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Getting Creatively Lost: A Ramble Through France

In Autoire

Above Autoire.

After the castle, I made a steep descent on a rocky, twisting path, unkind to a bad toe, and was rewarded again, coming on a lovely, shaded path through the woods, past a waterfall and a brook.

Another half-mile brought me to the village of Autoire, where there’s not much to do except admire the few houses, drink on the hotel terrace, or buy mushrooms from the shop down the street. However, it’s gorgeous, especially at night. As the light falls, the silhouette of the surrounding hills (and the English castle) fades, and the village towers etch themselves against the darkening sky. My hotel room even had a balcony, from which, the next morning, I watched the mist gradually lift from the same view under the brightening sun.


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To Autoire

A path between Loubressac and Autoire.

The path to Autoire impressed me more than any I took between villages. It had everything a hiker could want–views, an antiquity, a waterfall and brook, and a pretty destination where a cold Leffe was waiting to be drunk.

Much of my route went through woods, for once, with low stone walls on either side, and climbing a back road brought me to a lookout to end all lookouts. Farther on, I came to “the English castle,” doubtless a relic from the Hundred Years War, which ended in the fifteenth century. Built into a hillside, the masonry, still in excellent shape, had a light, tawny color, and the crossbow slits offered marvelous views. As with Taillefer, I think it must have been a guardhouse/lookout.


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What a Peach Is

Loubressac

My last breakfast in Carennac, I learned what a peach was. I never knew; not really. A peach is soft, yet firm; juicy, sweet, but not cloying; flesh that melts in your mouth (and all over your chin). That’s a peach, my friends, grown locally, my host told me.

So fortified, I was primed to get lost on my way to Autoire, my next village, so I did. I was trying to avoid a steep up-and-down that had tuckered me out on the way to the Taillefer ruins, so I took what my map suggested was a viable detour. Wrong. By the time I found the good, old GR652 to Loubressac, a key waypoint, my dogs were barking.

Loubressac, though pretty, didn't grab me, and I had no urge to dawdle. Legions of tourists go there, because it makes the list of most beautiful villages. The houses are larger than in other villages I visited, set back farther from the road and one another, and often fenced or behind hedges. Loubressac lacked the character of a place lived in and felt like a rich person’s retreat. But it did have a viewpoint, a spectacular one, and a grocery where a hungry traveler may buy lunch. No peaches, unfortunately.

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Village Fare

Carennac.

Nothing like a splendid dinner to ease fatigue and soreness, and Le Prieuré served one I won’t soon forget. While it’s a myth that every out-of-the-way French village restaurant sets a good table, it’s true often enough. Carennac isn’t as out-of-the-way as some, but this restaurant was better than most, and I include Paris in that verdict.

Not the cheapest dinner, at €37, but I had a grand time. A typical salad with smoked duck breast, honey, cheese, and butter lettuce; faux filet with mashed potatoes and a zucchini soufflé; and a state-of-the-art lemon tart, different from any I’ve ever had, made in-house. It had a soft crust, a tart filling that you’d hardly know contained eggs, and a soft topping of confectioners’ sugar and chopped nuts. What I wouldn’t give for the recipe.

Yelp had given this place mixed reviews, because the management was sniffy. Not at all. My server held a running conversation with me, first, about the raucous party that never stopped laughing (“They’re nicely set up on apéritifs,” she said, rolling her eyes in amusement), and, later, when I turned down coffee, “Of course, not at this time of night.” Which led her to ask where I was staying, and what I was doing in the valley. She was more forthcoming than many, but everywhere I went, people were curious about a tourist who walked alone over their paths and back roads. When they wished me bonne route, they meant it.


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Amid the Ruins

Just your ordinary, everyday ruined castle in the woods at Taillefer.

Carennac itself is still worth visiting, and the next day, I found out why. Skipping out after an early breakfast to beat a predicted thunderstorm that never appeared–the weather forecasters were dead wrong in that way at least four times, luckily for me–I went on a nine-mile tramp on a ridge above the river. I was heading for the so-called Taillefer ruins.


The ruins are what’s left of a castle, a structure no bigger than forty or fifty feet long and a little more than half that wide. One legend says that the Knights Templars built it (probably untrue) as a signal station and leper house (very likely), but it doesn’t matter. Admirable as a signal station, the castle occupies a hill overlooking the Dordogne and offers a commanding view. On a clear day, as this was, it would be easy to see anyone approach from miles away, and a burning torch set here would be just as easily spotted from the valley below.

These ruins spoke to me. I spent time sitting among them, the walls of broken stone that had once had so much purpose, from which you could build any sort of drama you liked–and who knows, it might have happened. I was also pretty tickled at being able to walk through the woods and happen on a castle more than five centuries old. That’s something that doesn’t happen every day.


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On to Carennac

On the road to Floirac.

The next day, Sunday, it was on to Carennac, the longest leg of my trip, almost fourteen miles. Much of it was a dull plod, as I was on the roads a lot, so I won’t say much about it, though I liked two villages I passed through. Gluges, on the river, was very pretty (its modern claim to fame is the birthplace of Edith Piaf, the Parisian cabaret singer). I also liked Floirac, where a good friend of Mathieu’s runs a beer bar called Pourquoi Pas?, ablaze with signs advertising Belgian brew. My kind of place, but it was closed, and Floirac is the type of village that if you blink, you’ll miss it.

I was looking forward mightily to Carennac, the first village on my trip belonging to the list of the most beautiful in France. I gather that to make this list, the village must be below a certain size; have an ancient monument of some kind (usually a medieval church or cloister); and be willing and able to enforce a building code to retain its antique character. It probably also requires a fee to the national tourist office, which promotes these places, though I read that between the lines.

So I was curious what sort of place Carennac would be, to merit all this attention.

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