Debra's Diary September 2008  ~ We flew to to Bordeaux and hired a car to get to our base in the Lot Department of southern France.  I have spent very little time in France, and despite doing the obligatory seven years of French at school, have retained very little of the language, so I was a bit more dependent on Dave this trip.  He camped and drove about the Continent with his late first wife and their girls, whereas I went to Germany and then the US with my late first husband, so I had to bow (reluctantly) to his superior knowledge.  We did struggle a bit, English wasn't widely spoken - despite the Brit enclave in the nearby Dordogne - but with hand signals, Franglais and German we managed to arrange taxis to pick us up from the end of our daily walks and eat.

We had lovely weather, and the walking was a real pleasure.  As usual, we saw very few other people on our rambles and the villages and countryside were sleepy in the hazy sunshine.  Armed with good maps, we found the trails very well marked and the going was pretty easy in the main.  We started at the bastide town of Bretenoux, which is a town with a medieval heart on the busy D803 and soon struck off up the hill in the direction of Château de Castelnau. It really was perfect walking weather - no wind at all and no humidity.  We meandered across the Bave valley which is very rural; most of the farms and houses had at least a few rows of grapes tucked away somewhere. The Château was a quirky place; triangular in shape to fit the hill it was built on, but very interesting in its history.  From the original Barons of Castelnau who dominated the valley, it ended up in the hands of a Comique Opèra tenor and his wife who devoted themselves to preserving the castle. You can tour the interior, which is fascinating with relics of this would-be baron abounding.  This region is Quercy, the original name for the Department, and the castle gives you a feel for the times it lived through - the Hundred Years War, the religious wars between the Huegenot and the Catholics; when the English and the French fought and died in the quiet fields that surround the elevated castle. 

We walked on across the valley, and I was amused to note that tobacco is grown and dried here; somehow I always think of tobacco as growing on far off plantations.  Although we always carry water with us, I will never pass up the chance to purchase an ice-cold beer (and you can usually use the loo then as well), and we stopped in immaculate Autoire for a rest.  This village is one of the plus belle villages in France, and is terribly picturesque and very traditional with typical Quercynois architecture.  I love the slightly run-down aspect of France; they will let a building fall to bits, but by placing a vibrant geranium or other plant artistically, somehow it all looks rather meant-to-be and you forgive them.  Autoire is not very big and we set off again, refreshed, towards the steep climb we knew we had to reach the top of the Circque de Autoire and walk on the Causse de Gramat.  It's a limestone cliff and there is no way round it - you go up.  I just pace myself, and our pace is pretty slow given that we are filming, so I don't get out of breath, despite being asthmatic.  I was grateful for the wooden ladders though; I didn't fancy scrambling up the cliff and the views from the top were well worth it.

You walk on the Causse now, and the lanes in dappled sunlight, flanked with moss covered limestone walls are very pleasant.  We pass the first of the stone wayside crosses, which reminds you that you are walking on ancient paths of pilgrimmage.  At Loubressac, which is another pretty village overlooking the valley, you can look back and see the crenellated outline of the Château de Castelnu silhouetted on its little triangular hill in the distance, shining redly in the warm sun.  Loubressac, another of the Lords of Castelnau strongholds, is built on a spur of rock and you descend through woods to the valley floor, before climbing back up.  Then it's another descent towards the river Dordogne, which has been pretty elusive in our vistas, before going up again to Carennac - this I found rather pointless, but I have to say it's all very pleasant and unhurried. There was a crossroads where we could go down to the Gouffre de Padirac, the system of caves and underground river, before going on to Carennac, but the day was getting late and we decided we would drive to the Gouffre on a separate day.

The caves at Padirac are well worth a visit; I always like to go underground (no, I am not a pot-holer!) and the journey in the flat bottomed boats on the underground river is a delight, and the guides are very well informed and keep up a seamless stream of information.  

I liked Carennac very much; in fact, I think I liked it the best of the plus belle villages.  I like honey coloured stone; it gives the impression of warmth, and the Benedictine Priory was really rather special, particularly the church of St. Pierre.  Carennac is larger than the other villages, and has a few artisans and also accommodation.  I did actually wish we had stayed there instead.  But we caught a taxi back to our accommodation, and started from Carennac again in the morning.  The walk through the valley around Floirac is lovely, and full of plums.  There is a festival 'des prunes' every year, and you can learn all you want to know about plums - and some things you didn't.  Montvalent is up on the cliffs, but the climb up is gentle, and it's a pretty little settlement on the bend of a road.  There is even a town hall in this little place and a roadside vendor plying passing trade with the key products of this region - pate de foie gras and the famous goats' cheese.

After Montvalent, we walked past the white cross and then followed more grassy lanes which were more open towards the Alzou gorge where the religious city lies.  Lots of butterflies in this open area, even a Praying Mantis, which we spotted in the long grass.  The last part of the walk to L'Hospitalet, the sanctuary village before Rocamadour was a disappointing road walk which did, however, give us a chance to pick up the pace and stride out a little better than we had done.  

L'Hospitalet is a funny place; rather strewn along the edge of the limestone cliff of the gorge, with plenty of accommodation and eateries, and the Tourist office is located there, as well as some caves. We finished our walk there, and came back the next day to explore Rocamadour, which clings spectacularly to the side of the gorge.  Yes, there are lots of tourists, but these are a different kind of tourist, I think.  This is primarily a religious site, and there is a lack of shouting, talking loudly or bad behaviour.  People don't walk about in hushed mode, but it seemed to me that it was generally accepted that misbehaving was definitely 'out'.  We talked to the Abbé of Rocamadour, a youthful, enthusiastic young priest called Ronan, who is determined to bring people back to his city on the rock.  A delightful, energetic cleric whose cheerful absolute faith is a joy to behold, and inevitably brings a smile to your face.  He wants to encourage people of all denominations to come to Rocamadour and visit the Chapel of the Black Madonna; he believes fervently that it is difficult not to believe in God at Rocamadour.  We followed the candlelit procession from L'Hospitalet down to Rocamadour, along the ancient holy road, mindful that this sight would have been almost heavenly to those pilgrims of long ago.

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