Discovering Dordogne


words + pictures by Ellen Barone

Sometime after the 15,000 – 17,000 year-old cave paintings, right before the black truffle walnuts, my feet quit hurting. I lift my eyes to see the beauty of the view before me; an ancient landscape of imposing castles, lush farmland and cliffside villages that make the Dordogne one of France’s most inspiring regions. In the distance, the Dordogne River curves gently around a bend beneath a mist-shrouded château, then out of sight.

 

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My sister, Kathy, and I snap photo after photo as we walk a centuries-old trail, through fields of drying corn and a backdrop of prehistoric caves and limestone cliffs, toward the village of La Roque Gageac, our base for the next two nights. Late afternoon honey hued light bathes the overhanging cliffs, home to human occupation some 400,000 years back to the days of the Neanderthals. It’s been a twelve-mile day, our third, and my body is thriving on a menu of sunshine, fresh air and physical exertion. It is for exactly this that we have chosen a walking vacation.

Because this is my second walk in France with The Wayfarers, I arrived ready to be seduced by the language, scenic grandeur, culinary delights, congenial camaraderie of inquisitive travelers and experienced guides. But perhaps the greatest pleasure of a walking tour is seeing the cliffs, castles, narrow medieval lanes and oak forests en plein air, an entirely different sensation than we’d experience in the detached bubble of a vehicle. Then there’s the feel of morning mist and afternoon sun on your skin, the sense of accomplishment and what unexpectedly evokes the most powerful emotions in me - the plentiful traces of primitive man that scatter the ancient region.

At the Grottes de Font-de-Gaume I marvel at the prehistoric cave paintings for which the region is known: depictions of bison, mammoths, reindeer and horses painted in browns, black and earth, made by people who lived here 10,000 to 45,000 years ago. My first impulse is to try not to learn, to analyze, or to think, but to simply see. Beyond its historical significance, the visual evidence of man’s primordial need to create strikes a chord deep within. Photography is prohibited, so I allow myself the visceral pleasure of looking, listening and feeling the setting far removed from modern life.

During our seven-days in the Dordogne, I lose myself in the majestic scenery, the forest paths, winding lanes, medieval towns and elegant châteaux. And like the Homo sapiens – Cro-Magnon and the Neanderthal – who preceded me, I succumb to the urge to illustrate my surroundings. In true Global Citizen form, I commit the experience to digital memory.

I return home with the same sense of wonder that I felt in France, this time, sitting at my computer, a continent removed from the prehistoric art, cobblestone streets, stone walls lined with flowerpots, bustling markets and foie gras shops. Watching as images download and fill the screen, I awaken again within me the feelings of connection and awe I experienced traveling, and, for a magical moment, realize how miraculous life is.

 

For More Information:

The Wayfarers walking vacations include six to twelve nights in luxury accommodations and characteristic country inns & hotels; all meals (including wine with dinner) and on-trail snacks and refreshments; gratuities at hotels and restaurants; full-time services of both a walk leader and manager, support vehicle and all transfers (ferries, taxis, trains, etc.) as specified. 800-249-4620; www.thewayfarers.com.

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Ellen Barone has been creating words and images for travel and tourism since 1998. She co-founded and publishes the travel blog YourLifeIsATrip.com and is currently at work on her first book "I Could Live Here".