-break Part 2)

<post continued from Paris Part 1 >

Day 3 – South of the River

Tired from our first two days exploring, we were late waking, having slept nearly 10 hours. We must have been properly exhausted, a body and mind overload. We walked south from the campsite, passing a hippodrome flanked by a closed tarmac road inundated by keen cyclists and runners. We caught the metro from Boulogne – Pont de Saint-Cloud to the end of the line at Gare d’Austerlitz and began the long walk back west. We first reached the Jardins des Plantes, adjacent to the Natural History Museum. The grounds were filled with large, wildly colourful and exuberant animal models that brought instant smiles to our faces. Walking here was such a different experience from other places in Paris, one of simple, childlike joy, a haven from the busy roads and towering architecture.

Paris (natural history museum)

Paris (garden bears)

Paris (giant turtle)

We lingered under the warm morning sky, enjoying each vibrant display. There were large groups of students being corralled into the museum as we passed, likely on a school outing. We passed through the inflated body of a huge shark marking the entrance to the adjacent zoo, it reminding us of silly sentences from learning French on DuoLingo such as “Le loup mange le requin”- when could I ever use that, really? We exited the park by a large brightly-tiled mosque and continued on to reach the impressive monolith of the Panthéon in the nearby Latin Quarter. We ate snacks amongst the chatting students lounging and lunching on elaborate timber benches. I eavesdropped on their loud conversations, catching less than a tenth of the words, making me wonder if I’ll ever get a proper hold on the language.

Paris (student area seating)

Paris (pantheon)

We dropped down a the hill towards Le Jardin du Luxembourg, but found ourselves distracted by a display of large, beautiful photos of polar regions that lined the boundary fencing to the park. We followed this exhibition right around the perimeter, loving the poignant quality of the work and dreaming of a return to the wilds of Greenland. Some day. We finally entered Le Jardin du Luxembourg adjacent to the palace, stopping first to glance at a formal pond and grotto. The sky was back to a glorious blue and it was warm in direct sun, so we sat a while at the edge of the gardens and enjoyed a bout of people-watching. It was a welcome oasis away from the crowded bustling streets, and these restful moments revived us for more exploring. We cut across the sparse gardens, heading north into the fray once more.

Paris (resting in Luxembourg gardens)

Paris (place saint sulpice)

Our route north took us through Place Saint-Sulpice to reach another pocket of colourful Christmas Markets in the plaza outside Saint Germain des Prés church. Here we bought some vin chaud to warm our hands as we lazily browsed the stalls. We returned to the banks of the Seine and walked along, passing the Musie d’Orsay, before reaching Passerelle Léopold Sédar Senghor, a bridge replete with love locks, conveniently sold by all the local hawkers. There were many thousands of locks, each with a name or message added to symbolise a thought, love or connection. The idea could be seen as either deeply symbolic and profound or as credulously trite, wasteful littering, depending on your given mood or perspective. But it certainly didn’t seem to be lessening in popularity over time.

Paris (louvre from bridge)

Paris (Wall of peace)

From here we crossed to Tuileries gardens and sat for lunch overlooking the manic traffic wildness of the Place de la Concorde. Huge numbers of blue flashing lights roared past, and we wondered if the Gilets Jaunes had begun protesting again nearby. We crossed back south of river, across stalled traffic, to reach Les Invalides and the École Militaire, and then approached the Tour Eiffel from the south. We made our way through the busy crowds to Trocadéro where we enjoyed the raised, expansive view as we awaited dusk falling and the turning on of lights. This was to be our last magnificent view of central Paris from this trip, a fitting memory for our short days here. Tired, we again caught the Metro back to Pont de Neuilly after dark, then undertook our now usual walk back to the campsite.

Paris (spproaching tour Eiffel)

Paris (eiffel tower panorama)

These two posts on Paris read like a Bret Easton Ellis novel, the long lists of places we visited like the detailed musings of Patrick Bateman. It’s difficult to step back and find a way to encapsulate the trip beyond the obvious linear diary approach. When you factor in the constant stimulation of culture, history, architecture, lights, smells and sounds, it takes a long time for the brain to fully process the experience and then recreate some order from the constant movement and delightful chaos. We walked 23km on our third day – it’s a huge city, and we only saw a small portion of it. Even utilising a pack of ten metro tickets (€14.90 for 10), we covered 64 kilometres on foot over the course of our three days. City breaks, at least the way we always seem to do them, are more exhausting than hiking mountains.

