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Getting Creatively Lost: A Ramble Through France

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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The Rich Tourist

Carennac.

The town itself didn’t disappoint at all. Carennac is indeed lovely, with crooked, winding streets, an ancient cloister (naturally), and carefully restored houses. It’s larger than either St.-Sozy or Martel, but, I think, more moneyed than either. So even though the houses were closer together than at St.-Sozy, they still seemed separate, the spaces more private, the town less intimate than Martel.

The flip side of this is that Carennac is a destination, so it has more accommodations and restaurants. I chose poorly in the first category, and though it wasn’t expensive, the photos on the website led me to believe I was getting more for my money. I was staying at another chambres d’hôte, my third in a row, and easily the worst of the three. The place was neither clean, orderly, nor well appointed, and the owners, though kind and helpful, broke what I’ve come to believe is an important rule of running a successful bed-and-breakfast: sending a clear message about what it means have someone stay in your home as a paying guest.

They respected my privacy, absolutely–a crucial part of French culture–but were vague and contradictory about their own, so that I wound up interrupting family scenes, where I felt embarrassed and out of place. I’m sure they noticed my discomfort, but they did nothing to help. In the end, I felt guilty, as if I, the rich tourist, had to support people who were just scraping by, had a mess of kids, and so on.

It’s a tricky business, renting out your home, and you have to have a feel for it. But despite my experience at Carennac, I much prefer chambres d’hôte to hotels.

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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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Doesn't Everybody Speak English?

A street in St.-Sozy

That evening, I had one of the best dinners of my entire trip, at a place called Capricorne. Smoked duck breast salad, lamb chops, cheese, and a moist chocolate cake to die for. The wine was a Côtes du Lot, 70 percent malbec, 30 percent merlot, and I’d love to find it in the States, but haven’t. One of those things that they may not export.

Sitting behind me were a British couple who addressed the waiter in English as if they expected him to understand. Not so much as an attempt at asking whether he did, or dropping in a s’il vous plaît. The French are very proud of their language, and though they’re used to tourists, it doesn’t hurt to mention your difficulty with their native tongue. Turns out the waiter did understand, though not well, and took it in stride.

I mentioned this to Nelly and Charles, who told me a sweet story about that restaurant. They had Dutch guests once, who included a five-year-old girl. She went right up to another table, where a girl her age was sitting, and began talking to her in words, phrases, and gestures. Both sets of parents were charmed, and the waiter promptly moved a chair and her place setting so that the Dutch girl could eat next to her new friend.

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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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St.-Sozy

My first view of the Dordogne, just outside St.-Sozy.

The next morning, I was sad to leave Martel. Mathieu, Sylvie, and I said warm goodbyes, and they promised to send me a book about the stone huts that shepherds built, whose restoration is an interest of his. (I’ve since gotten the book, which I treasure.) Mathieu even looked out for me in his car to be sure I got on the right road to St.-Sozy! He didn’t believe me when I told him I realized I’d taken a wrong turn just before he pulled up beside me. Maybe I wouldn’t have believed me, either.

I made St.-Sozy with no trouble, letting my map and compass guide me. Just outside town, I latched onto the Dordogne, what many consider the most beautiful river in France. (I’ve seen all the major ones except the Garonne, and so far, I’d agree.)

St.-Sozy is a pretty town, very quiet, a keep-to-itself feel. The homes here are lovingly and tastefully restored, and set off from each other, which may account for that. I saw no tourist buses, nor any other tourists. In fact, I saw few people at all, either on the street or going anywhere.



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Unexpected Reward

Any way you look at it, Montmercou's spectacular.

On the way home–head north, no matter what–I had ample opportunity to realize what I’d gained by walking fourteen miles rather than eight or nine. In a word: humility. I had spent eight months planning my trip, making all my reservations in January for September. I knew train schedules, probable weather reports, elevation gains, mileage, menus of the best places to eat en route, which villages had grocery stores, and the opening hours of various attractions I might visit. I had three different maps of the area and clothes I’d carefully selected for their weight, practicality, and convenience. For Montmercou, I had two different descriptions of the route, even without Mathieu’s.

But I really didn’t know a thing. After all my obsessive planning, chance and my panic had gotten me lost, and chance brought me to Montmercou. The message was clear. There’s only just so much you can anticipate, and it’s everything else that’s worth while.


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