By Rick Millikan - Cycle California! Magazine, April 2018
A bike tour through Southeast France offers quiet, scenic roadways, historic villages and caverns with Cro-Magnon art. Beginning in Cahors, our self-guided package included map, bikes, helmets, baggage shuttles, lodging, breakfasts and gourmet dinners.
Wednesday: We crossed 14th century Pont Valentre and began our tour following the meandering Lot River. Leaving town traffic behind, the sunny route veered inland passing vineyards, crops of beans, corn and squash. Scarlet poppies embellish tall, ripening wheat. Ascending gradually through a dense forest, we return to the Lot and picnic in a riverside park. Rolling between the river and chalk-white cliffs, we sight caves used for English ambushes during the Hundred Years War. Passing through five tunnels and bridging a tributary, we spy our destination — atop a lofty cliff! In medieval Saint Cirq-Lapopie, our inn faces the market square.
Thursday: Our course winds along a high cliff, descends and crosses a trestle past Chateau du Diable through Cabreret and up a brutal slope to Grottes du Pech Merle. Our guide Audrey leads us into galleries draped with creamy-white stalactites and columns of stalagmites. In one, mammoth, bison, aurochs and ibex adorn a wall. “Over 20,000 years ago artists applied black manganese with fingers to paint these animals.” Other chambers feature an etched cavebear head, charcoal reindeer stag and our favorite, black spotted horses surrounded by red ochre handprints. After adding a spin through the narrow, lush Célé Valley, we return to Saint Cirq-Lapopie to explore its castle ruins and church.
Friday: Stone crosses mark the way to Rocamadour, an ancient pilgrimage site and our destination. After mounting a long ridge, we enjoy dramatic panoramas of limestone outcrops, scrub forests, red-tiled farms and villages. Invigorated by pizza and beer in La Bastads Murat, we then tackle the Midi-Pyrenees. Relentless ascents require rest under shady oaks. Remounted, our grinds allow time to fully study diverse, colorful wildflowers. A deep valley appears and Rocamadour materializes atop the opposite cliff. At our lodgings, we refresh in the pool and later, relish a haute cuisine dinner.
Saturday: Our morning walk passes the stations-of-the-cross to the famed sanctuary of the Blessed Virgin. Exiting Rocamadour, our ride proceeds above a checkerboard of fields. Bordering one, a rock monument commemorates the United State’s parachute drop for the French resistance during World War II. Swerving through a series of oak forests we come upon villages festooned with fragrant flowers. A narrow shady road provides an exhilarating plunge past plum orchards toward Saint Cere. Tonight’s resort presents a five-course dinner: tomato-lobster soup, trout, poulard avec freshly foraged chanterelle and cèpe mushrooms, cheese plate, and dessert!
Sunday: Traversing the serene countryside, we approach Chateau du Castelnau-Bretenoux. Straddling a hilltop, this 12th century red-stone castle boasts deep defensive moats, three high walls, round towers and a high square keep. We entered from its triangular courtyard to find the manor provides surprising comfort. Huge armoires, once storing elegant clothes, fill the foyer. Salons feature stained glass windows, carved oak furniture, hunting themed tapestries and portraits of barons.
Monday: Today’s journey slices through the Dordogne Valley. One delightful stop is Carrenac, where honey-hued buildings straddle the river’s south bank. Inside the priory gate, a 12th century bas-relief of Christ and his apostles decorate the entryway of Eglise St-Pierre. Crossing Carrenac’s stone bridge, our peaceful route proceeds along a thickly treed shoreline. At an unexpected roadblock, Dutch cyclists help carry our bicycles over fallen maples. Another road bridges the Dordogne and leads us upward into Martel. Our beautiful inn is a converted girl’s school. That evening another sumptuous repast begins and we toast l’adventure with glasses of Cahors’ Malbec.
