The post below launches a new Croakey initiative, CroakeyEXPLORE.
If you’re a fan of the hike, the pilgrimage or even the neighbourhood stroll, you might have read and enjoyed Dr Lesley Russell’s account of her journey along the Camino le Puy in France last year. The popularity of this post got the Croakey team thinking: we talk the talk of physical fitness, healthy environments and mindful activity, so how about featuring some creative ways to walk the walk?
CroakeyEXPLORE seeks to profile healthy, active, sustainable holidays and other cultural pursuits, undertaken both at home and abroad. We are open to your ideas, so please contact us if you’d like to make a contribution.
Meanwhile, who better to kick off the series than Lesley herself, who has been back in the land of the long gold croissant, this time with only a map, a day pack and a sense of adventure for company.
Lesley Russell writes:
After a wonderful walking adventure along the Camino le Puy last year (you can read about it here). I immediately began planning a return to the walking trails of France. For two reasons I was drawn to the Perigord Noir region: I had briefly lived in this area in the 1970s and had never returned, and the walks on offer were easy and full of historical interest.
Perhaps because this was a personal pilgrimage to a part of the world that held such great memories for me, I decided to undertake this walk on my own. I am quite happy in (voluntary) solitude and I think I was keen to see how well I would do coping alone with the challenges of such a walk. I’m not sure if I was emulating Thelma, Louise, Cheryl Strayed in Wild or Gertrude Bell – or just being eccentric.
I made my life easier by using the same excellent travel company we had used for the Camino. They made all the accommodation bookings for me (these came with breakfast and some dinners), arranged for my baggage (a medium sized duffel) to be transferred so I only needed to carry a day pack, and provided detailed information and directions for the trails.
The advertised walk started in Sarlat-la-Caneda and ended in Les Eyzies-du-Tabac, but I extended it to Montignac, travelling through St Leon-sur-Vezere, where I had lived all those years ago.
My preparations involved a daily walk of around 15 km for two months before I left, following on from time spent earlier in the year skiing and snow shoeing at altitudes above 3000m. My footwear was already well broken in and I had all the gear. I also resurrected my book of French grammar exercises and tried to do some each day (my French is reasonable but can certainly be improved).
On June 1 I was off to Paris. I arrived to find the city in chaos: the Seine was in flood, there was a train strike and there were daily protests about new work laws. Fortunately the trains taking me south were not affected by the strike and so I was off to Brive-la-Gaillarde and then on to Souillac.
There, at the deserted train station, it quickly became apparent that the expected local buses to Sarlat weren’t running and there were no taxis to be found. I was rescued by a French family picking up their daughter who willing drove me the 30 km to Sarlat and deposited me at my hotel with hugs and a wonderful feeling of bonhomie to begin my trip.
This part of France is full of history, natural beauty and wonderful food. There are cave paintings by Cro-Magnon man, Crusader castles, and evidence of World War 2 atrocities. There’s a network of trails and riverside paths through forests, farmlands and limestone cliffs, and the area is known for truffles and foie gras.
When I was there the Dordogne and Vezere rivers were in flood and too dangerous for water pursuits and some of the trails were muddy and overgrown, but early summer meant excellent walking temperatures and long days.
The average walk each day, as per the directions, was about 15 km, but most days further exploring meant I walked around 25 km. This walk was not as simple as had been following the Camino route, and it was necessary have the directions in hand and to follow them carefully. I did lose the trail several times but was always helped to find it by local people. I rarely encountered other walkers but always felt safe and revelled in the isolation and the splendour of the scenery (and my singing sounds better when I’m the only person around).
Day 1: St Vincent le Paluel to Sarlat
My first day walking started with a taxi ride to the tiny hamlet of St Vincent le Paluel. The route took me through wheat fields highlighted with red poppies and forests where I encountered locals hunting for girolles (highly prized seasonal mushrooms).
I had (fortunately) been alerted by Australian walkers encountered at breakfast that the directions for part of this walk were confusing, and so it proved. Forewarned, I didn’t get lost but did spend 4 km walking through the forest wondering if I was on the right track. I was glad to finally emerge at the correct signpost. One point about travelling alone – there is no-one to argue with about directions!
Sarlat is a lovely medieval town with many places of interest. As I walked back to my charming hotel that day, the Sunday food market was winding down and I joined people lingering over food and wine at trestle tables in the main street.