A&N x

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France – Christmas in Paris (mini-break Part 1)

Day 1 – Arrival, La Défense & Tour Eiffel

After a hectic morning packing session, we left La Jourdanie in good spirits for our drive north.  We followed the A20 for hours, skirting around Châteauroux and Vierzon.  We swapped to the parallel D-road to avoid motorway tolls and later stopped briefly in an aire in Theillay for lunch. We swapped drivers and Nicky faced the first proper traffic as we reached the southern outskirts of Orléans.  We crawled through the centre, paying the price for avoiding tolls, and made our way to the town of Angerville to overnight by their stadium.  We were stopping an hour or so short of Paris so we could arrive early in the morning and have that day for exploring. We slowly walked around Angerville to stretch our legs.  A few late arriving lorries naughtily parked up near us, in a zone clearly marked as max. 3.5t, disrupting our otherwise quiet overnight stay.  We headed off early for the last hour or so into Paris.

Paris - (la defense display)

Paris - (approaching la defense)

We must credit Ju & Jay at OurTour for seeding the idea; we’d read their blog post on visiting Paris and we thought it would work for us to pop up for the Christmas markets.  Under six hours driving for a classic city break – why not?  We arrived in the Le Camping Paris (AKA Indigo Paris) campsite before 10am and had no hassles checking in early.  We arrived under blue skies but facing down a biting wind that whipped heat away from any exposed skin.  The only downside was that the usual navette was not running, so we had to walk directly from the campsite each day.  We headed first to La Défense, crossing a wide bridge to a long island and then on to the opposite side of the Seine.  On the main boulevard in the shadow of the Grande Arche we found a huge Christmas market with a vast array of stalls, incredibly busy with lunching workers.  We browsed the goods, smelled the foods and absorbed the atmosphere.

Paris - (nicky and grand arch)

Paris - (aaron at grand arch)

Paris - (la defense plaza and markets)

Security was tight, with intermittent bag checks and armed soldiers patrolling the perimeter.  It had only been a few days since the deadly attack at a Christmas market in Strasbourg, so the alert level was justifiably high.  Everyone seemed relaxed though, so the atmosphere was unaffected.  We ate lunch on the steps of the Grande Arche, sheltered a little from the wind and overlooking the lively markets, the vista stretching all the way to the distant Arc de Triomphe.  We watched runners threading themselves through the crowds and this seeded another idea for later. We returned through Puteaux, passing a cute kiddy Christmas display, then followed the western bank of the Seine south.  We saw the campsite across the river where we could spot Benny before reaching the next bridge to return.

Paris - (run into the city)

Paris - (riverside run)

With 10km of walking already in our legs, we sipped a cup of warming tea to recuperate.  Then we changed clothes and headed  back out to face the cold, this time for a run.  We headed through long stretches of woodland, crossing busy roads and along bustling city streets to reach the glorious sight of the iconic Eiffel Tower.  We approached along the river from the south, through a fairground and masses of tat-selling hawkers.  Here we were surprised to find new glass security barriers surrounding the perimeter of the tower that were not in place last time we visited (over 8 years ago, for my 35th birthday – time flies!)  A sad but likely necessary installation, reflective of the times we live in. There were long queues to enter the tower or the restaurant, with slow security checks, so we instead continued our run around the bare gardens.  More armed soldiers passed as we stopped to pose for obligatory tourist photographs.

Paris - (run past eiffel tower)

We happily walked a little, to better enjoy the crowds and buzzing atmosphere.  So many touts were selling the same tacky plastic pieces, flashing Eiffel Towers in all colours or gaudy keyrings, 5 for €1.  With our iconic jaunt complete, we returned through busy shopping streets, skipping past distracted shoppers and dodging a multitude of the powered scooters that seemed prevalent in the city.  Above us the skies dulled and clouded over as the sun dropped, sucking all the light from the day.  Light had faded to a low grey as we crossed the woodland to return to Benny.  We had completed a fully enjoyable 13km run, and just in time as the rains started for the night.  After long, wonderfully hot campsite showers, we wrapped up warmly and prepared a tasty dinner, contented with our first day in Paris.