Tuesday: Off the cobbled marketsquare, in Palais de la Raymondie a tourist rep points out Martel’s seven defensive towers and recounts its English capture. After hearing about Martel’s once profitable trade in salt, cloth and truffles, we pass the merchants’ wooden hall, city gate, open-beam buildings and explore its 13th century gothic church, Saint Maur.
Wednesday: As we coast back to the Dordogne, we meander through oak forests and hilltop villages. Bustling Souillac contains an enormous domed monastery. Amazing sculptures decorate the entrance of the Byzantine-Romanesque church. Prophet Isaiah dances in swirling robes. Above the door, storied Theophilis sells his soul to the devil. Continuing on higher ground, white sheep and brown cattle dot surrounding grasslands. Down along the Dordogne we see men fishing in waders. A placard displays the river’s bounty: salmon, trout, bass, and several unfamiliar species. Another sign, Route de Noix, extols the surrounding walnut orchards. Ascending through farmlands, we arrive in Gourdon, our last accommodation.
Thursday: More cave art motivates a pedal to local Grottes de Cougnac. Its two large caverns reveal further renditions of nature’s majesty and Cro-Magnon’s stone-age creativity. Back in Gourdon, we enjoy exploring its 14th century district and finish our packing for our trip home. Our total ride encompassed nine days and 186 miles of insightful, delightful adventures.
By Margot Goodhand - Winnipeg Free Press, June 2007
ON A HILL IN SOUTHWEST FRANCE -- My thighs ache, sweat is dripping down my back, I’m on the lowest gear I can find, and I’m gasping for air.
"You OK, Mom?" my middle son calls out from a shady spot on this deceptively gentle sloping country road, rimmed in green, that winds relentlessly up from the Dordogne River in southwest France.
I am better than fine, actually. I am filled with the exultation of the marathoner who didn’t quit the race; the speed skater who pushed through the pain; the idiot who signed the family up for a nine-day cycling trip.
Sure, it was a bit of a stretch. Our family of five from the prairies doesn’t own a single pair of Lycra shorts. Our bikes are garage-sale specials -- stolen with astonishing regularity nonetheless -- that get us to school and maybe to the park down the block.
But for this romantic soul, it was a dream vacation.
We’d taken ski trips for years. We were all in good shape. How much harder could a cycling trip be?
"There’s a reason why all those medieval castles have great views, you know," a good friend pointed out. "They’re on top of hills so they could spot their enemies."
Well, they have seen the enemy and it is us.
One of us can’t speak French; the rest are barely fluent. None of us has a particularly good sense of direction, and we have little to no knowledge of this lovely and historic area.
It’s the blind leading the blind, on a -- lord help us -- ’self-guided’ tour.
We booked online in February, through a company named Cycle the Dordogne, run by a ruddy-faced Englishman named Cliff Walker and his French wife Annie.
I’d heard the Dordogne Valley was jaw-droppingly beautiful, with a rich medieval heritage, and that Sarlat -- an important marketplace since the Middle Ages -- shouldn’t be missed.
The Dordogne River separated the English from the French during the Hundred Year War. Thirteenth- and 14th-century castles dot the landscape, each encircled by towns of golden limestone out of a Brothers Grimm fairy tale. Today it is a very popular tourist destination for French and Anglos alike.
The Dordogne is not chic like the French Riviera, its wineries are eclipsed by those of the Loire or Rhone valleys, and its glamorous cousin Provence is more celebrated in literature and art.
The Dordogne is famous for its castles, caves and canards -- foie gras, to be exact. It’s also renowned for its strawberries, goat cheese and walnuts. In fact, for much of the time, we followed "La route de la noix," a sign I thought admirably reflected our group.
But there was so much more to the area -- prehistoric paintings and museums; physical oddities like the Gouffre de Padirac, a giant sinkhole with stalactites and stalagmites; mystical shrines like Rocamadour, founded on the bones of Zaccheus, a purported disciple of Jesus.
We encountered surprises every day, many within 10 kilometres of the next.
