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Free-Wheeling along the Dordogne


Recycling Cyrano de Bergerac

By Arthur J. Weitzman,, Sun, 23 Nov 1997 12:17:29 -0500 (EST)
The bicycles skidded to a halt. There he stood with his unmistakably immense nose in the afternoon sun in the Place Myrpe of Bergerac, the arrogant guardsman, poet, lover and lately matine idol of the silver screen-- Cyrano de Bergerac! Later at the Café Cyrano over some dry white wine from this picturesque region of France, the truth emerged.

"C'est dommage," the waiter shrugged. Though the town claimed him for its most famous son, the truth was prosaic. Born in Paris, he probably never saw this bustling metropolis spanning the lazy, meandering Dordogne.

But after two glorious weeks tracing this twisting river through the most entracing landscape four bicyclists could ever wish, we took the doleful news with stoical endurance. The Dordogne gave such bountiful views, leafy lanes, country inns, superb food and friendly faces, who cared?

The tour began on a fine but cool June morning at the headwaters of this river at Le Mont Dore, where it is merely a gushing alpine stream. Could four city-bred, non- athletic types over 40 maneuver baggage-laden 15-speeds through the back lanes of hilly Perigord, and would they be on speaking terms at journey's end?

A feast of the eye, a kaleidiscope of romantic river vistas appeared regularly as we spun along the riverside. Consider our first "discovery," Chateau de Val, a multi- towered castle strategically defended on three sides by a large lake and all crenellated and guarded by thick walls. Another, Beynac, perches seemingly precariously on a hill at a promontory bend of the Dordogne.

Even more sublime, Monbazillac, a preserved medieval bastion of thick walls, towers and moat, perches on a hill just outside Bergerac. It also houses a museum of Cyrano's literary memorabilia, or rather the momentos of Edmund Rostand, whose 19th-century play breathed new life into the 17th-century poet and swordsman.

Worth a small detour is Rocamadour, a medieval shrine just south of the river. Dodging charterbuses at the Hospitalet gateway, the unsuspecting biker gasps at the sudden sublimity of a mini-Grand Canyon with the town clinging to one side of the gorge in seeming defiance of gravity.

In contrast to the pilgrims who once crawled on penitent knees to the shrine of the "black virgin," we four vacationing cyclists whizzed down into the now-touristy streets, crammed with shops carrying effigies of the saint. After a evening rambling through this maze of walks, alleys, steps, and gothic granite and a good night's snooze, we climbed back to view roofs, rocks and ramparts waking in the morning sun.

Does the hot southern sun fry skin and scalp? Try the relief of cool, dark caverns along the winding tributary, the Vézére. These caves were the haunts of Cro-Magnon man, who painted on the walls richly colored animals and 13,000-year-old hunt scenes in the limestone mazes tunneling deep in the earth at Lascaux, Font de Gaume and Grotte du Grand Roc. Connecting these pre-historic galleries is a forest ride along the river chasm as shady and thrilling as any in Vermont.

Along the Dordogne lies a series of towns and villages like so many pearls on a string. The first, Argentat, straddles placid water and impresses the traveler with slate roofs, turrets, steep gables and wooden balconies jutting out over the river.

Only a bankside dash away--this region boasts fantastic back roads--nestles medieval Beaulieu, a one-time Benedictine Abbey and now an intricate collection of stone houses. The 13th-century main building now accommodates the luxurious Hotel Turenne, where we slept and ate in baronial splendor.

Further on, Sarlat, a small, bustling city, famous for its Saturday open-air market, preserves a labyrinthian old section of tall, medieval buildings, narrow twisty streets and cafe-lines squares.

"A perfect backdrop," remarked, Tony, our opera buff, "for `Carmen` or`Don Giovanni.`"

Not for us sleeping under the stars or cooking over propane stoves. We brake at small hotels, B & Bs, and even an occasional splurge at the sumptuous inn like the Turenne. One fond memory was dull-sounding Hotel Central in Bort les Orgues, snuggled on the river and managed impeccably by its ma and pa owner-chefs. Try also La France in Les Eyzies de Tayac with spacious rooms, antique armoires, mahagony beds and furniture and delectable patio dining. Sound expensive? Rooms go in the $50 -60 range. Country living in France will not break your budget.

Another incentive for a jaunt along the Dordogne lies in Perigord cooking, which might be called walnut cuisine. Imagine the surprise for an American palate to crunch into walnuts while downing snails in creamy garlic sauce (a first course at the Turenne in Beaulieu). Walnuts came with every meal, beginning with a "vin au noix" aperitif, a lettuce salad of walnuts in their oil, artichokes bathed in walnut sauce and noisette liquor to finish. These regional walnuts grow sweeter than those harvested or imported into the states.

Aerobic experts calculate that a cyclist consumes averagely 300 calories per hour. Hence the voracious appetite after a morning or afternoon spin. Nevertheless, we were careful not to overdo lunch, which usually consisted of a picnic of the local "charcuterie" (deli), a melange typically of savory celery root in mayonnaise, paté with walnuts, fromage St. Nectaire, goat or blue cheese, and of "pain de compagne" (country bread). In France profonde as the French like to call their agricultural sould, the white, fluffy bagaette gives way to a chewier, dark grain.

Dinner offered opportunity for experiments with Pa's cooking (not always a pleasant choice in most countries). Even in the ramshackled old-coaching stop in St. Privat (surely dating from Cyrano's era), where rain forced us in early, we devoured a superb "St. Pierre" (a Dordogne fish) served equisitely in pastry shell smothered in a piquant cream sauce.

Over-laden blackberry bushes lining country lanes in this southern clime and ignored by speeding motorists provided two-wheelers both dessert amd refreshment. Those not purloined could be purchased--June raspberries and strawberries--from innumerable farm stands. Mixed with "creme fraiche" the berries are transformed into gourmet treats.

Were the four cyclists still on speaking terms at journey's end? Not all pedal at the same speeds or wish to conquer this or that hill by late afternoon or can agree on daily sights. The advantage of each having his or her own means of transportation translates into greater flexibility without sacrificing comraderie.

Sometimes lunch brought us together, a lovely feast on picinic tables, for example, outside of Tauve situated on a brow of a hill where we chatted against the endless green landscape. Three days later Tony and Karen bushwacked into Chateau Castelnau while I and Catherine in lazy moment lingered in alluring Alivignac over a four-course repast at a roadside temple of gastronomy. In the end we parted just as good biking companions as ever.

"Poor Cyrano," Catherine had the last word as we boarded the train to meet our plane home, "born and bred in Paris, he missed out on the Dordogne!"