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Getting Creatively Lost: A Ramble Through France

Final Post: Heading Back to Paris

From Loubressac to Autoire.

The next morning, I got up early to catch a taxi to the train station across the river, in Bretenoux, where I’d catch a train back to Paris. I was sorry to leave the valley, and I felt a tightening in my chest at the approach of my time to go home. But it was time to go home.

I’d walked a hundred miles in ten days, about my speed. I’d seen beautiful countryside; smelled the fresh, fragrant air; got a closer sense of the people than I’d had before; poked around ancient castles and churches; eaten spectacular meals; drunk wine I wish were more available in the states (in the nearby Cahors, they have a way with malbec); and tested myself physically, a little. I was lonely, often, but often not. And when I was by myself, with no one to talk to, I thought about life, my family, and how I could be a better husband and father.

I couldn’t have asked for more.


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Causse de Lauriol

Climbing the Causse de Lauriol.

My last neighborhood ramble was up the Causse de Lauriol, a limestone plateau past the outskirts of St.-Céré. It was the most heavily wooded walk, and, not surprisingly, as unlike the Pacific Northwest as could be. I saw few conifers, but many more bushes and low-lying trees, the most common being a type of small oak I’d come across throughout the valley. The top of the plateau gave splendid views for miles around. What I liked most, though, was a sense of peace and quiet, as if everything that could possibly make noise were far, far away. I did some deep thinking in that place, one of the most refreshing, reviving walks in ten days.

On the way up, I passed a small, well-tended vineyard, where the grapes looked rich and ripe. I noticed shiny materials hanging from the vines every row or two. I couldn’t tell whether they were DVD disks, aluminum pie tins, or strips of metal. I asked the owner, who happened to be chopping wood, and he said–predictably–that the shiny material deterred birds. I asked him more questions, as with what type of grapes, but he pretended not to know, the first and only time on my wanderings that anybody stonewalled me.

Conversely, while en route through the Causse de Lauriol, I encountered two guys and their dog running in the opposite direction. We wished each other bonne route. Later, when I passed the café where they were having a drink, one looked up, waved, and alerted his companion so he could wave too. That cheered me and took the sting out of my interaction with the surly grape farmer.

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Jean Lurçat

Jean Lurçat's tapestry titled Chicago.

My first afternoon in St.-Céré, I walked up a long, hot, steep hill to a museum dedicated to Jean Lurçat, an artist little known across the Atlantic. He worked mostly in tapestries, and, many years ago, I’d stumbled across one in Angers called Le Chant du Monde (Song of the World). I like his whimsy, the power of his understatement, and his colors. His work reminds me of Chagall and Mirò, though for different reasons.

Lurçat lived in St.-Céré for much of his life, and the converted castle atop the steep hill served as his studio and residence. I was practically melting when I arrived and had to mop my forehead and fan myself a good fifteen minutes. The museum has an excellent collection of his work; not just tapestries, but paintings, in which he tested out many styles, including Cubism, and ceramics. But the studio and house itself are works of art, because Lurçat painted and/or carved designs into the walls and ceilings, and he painted and fired the dishes in the dining room.

The artist was quite a story himself, apparently. He was wounded twice in World War I and was active in the Resistance in the second war. It’s said that French Communists (there were many in the Resistance) helped him buy his castle. I asked someone at the museum whether that really happened, and he only smiled and shrugged.

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French Teenagers

Fish ladder and dam, St.-Céré.

The park near my hotel had many benches, perfect for writing in my travel diary, eating rich pastries, and watching the kids from the Lycée Jean Lurçat gossip, flirt, preen, laugh, and let off steam, like teenagers anywhere. Mostly, the boys and girls eyed each other from separate groups, but when they mixed, there was horseplay. The boys never tired of swiping a girl’s handbag, shinnying up a metal trellis structure, and hanging the bag there just out of reach. The girl thus chosen acted flustered but enjoyed the attention, and the boys drew out the drama, knowing just when to retrieve the bag–before putting it, or another one, back up there.

Having seen so many overweight adults, more than I remembered on previous trips to France, I wondered how these kids looked so thin–most did, anyway. Later, I looked up national obesity rates and saw that they’ve been climbing, showing a marked increase among the young. Smoking rates have shot up too. The next day at the park, coincidentally, I saw where the kids had left two enormous bags of potato chips and a pile of spilled tobacco.


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Saint-Céré

Saint-Céré from above.

The center of town in St.-Céré confused me, for no apparent reason. I must not have been used to a metropolis that boasted not one but three pharmacies (where I stocked up on those hip, slick, and cool blister remedies to bring home), and a half-dozen or more hotels. I went into the tourist bureau to ask where mine was and found it no more than a hundred yards away, though slightly obscured by a park. At least, that was my excuse.

My hotel, the Victor-Hugo, was a pleasant place run by two people born to be in the hospitality business. My room overlooked a small stream, remnants of a river-turned-creek, where a heron fished. Behind that was a park where the kids from a nearby lycée hung out during breaks and after school.

Being a good-sized village, St.-Céré also had three pastry shops. I was looking for a mille feuille (a Napoléon), but they only sold those in family sizes. So I settled for a puit d’amour (well of love), pastry cream inside a soft shell whose makeup I couldn’t define, topped with caramel cream. And yes, it was love at first bite.


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Simple Pleasures

The road to Saint-Céré.

The next day, I took my last village-to-village walk, to Saint-Céré, and the shortest, only about an hour and a half. I spent almost the entire route along a highway, unpleasant and nerve-wracking, but the simplest, most direct way to town. At the chambres d’hôte in St.-Sozy, I’d heard a few Israeli visitors complaining that St.-Céré wasn’t worth the trip, but that depends on your point of view.

It won’t make anyone’s list of the most beautiful towns in France, but beauty isn’t everything. For starters, St.-Céré has a laundromat, and I can’t tell you how thrilled I was to have discovered this in the tourist brochures in Autoire. Since I hadn’t washed anything since St.-Sozy, and since that last night there, I could smell my wardrobe from my hotel bed, I made that laundromat my first stop in St.-Céré. Trouble was, I had no place to change out of what I was wearing; the supermarket around the corner had no bathroom.

So I persuaded the woman who ran the hairdressing salon next door to allow me to use hers for a quick change. It took some doing, since she was at first dead set against it, and she resented having to remove everything valuable from that tiny room before I went into it–as if I would load up on her spare shampoo and stuff it into my backpack–but she did it. I thanked her profusely and offered her money, but she refused.


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Friendliness

A curious onlooker.

On the way back from the grotto, walking a back road, a guy pulled up in a small car. He looked familiar from my jaunt to the grotto, and turned out, he was. He said he’d seen me walk that same road in the other direction, asked where I’d gone, and expressed admiration for my spirit of adventure. Encounters like that made me feel less lonely.

That back lane also confirmed what I’d noticed before, a lovely perfume in the breeze. It wasn’t honeysuckle, though I saw it from time to time, but another plant, with white flowers. The scent was subtle, understated, but noticeable–very French. I also heard a woodpecker, for the first time in France.



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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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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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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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