"There are two kinds of travellers on these trips," Cliff Walker told us the first morning on a sunny patio in Gourdon. "Those who have researched and read all the guide books and know more about the area than I do, and the ones who wake up every morning and say, ’Where am I again?’"
Walker’s been in the business for more than a decade as a local rep for self-guided operations. But this is the first year he and Annie have owned their own company. Their motto? "Flexibility, freedom and value for money." Our customized trip cost us $9,900 Cdn.
Basically, self-guided tours are the perfect thing for the independent and mildly introverted traveller.
You get pre-paid lodgings and some dinners. You get daily itineraries with directions to all kinds of optional sights. You get maps and good 21-speed touring bikes, with panniers and helmets.
You have a guy like Cliff, who is a phone call away if there’s a problem on the road, and who hauls your luggage discreetly from place to place so that all you need to carry in those panniers is baguettes and cold beer. ("If all goes well, you won’t see me again until the end of your trip," he told us cheerfully that first morning, as we went wobbling uncertainly off, like a flock of slightly addled Canada geese. )
What you don’t get on a self-guided tour is some stranger telling you where you’re going every day, and a possibly annoying set of travelling companions.
It’s fun, it’s spontaneous, and it’s challenging.
Many days we found we’d chosen to cover up to 60 kilometres of rolling terrain, plus climbed castle ramparts and churches, and scrambled up hills to panoramic viewpoints.
We ate picnics on the road, and dropped into bed every night, tired and stuffed after another two-hour, four-course meal.
We were lucky, too.
It was late April and sunny, and the tourist season had not yet taken off. The Dordogne can be a zoo in the summer, and even back-road cyclists should stick to late spring and fall.
We got into coveted sites like the 15,000-year-old prehistoric cave paintings of Grotte de Font de Gaume at Les Eyzies just by showing up one morning for a ticket. We travelled paved country roads that were mercifully tranquil, watched by fields of cows, sheep, and overstuffed fowl.
We breakfasted alone many days, and were doted on by staff. (So much for the so-called French attitude. Everyone was more than kind. On our last day, the owner of Hostellerie de La Bouriane stayed up late making croissants for us -- including the kids’ fave, pain au chocolat -- and packed it into a big bag with fresh fruit and juice for the train ride back to Paris.)
We learned that cycling is a lot like skiing, with its daily dose of thrills and chills. It’s chilling to watch teenage boys navigate village streets and bolt downhill without considering applying a brake. It’s a thrill to crest a long tough incline and start that lovely sail downward.
We learned how to handle those hills, up and down.
We got stronger every day, discovered amazing things together, looked after each other, and took time to smell the fleurs.
Nine sunny days; 500 kilometres. Incroyable.
It’s a five-hour train ride from Gare D’Austerlitz in Paris to Gourdon.
In Gourdon, we stayed at the 110-year-old family-operated Hostellerie de La Bouriane, run by Mathias Lacam (www.hotellabouriane.fr). This place is a true find; the rooms are lovely, the food is great; the service is superlative.
In Rocamadour, we stayed in a restored manor house called Relais Les Vieilles Tours, (les.vieillestours-rocamadour.com/) which began as 13th and 17th-century falconers’ towers, with a pool and a stunning view of the valley. The owners and accommodations were charming, and the area was a terrific base for sightseeing. This was where we saw the shrine and all that has been built around it (Rocamadour is a top tourist site in France, second only to Mont St. Michel); La Foret des Singes, an enclosed ’forest’ full of monkeys imported from Morocco; the ’prettiest village in France,’ Loubressac; and took a gondola ride through the surreal Gouffre De Padirac.