Day 2 – North of the River

Paris - (louis vuitton foundation)

We awoke to the continued pitter-patter of rain on our roof, so indulged ourselves in a lazy breakfast of croissants and jam before leaving around 10.30am when the rains had stopped.  We walked north through the woodland, spotting flocks of bright green parrots in the bare trees, to reach the Louis Vuitton foundation.  This building was another Frank Gehry creation, and there were large crowds queueing at security checks to enter.  We walked around the perimeter, taking in the hypnotically constant flow of cascading waves that dropped down a long, wide staircase to a shallow reflecting pool.  We soon reached the metro station at Les Sablons and travelled 14 stops east to Bastille. The trains bore a strong similarity to London.  During the journey we did some back-of-a-napkin math and realised Nicky had sat on tube trains, from her days working in London, for more than a full month of her life.

Paris - (hotel de ville)

Paris - (notre dame)

We alighted and soon were walking through wide Parisian streets full of life, glittering Christmas lights and elegant people.  We passed a long line of nursery school kids, walking hand in hand, all adorned in fluorescent yellow bibs that made us think of the Gilets Jaunes and how they were starting their protesting young these days.   We followed side streets with attractive new shops and tiny stores hosting chaotic ancient trades, cobblers and tailors with shop interiors straight out of Harry Potter. We passed large groups of chattering students, looking much too young to be at university – we’re definitely getting old.  We soon arrived at the main Hôtel De Ville for Paris, a towering, decorative Neo-Classical building.  It was mostly inaccessible, surrounded by Christmas trees and tall metal fencing.

Paris - (notre dame and seine)

Paris - (shakesphere bookshop)

We crossed the Seine to Île de la Cité and joined the crowds admiring the façade of Notre Dame cathedral.  We watched over made-up girls take turns photographing each other, posing on tall bollards like catwalk models.  We crossed the river again to the south, to visit Shakespeare and Co. Bookshop, its aged shelves heavy with books.  The layout was all nooks and crannies and soft seating, indulgent and comfortable even when overcrowded with other bibliophiles; a wonderful place to browse.  We ate lunch back on the island, viewing Notre Dame and dodging pigeons, before heading back north then west along the Seine to Pont Neuf.   We slowly browsed the green market stalls that lined the banks selling books, art and tourist trinkets, considering a few sketches to decorate our walls.

Paris - (aaron at louvre)

Paris - (nicky at louvre)

We arrived at the rear elevation of the Louvre and sneaked through a small passage into a grand empty courtyard and then into the main plaza featuring  I.M.Pei’s iconic pyramidal entrance.  With no plans to enter we were simply enjoying the ambiance.  The reflection pools and dancing fountains had been drained for winter and the plaza was definitely worse for the loss.  We turned north to Palais Royal and along the diagonal to Opéra, it dripping with gold and colour.  We reached Place Vendôme, an impressive square bursting with expensive designer stores. All streets were full of top-end brands, with minimalist displays of pricey coveted goods, three staff members to each customer and private security on each door.  The roads were stuffed with chauffeured cars delivering rich patrons into roped off spaces.  We felt out of place in the lavish, almost vulgar, display of riches, so we dipped into a surprise find on the street – a Decathlon store – for quiet reflection.

Paris - (Opera house facade)

After, we sat on the steps of Madeleine church staring at the obelisk in the Place de la Concorde as we planned our next move.  We decided that would be a metro up to Montmartre and a visit to Sacre Coeur.  We soon alighted at Abbesses station and chose to climb the stairs over joining a queue for lifts, and 144 steps later my overused legs were not thanking me for that decision.  Outside we found cute timber market stalls, thick with wonderful Christmas smells, leading on to many more upward steps.  We shunned the funicular and walked up long flights to reach the first main platform, before turning for our reward – a stunning panorama over all of central Paris.  We stood and stared, picking out monuments and spotting buildings we’d visited.  It was a sharp, clear day, a perfect vista of Paris.

Paris - (view from sacre coeur)

After another security check to enter the Sacre Coeur, we sat a moment on hard wooden pews and absorbed the painted ceiling of the church’s domed ceiling in welcome quiet.  Then we continued into the heart of Montmartre, where we bought a small metal tray, just the right size for two cups of tea, that will act as a small daily reminder of our Paris trip.  We browsed the many artists’ varied work in a cobbled square lined with cafés and bars, enjoying the soulful ambience. We then picked out one restaurant from many and feasted on three courses alone in their warm interior, as all other customers felt compelled to shiver their way through their food at the outside tables.