Day 2: Carsac to Domme
Breakfast was superb and my host helped me pack a picnic lunch before I was picked up and then dropped off at the bike path in Carsac. The walking, along what was once a railway cutting, and then through farms and walnut orchards, was easy and I soon saw spectacular glimpses of the bastide (walled) village of Domme, with its great gates. The towers of the Porte des Tours were converted into prisons for the Knights Templars in 1307 and it is still possible to see the engraved crucifixes they carved while they were imprisoned.
I treated myself to a cold cider and explored the village before a wonderful dinner of local produce (foie gras, white asparagus, duck and strawberries) on the terrace of my hotel, with views over the Dordogne River below. As the sun finally set around 9:45 pm, spotlights highlighted the cliffs at La Roque Gagneac in the distance, my destination via a circuitous route the next day.
Day 3: Domme to La Roque Gagneac
This was a long day (my Fitbit said 29 km) because there was so much to see. In the early morning I walked down from Domme into the walnut and chestnut orchards along the river and through a mountain forest until I emerged to the sight of the Chateau de Castelnaud standing high over the valley. It was a steep climb up but well worth it for the view, and I hung around the visiting school groups to get my history lesson in French that was easy to comprehend. Then alongside the river again to Beynac and another climb up through a pretty village to explore the chateau and chapel. It was a warm day (28 degrees celcius) and this walk would not be fun at the height of summer. When leaving Beynac I turned the wrong way (how easy it is to confuse right and left!) and so added some extra distance to the day’s walking which then entailed bashing my way through a path overgrown with nettles and harbouring a rather large snake.
I was ready for what was fast becoming my regular afternoon treat – cassis gelato – when I finally walked into La Roque Gagneac. This tiny village is just a row of houses along the Dordogne River under overhanging cliffs; in some cases the houses are built into the cliff. Again, my hotel had wonderful views and a superb kitchen. It was becoming apparent that kilometres walked might not offset calories consumed on this trip.
Day 4: Marqueyssac Gardens
According to my itinerary this day was a loop walk in the La Roque Gagneac area but I had heard about some gardens at nearby Marqueyssac. After establishing that I could walk there along the country roads, and with no one I needed to consult about changes in plans, I immediately decided that the gardens were my day’s agenda. They turned out to be quite marvellous; a whole series of immaculately landscaped terraces on top of a large mesa-like rock formation. These gardens have been in the same family since 1692 but have been revived by recent international efforts.
It would have been perfect to spend the late afternoon canoeing on the river, but as this was not possible, I lazed in the sun and watched the busloads of elderly French tourists. It turns out they wear ugly shorts like Americans, huddle in groups like Japanese, worry about food like Italians, shop for kitschy souvenirs like the British, and enjoy a beer as much as Australians.
Day 5: St Cyprien to Les Eyzies
By now I was firm friends with Christophe and Sarissa from the local taxi company who ferried me and my luggage around, and Sarissa dropped me at St Cyprien with instructions about where to find the local bakery for lunch supplies. The trail took me through rich farmland and when I couldn’t find the yellow markers, I was helped by a local carpenter who was also only too happy to show me the ancient stone farmhouse he was painstakingly converting (this is the way to expand your French vocabulary).
The highlight of the day came as I walked past the entrance to the Font de Gaume caves, famous for their prehistoric art. I knew they only took six tours of 13 people each day, and it was 2:30 pm, but I walked in and asked if there was a place on a tour that day. It turned out – for you madame, yes – and so the last tour of the day had 14 people. Another advantage of travelling alone! I had expected to come back the next day at 6:30 am and stand in line to get in. In order to protect the rock paintings and their fragile environment the number of people, and the time they spend in the caves, is strictly limited. It is well worth making the effort to see these remarkable images.
Day 6: Les Eyzies area
Les Eyzies is a small town set against a backdrop of cliffs. There are many prehistoric links in the area. I had directions for a loop walk, but decided instead to explore some of the archeological sites (and test my ability to use the trail maps provided by the local tourism office).
For the first time I encountered rain, but my gear (a lightweight plastic poncho over rain jacket and pack cover) was protective. It was an excuse to stop walking early and visit the Musee Nationale de la Prehistoire.