In Vitrac, we stayed at a working farm/bed and breakfast called La Ferme Fleurie (www.perigord.com/la-ferme-fleurie). It was an experience in itself -- we all ate dinner together at one long table, summoned at 7:30 by a big dinner bell, and we all doted on the farm’s latest puppy, which frolicked at our feet. Meals were homespun, hearty and inexpensive. From here, we explored the area’s rich medieval history. We saw Beynac, a brooding 13th-century castle once occupied by Richard the Lionheart; Castelnaud, a castle-turned-museum of war which provided a good snapshot of the area’s tumultuous past; La Roque Gageac (a former ’prettiest town in France’) and Domme. We also visited the Wednesday market in Sarlat, which really is a medieval jewel, although bigger and busier than any other centre we visited.
In Les Eyzies de Tayac, we stayed at Moulin de la Beune, a former mill tucked beside a stream. From here we saw Grotte de Font-de-Gaume, a fine collection of prehistoric cave paintings; Abri du Cap Blanc, 10,000-year-old sculptures carved into natural rock; we ran into a Tour de France motor rally that looked like something straight out of a 60s French film; and La Roque St. Christophe -- a series of caves hollowed out of a limestone cliff that have harboured people for centuries. It’s a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and a fascinating walk through time.
Helen & Tom Fraser
|We have recently had the tremendous pleasure of doing a 7 day cycling tour in the Dordogne area. Cliff organised a beautiful route for us with very detailed accurate instructions which made it easy. The scenery was absolutely gorgeous, passing by fields of wheat and masses of wild poppies, undulating hills, trees everywhere, ancient villages, rivers, and quiet back country sealed roads. The accommodation was excellent and the food superb. Our only regret was that we didn't make it a fortnight instead of a week. Cliff gave excellent backup and advice and knowing he was there in the background if needed gave a sense of assurance. We spent six weeks away in Europe seeing and doing wonderful things but it is true to say that cycling the Dordogne was the highlight, a journey we will never forget. A big thanks to Cliff for that.|
Peter and Cathy-Anne
|What a week! We had a fabulous time cycling in the Dordogne recently. Cliff planned a great itinerary and the accommodation and was terrific. Even in small places the food was excellent with some truly remarkable meals. We had one ordinary cycle and one electric, both options worked well. The route was tailor made and provided enough exercise and time for sight seeing. The scenery is magic and French drivers very courteous to cyclists. All our expectations were met - and more. Thanks Cliff.|
Geoffrey and Loraye Kent
|We recently completed an exhilarating 10 days of cycling, sightseeing, eating and drinking our way through the Dordogne region. Cliff prepared an excellent itinerary for us and then followed up with great back-up service to ensure everything went according to plan. He even organised fabulous weather for us! Our itinerary took us through some spectacular landscapes, ancient villages, limestone caves etc. and at the end of the day we ate delicious meals paired with great French wines. The accommodation arranged by Cliff was excellent with friendly staff who were keen to offer advice or assist as required. The Dordogne region has a lot to offer, and Cliff provides exceptional service. We have no hesitation in recommending Cliff to anyone who is interested in enjoying this beautiful part of the world. We have only sampled a small part and there is so much more to see. Thanks Cliff (and Annie) for facilitating such a memorable trip.|
|Spectacular scenery, gorgeous villages and beautiful hotels with the best fine dining experiences. Our party of four had a fabulous & memorable trip. Cliff & Annie were only a phone call away to sort out any issues, and they went above and beyond the call of duty by dropping us some distance to our rental car company when our trip came to an end. Highly recommended, thank you so much!!|
Boston, MA, USA