Paris - (Nicky at Sacre coeur)

When we extracted ourselves, night had fallen and everything was lit up.  It began spitting with light rain as a talented busker sang Purple Rain to the crowds. The tat-hawkers were packing up, desperate for last sales. One guy follows me closely and, despite my polite but firm ‘non’ he continues to aggressively push his goods.  He then harshly grabs my wrist and refuses to let go, until I finally protest very loudly in colourful language. The possibility of drawing the attention of one of the nearby security guards leads him to scarper away, but also left me wondering what terrible, indentured slave-like contract he might be locked into to drive such desperation. It must be a miserable, sad life, and I immediately felt guilty for my dismissive impatience, even if his chosen sales technique was threatening and invasive.

Paris - (montmartre artists)

We fell downhill through more crowded markets and brightly lit shops to reach a large boulevard.  We followed this to Pigalle metro, where, before descending, we could see the lights of the Moulin Rouge beyond.  We caught the metro to Pont de Neuilly and walked the long road back to our campsite on low lit, very busy, urban roads, passing a large tent complex where Circus du Soliel were performing.   Even with liberal use of the metro we had walked over 18km around the Parisian streets  – an exhausting day.

A&N x

< Part 2 to follow >

France – Agen, Pujols & around

An update on our activities over the past few weeks during our house-sit in Cazeneuve.

It’s been around three weeks since our last blog post, and we’ve been keeping busy, but not in adventurous ways that we feel are worth sharing more regularly.  Our days are full with learning, activity and exercise, with the odd venture out to visit a local town.

Agen (back on the Garonne)

Recently we had one such day-trip out to visit Agen, our closest city.  First we swam a steady 2km in their wonderful 50m competition pool, before finding a spot to park on the riverside and walking into the centre.  We passed under vast rows of pollarded plane trees set in the riverside park, their gnarled white branches contrasted heavily against the uniform blue sky, like arthritic knuckles reaching into the void.  We wandered through tight medieval streets and the modern, wide pedestrianised centre, enjoying the sights and the buildings of Agen in bright sunshine.  The cafés were bustling with people and we were immediately impressed with what the busy town had to offer.

Agen (pollarded trees)

One morning we decided on a leisurely cycle, a wide triangle on a voie verte taking in Villeneuve-sur-Lot, Casseneuil and Sainte-Livrade-sur-Lot.  The air was a cold 4 degrees, and we wrapped up well before we headed up over the hill, a steady 2km long climb that led into a flat ridge cycle before being followed by a fantastic flowing descent of 5km.  We picked up the voie verte heading north and arrived in the medieval centre of Casseneuil a few easy kilometres later.  After a short explore, we headed south along the banks of the river to Liverade and through, back over the hill again to home.  We later discovered on our return that we had lost our camera somewhere on the cycle, it having jostled its way out of a side pocket, unknown to us.  After a thorough search of the house we concluded it was definitely missing, but outside had turned from borderline sunny to a grey, sodden deluge in that time, so we didn’t venture out to look.

The next morning we visited the Mairie in Allez-et-Cazeneuve and the Hôtel-de-Ville in Liverade to report our missing camera in the hope some kind citizen may hand it in.  We also left a note at the central police station, but they had very little interest in our petite drama.  After we reported the camera, we then ran the last 11km of the track we had cycled home the day before, in two portions, checking along the verge, ditches and hedges for any sign of it, but to no avail.  We can only hope it was swept up by someone walking along the path before the previous night’s deluge and that they will hand it in next time they are in town (perhaps next Friday, on market day), but we’re not holding our breath for it to reappear.  It’s always disappointing to lose photos of a good day, along with our well-used and loved compact camera.

Cazeneuve (enjoying a window of sun)

Cazeneuve (veg patch weeding)

We are passing our days in generally similar ways, with a welcome routine of reading, exercise and rest.  We have a few hours of French most mornings.  We watched the opening weekend of the Six Nations snuggled up with a few beers, content that both our teams got off to a winning start even if Ireland left it very late to nick it from the French. We had a not entirely awful go at archery in the garden.  We played a few games of table-tennis and pétanque, had a few pool swims, a couple of cycles and runs, and have pottered in the garden, between rain storms.  We’ve been visited by both le chien noir and la chienne rouge.  Below is my (corrected) French homework story that tells a little more of how we spent our week, should you be interested.  The dreaded green pen wielded by our tutor Rebecca did not get its fullest workout this week, so something must be improving in my French-feeble mind.  Peut-être.