Day 7: Les Eyzies to Montignac (via St Leon-sur-Vezere)
Experience had shown me that without the detailed notes provided by my travel company, taking my side trip to St Leon-sur-Vezere on trails was going to be difficult and time-consuming: I could find the tracks but had trouble telling exactly where I was, despite reasonable map-reading skills acquired orienteering.
The tarmac road was less pleasant to walk on, but there was not much traffic and enough of a verge to keep me safe. So I set out towards Tursac and then La Roque St-Christophe.
Walking into St Leon after all those years was joyful. This is designated as one of the Plus Belles Villes de France. It’s more village than town, with a 12th century church and Chapelle des Morts and the 14th century Chateau Clerans where I had lived. The Chateau remains in private hands and there was apparently no one living in the gatehouse, so I was unable to get into the grounds.
I had time to explore my old haunts and have a leisurely lunch before I was picked up by Christophe who had earlier picked up my bag and now ferried me and it to Montignac, a further 9 km down the road.
Day 8: Lascaux
Montignac is quite a sizeable town on the Vezere River, and just a few kilometres outside are the amazing Lascaux Caves with galleries of cave paintings and artifacts from the Magdelenian Period, some 20,000 years ago.
These caves were discovered in the 1940s and a surge of visitors quickly contaminated the previously protected environment, so the original caves were closed in the 1960s and a reproduction, accurate to 5 mm and with paintings made by using the original techniques, was opened a decade later.
I had managed to get a ticket online before leaving Australia (although tickets can also be bought at the Information Centre in Montignac). The guided visits are very well done, but too short to take it all in. I was struck by the similarities to Aboriginal rock art in Australia, the earliest examples of which may be even older.
Day 9: To Perigueux
My walking trip done, I left Montignac for Perigueux as the fine weather retreated and the rain storms blew in. Still I was able to explore the town which dates back to Roman times and has some terrific medieval architecture. The cathedral here is an important stop for pilgrims on the Camino de Santiago route.
Then off back to Paris where the streets had been taken over by gangs of crazy European football (soccer) fans. But I still had one more adventure to tackle – a bicycle tour to Monet’s Gardens at Giverny.
This is fun and highly recommended: a bus takes you to Verdon where bikes (but no helmets) are provided, you buy a picnic lunch at the local market and cycle to a picnic spot by the river. Then there’s a ride of about 3 kms along what used to be a railway line to Giverny and the gardens.
Monet’s house has been lovingly restored and the gardens are a mass of roses – and of course there are waterlilies. It must get very crowded at the height of summer, but I was able to wander and take photographs freely.
Back in Paris that evening, with the sun still strong well into the evening, I ate the remains of my picnic lunch on the tiny balcony of my hotel (trying to ignore the football chants drifting up from below) and plotted my next walking adventure. Stay tuned as Liz Dax and I tackle the Stevenson Trail in the Cevennes in late September – early October!
I took boots, walking shoes and gym shoes. I used the walking shoes on easier days and (black) gym shoes sufficed for evening. I wrote previously about the importance of footwear, including socks. I can only repeat that. I continue to be a firm believer in the value of Compeeds, vaseline and changing socks every 10 kms, especially in hot weather.
It really helps to know what the weather forecast is for the day, so get an app for that (or read the newspaper or ask the locals).
Wifi of great quality is miraculously available free everywhere. I had paid a fortune to get a roaming package from my Australian carrier but it was an expensive waste: for the few occasions I used it I would have been better off just paying the increased costs. Theoretically I could have used my phone as a GPS – but I didn’t. I took an iPod but never used it, preferring birdsong and even the sound of my own voice.
My accommodations all had hair dryers so no need for a punk hairstyle, but often only small slivers of soap and no shampoo. So it helps to take your own, along with a small container of liquid laundry detergent.
I have used the Captain Train website with great success to assess routes and purchase French railway tickets. The SNCF website is ridiculously difficult. SNCF has information about your tickets purchased via Captain Train – they sent me an email advising that my train from Perigueux to Limoges was cancelled, with enough time that I could get a ticket for a different train.
The French treat women travelling and eating on their own with great courtesy (does grey hair help?). Yes, I had a few anxious moments on my trip, mostly when travel plans went awry, but they were all fixable. Otherwise it was all just absolutely fabulous.
A credit card, an iPhone, a smattering of French, a smile and a good pair of hiking boots deliver great adventures.
*Dr Lesley Russell is an Adjunct Associate Professor at the Menzies Centre for Health Policy, University of Sydney.