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Getting Creatively Lost: A Ramble Through France

Grottes de Presque

A formation inside the Grottes de Presque.

Shortly afterward, I headed out to the Grottes de Presque, a grotto about four miles away. Part of the route involved a highway, one lane in each direction, which I disliked. But French drivers are generally very respectful of hikers (saving their aggression for each other), and even semis crossed the center line to give me plenty of room when they could, which they didn’t really have to do. And for the first time since the start of my trip, my feet didn’t hurt at all.

I liked the grotto itself, though it wasn’t worth forty-five minutes, during which the guide talked constantly, rat-a-tat-tat. But the grotto was gorgeous, with formations of calcium, iron, and manganese, often in forms that resembled whatever a French person would see in them: rabbits, a nun, a dog, intestines, or a crèche. The guide referred to the Christian symbols as if they were universal, whereas I wouldn’t have recognized the nun, for instance. I had to laugh to myself when the guide, who knew I was American–the only foreigner on that tour–asked me privately what the English word for crèche was.


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Three Difficult Things

Wall of proverbs, St.-Sozy.

The next day, I tried to hike again, through the town of Meyronne, just across the river, but had to turn back because of my feet. I lunched in the town square, small enough to throw a snowball across, where I overheard a conversation between a man sweeping leaves and his neighbor. They traded jokes, making fun of English tourists who huff and puff on the hills.

Walking through town, I passed a mural someone had made of poetic aphorisms and drawings. One said:
There are three difficult things:
Keep a secret
Wipe away an insult
Occupy your spare time.

I remembered that last one that afternoon. I couldn’t walk any further, so I did a laundry in the bathtub of my room and set the clothes on the chair to dry in the sun while I reread Animal Farm by George Orwell, which my hosts had on a public bookshelf.


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Roc Monge

A view from Roc Monge, St.-Sozy

My hosts in St.-Sozy, Nelly and Charles, are Dutch folk who left the rat race almost two decades ago to take up tending a chambres d’hôte on a hillside overlooking town. They were very welcoming, despite not having expected me so early. Since I had plenty of spring in my legs after the five-mile walk from Martel, I decided to tackle Roc Monge, the best hike in the area, which overlooks the valley just outside of St.-Sozy. Nelly showed me the best route, and I was off.

My feet were killing me; I kept popping my blisters, using the needle that Sylvie had so kindly given me. But there was plenty of climbing to irritate them further, and I knew I’d pay the price once I stopped.

So I didn’t stop. Roc Monge has to be among the most spectacular hikes I’ve ever taken. What a view, of the kind that I’d dreamed of, which had brought me to France in the first place. Geometrically laid-out fields abutted hamlets, while the river, a broad, slate-blue band, wound through them. The sight took my breath away.


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An Intimate Village

The twelfth-century tympanum at St. Maur

What I liked best about Martel as a place was its intimacy. Unlike other villages further along my route, most residents lived in multifamily dwellings, not fancy houses fenced off and set back from the roads. Walk the quiet, narrow streets in the early afternoon or early evening, and you can tell what everybody’s cooking for lunch or dinner. Martel’s a homey place.

Late my first afternoon, I visited the church of St. Maur, whose entryway dates from the twelfth century and is worth a look. Its bell tower, built with defense in mind during the Hundred Years War with England, was what I’d seen entering town. My first evening, in the shadow of that tower, I ate duck breast, a Dordogne specialty, while swallows swooped and dived in the fading light, and the tower rang vespers. Only in Europe.


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Realizing the Dream

Ruined castle, outside Carennac.

For years, I’ve dreamed of hiking village-to-village in France, carrying only what fits in a small, manageable day pack, seeing the countryside and people close up. Last September, I finally did it, walking ten days through the valley of the Dordogne, visiting villages named among the most beautiful in France. (Yes, they keep a list.) I had the time of my life, despite getting lost, raising painful blisters, and having no company except my own.

In this space, I’ll be recounting that delightful trip. I’ve had mixed feelings all my life about France, whose prejudices I hate but whose culture and people I generally admire. However, the recent, senseless bloodshed prompts me to write this love letter, a pinhole peep at the nation I’ve had the good fortune to know in various ways.


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