Cazeneuve - French homework

This week, rather than our usual Tuesday morning swim, we awoke to a bright, clear sky and decided to postpone for a day and undertake a long local walk instead.  We drove a short distance to Lacépède and followed the marked trail out of the completely dead village, through sleeping plum trees and empty, ploughed fields.  The path was thick with leaves and mud after the recent rains, and was difficult to progress on.  Being so muddy underfoot made the hilly portions tricky and sliding, but we squished around 11km of lovely rolling countryside with no sign of anyone else.  We reached a small reservoir with bird-watching huts and some interesting, colourful sign-boards describing the lives of local bees that we photographed to fully translate later in our next ‘French hour’.  We arrived back in the village just as the rains began to fall, followed closely by a wandering dog who seemingly wanted to be our very best friend.

Lacepede (church on route)

Lacepede (forest rrails)

After one pool swim, we finally drove up and visited the medieval centre of the nearby village of Pujols.  We had often looked at it from the comfort of the large Jacuzzi bath post-swim, but had as yet not ventured up the hill.  We had left it long enough since our last beaux village visit to regain the excitement and interest of a new place, and were pleasantly surprised by its neatness and beauty.  The sun appeared for a few moments, lighting up Villeneuve-sur-Lot below and the white stone façades of the ancient streets, giving it a wonderful glow.  We saw the church, the covered marketplace, the detailed model of the town in the tourist office, the truncated once-circular well-stone now cut back to a semi-circle to allow vehicles to pass, the remains of the original ramparts and finally la porte des Anglais, the English Gate, named for the route the English soldiers fled along from a lost battle during the Hundred Years’ War.  We passed through it too before making our escape from the frigid, icy air back to the car and home.

Pugols (viewpoint)

Pugols (a in main square)

Recently, the days had been sharper, fresher, colder than before, with a deeper mud grey blanket of cloud spread across the sky.  Twice we have had a light falling of tiny flakes of snow, forced out of the chilled clouds with obvious reluctance, not at all like the proper snow we have been reading about back in the UK.  For a few quiet moments it was beautifully still and tiny white flakes swayed gently in the air, glistening with reflected light and looking quite magical.  Then as quickly as they appeared they have gone, but the chilly, biting air remains.  Several times we have stood outside for a few long moments reflecting on the changing moods of the days and weather, taking in deep red, moody sunsets, before scampering back into the comforting warmth of the awaiting boulangerie for some warming tea.

A&N x

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.

France – Rocamadour and the GR6

Leaving our misty valley view in Autoire, we first stopped at services at nearby Gramat to fill up with fresh water.  It was the time of year taps were beginning to be turned off, for fear of freezing, so we filled up when we could.  A quick supermarket stop and we were all fully set, so we headed out along the pretty country roads towards Rocamadour.

Rocamadour (misty start)

Rocamadour (church buildings)

We arrived at the large car-park at the top of the hill, by the terminal of the funicular that carries visitors down the mountain.  After a little deliberation on whether the aire was actually open, we parked up alone in the huge gravel area by the closed campsites and readied ourselves for exploring.  We first walked to the château, then the cross at the top of the cliff, before starting down the stone paths leading to the medieval town.  The winding hairpin route was slippery with the build-up of wet fallen leaves and we had to be rather careful, so made slow progress.  Each corner turn had an icon for pilgrims to view or rest at as they passed, and one expansive plateau between two paths housed an area of intricately carved columns with decorative statuary, all seemingly created out of the cliff face.

Rocamadour (cliff tombs)

Rocamadour (buildings)

Dropping down quickly under the cover of yellowed trees, we soon arrived at the Sanctuary of the Blessed Virgin Mary and its complex maze of ancillary buildings, all built on or into the cliff face.  This was a 12th century Benedictine community precariously perched on the face of the cliff, about halfway up, with the community village below.  We could just see the Alzou river, flowing between limestone cliffs over 120 metres high, between the red-amber foliage of the blanket of overhanging valley trees. Long, straight runs of carved stone steps led us on, ever downwards.  When we reached the village at the bottom of the cliff, it was almost entirely empty, the early hour and the dour weather having scared off all but the most dedicated tourists.  We walked the length of the narrow, winding main street, far enough to see the tall château, built to help defend the sanctuary, balanced on the high plateau of the rocky cliff behind.

