Saturday, 2 July 2005
Distance 17 km
Duration 3 hours 25 minutes
Ascent 345 m, descent 191 m
Map 48 of the TOP 100 blue series (now superseded)
For lack of a convenient table, we decided to set off unfed and look for a pleasant spot for breakfast along the way. We were no longer on the GR, because we wanted to cast an eye over famous Sarlat.
On the bridge was another memorial to a victim of the German retreat, some poor young fellow caught halfway over the river.
We ended up walking the whole four kilometres to la Roque-Gagnac before we found a good place to stop. The village crouched between the cliffs and the river, consisting of a one-sided street and a few lanes straggling up steeply. With the water just over the low stone wall, it it had the feeling of a seaside fishing village.
After our token bowl of muesli sitting on the wall beside a moored boat, we walked the length of the town looking for a boulangerie, which was of course at the extreme far end.
Here we got a bag of absurdly large pastries and the information that a great heatwave was coming.
In a gravel courtyard full of flowers, we demolished the pastries with our morning coffee. Then once more along the esplanade, we turned uphill into a thick, shadowy forest. The small road rose gently and merged with another one almost as quiet.
We looked in vain for the dolmen that was marked on the map, but could only see a huge lopsided slab beside the road. If that was it, it was singularly devoid of signs.
For the last part of our walk we had to go on the main road, which was fairly unpleasant, as it was getting hotter by the minute and we were amongst factories and car yards.
But before we could complain too much we came to the first of the stalls of the huge Sarlat market, which by good fortune was on today (as it is every Wednesday and Saturday). The whole of the central town was packed with umbrella-shaded stalls with all the usual local produce and all the usual tourist junk.
A moving mass of humanity circulated and a great deal of English was being spoken. We struggled to the Office of Tourism and found out the at the nearest camping ground was less than a kilometre away, and in the direction of tomorrow’s walk, all good news.
Sarlat must be one of the few places in the world whose population now is almost the same as it was a thousand years ago, namely about 9,000. A Benedictine abbey was established there in Carolingian times and the village grew up around it.
In later centuries, according to something we read, Sarlat came to play a particular role when the Vikings were causing grief to the towns along the Dordogne. Viking boats were capable of penetrating far inland on the broad rivers of the south-west, and nowhere on the river was safe from attack. However, messages could be sent to Sarlat, several miles out of reach of the marauders, and soldiers would arrive to repel the boats or break up a siege.
For the day’s second round of coffee, we jammed into an outdoor bar in a lane beside the church, and fell into conversation with the woman at the next table. She said she was a resident of Sarlat, although she had recently moved from Birmingham and seemed to have no knowledge of French. Perhaps it is not necessary in this most tourist-prone of villages. The locals must wonder whether this English invasion is another Hundred Years’ War by stealth.
We retired to a grassy slope behind the church to eat our lunch. Above us in the graveyard was a Lantern of the Dead, a strange conical tower with slits at the top through which light spilled out to guide the souls of the recently departed. These structures are hardly seen outside of the west of France.
When we came down to the town again, the market was dissolving into the backs of trucks, leaving the streets and squares to their normal graceful austerity.
After sending an email, we pushed off up a steep street to the camping ground. It was a four-star establishment with prices to match (€19.20, a record), and it had both an indoor and an outdoor pool, plus a tennis court, none of which we used.
The only thing we needed was a soft, level piece of ground for our tent, and we had to move three times before we found anything approximating it. We were sorry we had no swimmers, as it was not the sort of place where undergarments would be tolerated in the pool.
As the hot sun lessened its grip, we walked back to the grand main square, the Place de la Liberté, for an apéritif.
It was a beautiful spacious place lined with cafés, and there was an enclosed halle at one side with the biggest doors we had ever seen, great Gothic iron things, as if they had a Jumbo jet stored there.
For dinner we went up some lanes to la Bediane, where tables were set out in a shaded terrace against an old stone wall. It was a more ambitious menu than we normally encountered, and they did not stoop to house wine so we had a half-bottle.
We started with two specialities of the region, foie gras and a salad of gésiers, which tastes better not translated (it is gizzard salad). Both were very fine.
Then Keith had cassoulet, the best he had ever had, and I had a fillet with truffle sauce and potatoes Sarladaises. The third course was a little goat’s cheese on a bed of lettuce, and to finish we had crème caramel and coffee.
We sauntered off to bed well content.