ON warm sunny days the canoe and kayak traffic on Dordogne river in France’s Perigord Noir is so cluttered that English tourists call it the M25.
Thousands of fibreglass craft jockeying for clear water remind the visitors of the clogged and creaking motorway that orbits London – but still they willingly grab their paddles to join the masses.
Paddling the 20-kilometre stretch of river between Montfort and Beynac is one of the must-do activities when visiting this rural pocket in south-west France, home of foie gras and truffles and riddled with limestone caves that were once home to prehistoric man.
The river is wide and gentle, and where they haven’t been cleared for plantations of maize, walnuts or tobacco the forests come down to the water’s edge. Idyllic campgrounds with rolling lawns and ice-cream stands appear at sensible intervals. The medieval villages of
La Rocque-Gageac and Beynac, proud and scrubbed, sit on the river’s edge tucked into the limestone cliffs, and half a dozen chateaus – some well fortified – sit above the river offering imperious views.
Rival canoe hire operators get very protective of their stretch of the river. The best tip is to find an operator downstream who will drop you and your canoe upstream. Hire the canoe for the day then all you need do is float down with the current, stopping off wherever your fancy takes you.
We slipped into the river just above the bridge at Vitrac and by the time we reached the cliffs beneath the ancient walled city of Domme a few kilometres downriver we had more or less mastered our craft. Handily so as we needed to evade a fleet of French schoolchildren apparently restaging the Battle of Trafalgar.
There’s a chapter of French history to be found at every reach of the river.
Domme, 150 metres above the river is protected by high ramparts and massive gates. From its market square steps lead down to its own subterranean cave. The walls of its tiny prison still bear the graffiti left behind by the Knights Templar imprisoned then executed there in 1307 after falling foul of the French king and the Catholic church. It’s a fair climb from the river to the town’s battlements but the view is worth the effort.
The practical site for a lunch break is La Rocque-Gageac, the storybook village of tan stone houses overshadowed by limestone cliffs which lays tourist-brochure claim to be the most beautiful village in France. Hauling our canoes on to the grassy banks near the wharf we crossed the road to sample the fare at the town patisserie, taking care to avoid trucks and buses negotiating the single-lane road through the village.
A few more kilometres down river the dramatic shape of Castelnaud castle looms, red banners flying from the parapets to welcome tourists inside its massive walls. It wasn’t always so peaceful. The barons of Castelnaud supported the unpopular English during the Hundred Years War from the mid 1300s to the mid 1400s, during which the castle changed hands seven times, and then they backed the outnumbered Protestants during the wars of religion soon afterwards.
Today Castelnaud castle houses a grand museum of medieval weaponry and stages holiday activities for children. The village that grew outside the walls under protection of the castle is home to several hundred people who make a living servicing the new invaders. From the castle ramparts it’s possible to see upriver as far as Domme and down to Beynac castle, and in either direction there’s hundreds and hundreds of canoes.
Across the river from Castelnaud a chateau offering peace and afternoon tea is worth another stop. Built on the crest of the cliff, Marqueyssac with its remarkable hanging gardens is a popular day out for local families. The chateau’s grounds occupy an entire ridge, offering many kilometres of forest trails, spectacular views, children’s playground and, best of all, a garden comprising thousands of box hedge bushes individually clipped and carved.
Back on the water it’s not far to Beynac castle, the other great fortified chateau in the valley. The river provided something of a no-man’s land during the Hundred Years War when France and England battled for control of the French throne. Beynac was loyal to the French forces and kept a permanent and hostile eye on the traitors at Castelnaud.
For the visitor, Beynac castle is stark and cold, however it was one of the last places English king Richard the Lionheart was held hostage in 1194 before his subjects raised the massive ransom to free him from France.
At Beynac the river narrows and in the early afternoon it may just be possible to cross the river walking on canoes without getting one’s feet wet so great is the jam. We figured it was probably time to ship our paddles and head into the village for refreshment. There is, though, one final chateau on this stretch of river with a curious history.
Les Milandes, a kilometre or so downriver from Beynac, was built in 1489 by the owner of Castlenaud as a more comfortable home for his wife. Like most grand houses, its upkeep was costly and it was almost derelict when bought by US jazz singer and dancer Josephine Baker in 1947. Famous for her erotic dancing in the nightclubs of 1930s Paris, Baker retired to the Dordogne to raise her “rainbow tribe” of children she adopted from all over the world. The current owners have developed a small display paying homage to Baker and her tribe and welcome in visitors.
There are other stretches of the Dordogne and other rivers in the Perigord Noir where its possible to go canoeing, and all have their tales to tell. Those passing through need to build a day on the river into their itinerary.
But in high season, don’t expect to be there alone.