Rocamadour (valley view)

GR6 – walk

More dull drizzle welcomed us on Sunday morning, lightly tapping on Benny’s roof.  After a slow start to see if the inclement weather would clear, we noticed a slight brightening and finally decided to get on with our day and go explore beyond Rocamadour town.  With our walking boots and waterproofs on, we headed off feeling sure we would spend a good portion of the day getting wet.  We enjoyed re-visiting the beautiful tree-lined hairpin decent past the château and down towards the medieval town.  We passed through the stone tunnel and the grounds of the sanctuary church complex built up against the rock face, before descending the main stone stairway to reach the edge of town.  From here we headed west out of town on the well-marked Grand Randonnee 6, or GR6 for short.  This dedicated walking route was to be our main companion for the day, through the beautiful valley forests.

Rocamadour (arch at end of town)

Gouffre de Saint Sauveur (autumn)

Our spirits were lifted by the beauty of the autumnal leaves on the many trees lining the valley floor and sides of this limestone gorge.  Our route along the gorge’s valley floor curved in harmony with our neighbour, the meandering L’Alzou river.  We followed an easy trail through intensely beautiful scenery, even when viewed through the persistent drizzle.  This led us first to a deep sink hole, named le Gouffre de Cabouy, where several dry-suited divers were preparing to descend into the passageways below.  This over-ground limestone gorge covers a network of many underground caverns and connected stretches of labyrinthine tunnels. We continued around the edges of the blue pool and onwards to our planned destination of le Gouffre de Saint Sauveur, a stunning swim spot recommended in our Wild Swimming France book.

Gouffre de Saint Sauveur (arrival)

Gouffre de Saint Sauveur (sinkhole)

The promise of crystal clear, azure water on a warm sunny summer day was conjured up easily in our minds, but on this damp November day, although pretty with the autumn colours of the surrounding woodland blanketing its high cauldron backdrop, the pool was slightly lacklustre in comparison to the one of our imaginations.  The surface was partially covered with algae and fallen leaves, so neither the depth of colour nor visibility was pristine. There were canyon divers here too, their presence foretold by giveaway bubbles, and we sat and ate some snacks as we waited for them to slowly resurface from the blue depths.  Once they had waddled out in their fins and returned to their cars, we had the pool entirely to ourselves, and Nicky prepared herself for a dip.  I opted out for once, becoming the designated towel-holder and cameraman as Nicky wriggled into her swimsuit and rash vest and slowly eased her feet along the gradually sloping sandy bottom to reach the blue water of the deeper part of the pool.

Gouffre de Saint Sauveur (ready for swim)

Gouffre de Saint Sauveur (in the sink)

Nicky reports:  So many times we’ve visited a place in winter months and have agreed how lovely the place would be in the summer; here was no exception.  Yet visual beauty was only one way to seduce your senses.  After a summer of enjoying many Scandinavian swims, whether wetsuit or birthday suit, quick dip or lengthy training swim, it had been a long while since we had been immersed.  When swimming skins on a cool, wet November day you anticipate the biting temperature of the water grabbing your skin and enveloping you in a tightly-hugging chill.  This somewhat sadistic feeling is ultimately invigorating, refreshing and pleasurable all at once, a nerve-tingling thrill and a sensory overload.  It’s even more special when coupled with a deep natural pool in rural French countryside, surrounded by overhanging autumnal trees, reached by a lovely, lingering 7km hike.  All other thoughts in your mind are banished as the enlivening feeling from the cold water accompanies you in a tranquil cocooning haven; a special moment.

Rocamadour (on the GR6 path)

With Nicky dried off and suitably re-clothed, we returned by the same path back to Rocamadour.  The winter scenery continued to impress through a dull light drizzle that turned into a heavy deluge seconds after we made it back to Benny.  Happy to have made something of an otherwise washout of a day we snuggled cosily inside, content with our efforts, and enjoyed many cups of warming tea.  It would have been so easy to stay in and miss out on creating this wonderful memory.