|The word "breathtaking" tends to get overused in travel reviews, but it really is inadequate to describe the splendor of the Dordogne landscape, both natural and man-made. Cycle The Dordogne provides the best way to experience this relatively overlooked region of France on two wheels, and the custom ten-day version of Itinerary Three took me on a fun-filled, occasionally hair-raising exploration of subterranean rivers, green rolling hills, panoramic vistas of the river and villages, pilgrimage sites, monasteries, fortified hill towns, castles and chateaus. Why use Cycle The Dordogne? 0. Cliff and Annie actually live in the area and have in-depth knowledge of both well-known and easy-to-overlook travel sites 1. clear and detailed directions in the provided cue sheets: I did not even use my Garmin GPS once. 2. reasonably priced accommodations that offer ambience, fine dining, and essential amenities like wifi: I'm vegan and did not lack for food options. 3. highly reliable e-bike with map mount, flat repair kit, bike chain, panniers 4. Cliff and Annie's responsiveness when things don't quite go according to plan: See 0. Speaking of breathtaking: the sometimes challenging rolling terrain will do this to you if you are more accustomed to a sedentary lifestyle. But even the spuddiest of couch potatoes will be able to explore the Dordogne on an e-bike, which offers varying levels of assistance that can flatten the most daunting of hills. I can't say enough superlatives about the Dordogne: it is truly an enchanting place filled with a rich sense of history and timelessness that span human and geologic scales, as manifested in its fortified churches, lonely hilltop castles, prehistoric art and subterranean caves unchanged over millions of years. I'm immensely grateful to Cycle The Dordogne for making it possible for me to appreciate this place personally and up close. I will be back.|
Kris & Roman
|We've just returned from our third Cycle-the-Dordogne adventure and Cliff and Annie have done it again! The routes were brilliantly planned to let us take full advantage of the spectacular country-side while at the same time avoiding heavily-trafficked roads. The selection of hotels - ranging from the ultra-luxe to the charming to the downright quirky - could only be work of people who know and love this magnificent region as they do. The service, as always, was prompt and dependable and the new high-end bicycles certainly added to the experience. We highly recommend Cycle-the-Dordogne to anyone who is considering a self-touring cycling adventure and we are certain that, like us, you will be coming back for more.|
Buenos Aires, Argentina
|Our group of eight spent a week in early June cycling through an itinerary prepared by Cliff. Everything was outstanding, excellent hotel selection, idyllic itinerary,good bikes. We strongly recommend Cliff's organization if you are planning a Dordogne bike trip.|
Jean and Roger Parkes,
|For our second tour with Cycle The Dordogne Cliff organised a great route exploring the Lot valley and crossing the high Causses between Cahors in the south and Martel in the north. Although we are now both celebrating 3 score years and ten the beautiful undulating countryside presented no problems especially for my wife on an electric pedal assist bike!. The hotels and their restaurants were friendly comfortable and the food awesome, (one restaurant had a Michelin star !) The route notes were clear and included lots of information about the locations we were in. Luggage was always waiting for us on arrival each cycling day enabling us to quickly check in and have a relaxing drink on the terrace. Cliff and Annie's attention to detail and help and assistance resulted in a truly enjoyable no worries and relaxing holiday.|
Nicky and Howard Robinson
|We asked Cliff to organise a 12 day ebiking tour in the quieter areas of the Lot Valley. His attention to detail was superb and we enjoyed a fabulous trip starting and finishing at Gourdon, south of the Dordogne. The directions for the route were well explained and we enjoyed the fact that it took us a little off the beaten track but with lots of highlights along the way. Our accommodation and most of our meals were booked for us, all we had to do was get on the bikes and follow Cliff's directions. A memorable trip and we would not hesitate to recommend Cycle the Dordogne with Cliff's expertise of the area to cyclists.|
|Four of us spent 6 days cycling around the beautiful Dordogne region. We all agreed that it was one of the best holidays we had ever had. The beautiful rural landscape and exquisite villages coupled with fabulous cycling, food and hotels could not have been better. Cliff and Annie were very friendly and helpful and had organised everything perfectly. Their choices of hotels and restaurants was also excellent. All in all we agreed that we would happily go back tomorrow and repeat what was a truly enjoyable and happy holiday. We are all in our late 50s and reasonably fit and found the cycling perfectly manageable even though there were a few biggish hills! Thanks Cliff and Annie for organising a wonderful holiday. We will be back.|
|contact||Cliff & Annie Walker|
|phone||+33 (0)5 53 30 23 20|
|mobile||+33 (0)6 48 20 36 85|