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Getting Creatively Lost: A Ramble Through France

Sweet Victory

A view from Montermercou.

I found it, all right. A hundred yards across a meadow thick with brown grass and wilted wildflowers brought me to a stunning overlook. The entire valley spread out before me, villages nestled in green hills, and the Dordogne snaking between them, a slate-blue ribbon. Mathieu had told me that on a clear day, I might see all the villages on my itinerary. He was right. With rising excitement, I picked out each of them and wondered what adventures lay in store. Their promise whetted my wanderlust, and I forgot my painful foot.

Never had I earned my lunch on a hiking trail more deservedly, and seldom have I had a better. I cut slice after slice of baguette and cheese, and ate my apple, a reine de reinette, which reminded me of a cross between a Macintosh and a Braeburn, on the smallish side. With every bite, I tasted the sweetness of victory. Alone on that hill, I felt that the valley belonged to me in a special way. This was why I’d come to France.

Then I started to laugh–in triumph, at myself, at my panic and frustration. Every step of the way back to Martel hurt, but I didn’t care. I’d learned something precious.


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Stumbling and Bumbling

Wandering past fields, looking for the high ground.

After a rather long descent, which looked promising and matched my map, I somehow reached the Dordogne Valley equivalent of the Bermuda Triangle. With stunning inaccuracy, I misread the yellow markings, bordered cornfields to more back lanes, past more fields that had recently been harvested, and arrived at a crossroads that put me almost at St.-Sozy, the next village on my itinerary. Luckily, I ran into an Englishwoman exercising her dog–“You’re out of your way,” she remarked, in understatement–but her directions only made things worse.

Frustrated, tired, and pained in my blistered foot, I decided, To hell with Montmercou. I limped up a steep, rocky hill and reached the spot where I’d entered the Bermuda Triangle. I should have been headed back to Martel in two shakes. But I wasn’t.

I once more misread the yellow markings and set off at the wrong angle, traveling a road I hadn’t seen before. Pretty, it was, flanked by boxwood and shady trees most welcome in the afternoon heat, but that wasn’t enough. I’d gone almost nine miles and hadn’t found Montermercou, one of the chief sights of the area, known to every man, woman and child inhabiting the place. I paused to adjust my blister wrappings, and voilà, I looked up and saw a sign that read “Montermercou, altitude 317 meters.” Should I bother? What the hell. I went, allowing myself no more than five minutes to find the place, if I could.

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About Those Yellow Trail Markers . . .

Outside Martel, heading (more or less) toward Montmercou.

I had read of a lookout point outside Martel called Montmercou and decided to tackle it on my first full day in the village. Mathieu looked at my map and showed me a better route than the one I’d planned and told me it was no more than six or seven miles, there and back. My toe was bothering me, but I figured I could do that distance without much trouble and put my feet up afterward.

Famous last words. Unlike the Grande Randonnée, or GR, which is clearly marked in unique red-and-white bands on trees, rocks, stone walls, and lamp posts, local walks like this one have yellow markings that appear to multiply or vanish completely, depending on whether two itineraries coincide for awhile, only to diverge. Mathieu also told me later that people monkey with the yellow stripes, whether to add a favorite route or to keep visitors out. Helpful.

I got to the major crossroads, where a sign pointed me to Montmercou, and descended a pretty road with a sheep pasture on one side and a vineyard on the other. It would be several hours and many more miles before I saw it again.


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Back to the Village

Dreams for sale, St.-Sozy.

It’s easy to imagine why they left. Everywhere you go in France, there’s a monument to the dead of 1914-18, and the centenary of that conflict has resulted in many commemorations. Even a few small villages I passed through posted a facsimile of the 1914 mobilization order on the mayoralty bulletin board, and plaques in churches honored the fallen. As in Martel, many had the same last names, so it seems that some families were decimated. They must have picked up and left, unable to manage their farms anymore. Mathieu confirmed this, offering further that the forests I’d seen on the train had grown back because nobody had lived there to cut them down–and now, there are laws protecting them.

“Back to the land” has a nice ring to it, particularly to someone like me who came of age in the Sixties, so when I walked these places, I wondered what it would be like to live there. “For Sale” signs on uninhabited, vine-ridden stone houses, and other signs advertising expert masonry and plaster work for hire, kept those dreams percolating.

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Sylvie and Mathieu

Mathieu and Sylvie, my friends in Martel.

Where I stayed at Martel, and with whom, made all the difference. La Divinie is a chambres d’hôte, or bed-and-breakfast, in the medieval part of town, and a beautiful, warm home it is. Much of the structure dates from the seventeenth century, but there’s a garden wall four hundred years older than that. Chambres d’hôtes are often the only accommodations in small villages, but even when there’s a choice, I prefer them. They’re cheaper, in the main; the people who run them care about their guests; I learned a lot from them; and many will serve dinner, for an extra, modest charge.

Sylvie and Mathieu spent hours talking with me, and we became friends. They represent a growing segment of the French population, city dwellers who move to small villages because they prefer the slower pace, love the land, and admire its natural beauty. This “reverse exodus,” as Mathieu called it, has revived certain villages, Martel among them, from which many people fled after the First World War.


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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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The Pleasures of Martel

The Martel town hall, said to be the site where Young Henry ate his last dish of lampreys.

The tourists don’t stay long, though, because there’s not all that much to see. They hang out in a square actually outside the center of the medieval village, near most of the restaurants and small stores. I bought a caramel walnut tart, a local specialty, whose first bite made me laugh with pleasure; and a hearty, dark loaf called Crousti du Lot, which has got to be the best bread I’ve ever eaten during a dozen trips to France. There was also a pharmacy, one of the few on my route (as it turned out), whose helpful clerk sold me the alpha and omega of blister remedies. (Fellow hikers, take note: They’re called Urgo, they use a gel technology, and they’re sold in the UK.)

I was also lucky enough to arrive on market day, so I bought a luscious pear, joshing with the friendly fruit seller, and three cheeses I’d never tasted: tomme d’Aquitaine, bleu de brebis (sheep), and tomme de Gascon. Wow. Later, I tried to find them at a well-known Parisian cheese shop, but located only the brebis.

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Martel

A medieval street in Martel.

Though Martel doesn’t make the list of the most beautiful villages in France, I couldn’t tell the difference. According to legend, the village was founded by Charles of Herstal, called Le Martel (The Hammer), who triumphed over a Muslim army at the battle of Poitiers in 732. Like many such legends, this one's dubious, but the village nevertheless bears hammers on its heraldic shield in Charles’s honor. What is true is that Young Henry, the first surviving son of Henry II and Eleanor, died here in 1183, after pillaging the abbey at Rocamadour, to the south. Was it his blasphemous crime or a dish of lampreys that did him in?

As you approach Martel, you see a church tower, the highest point on the landscape (as its builders intended), and you wend your way through narrow streets that have retained a medieval character. But it’s done tastefully, as people would who’re conscious and proud of their heritage, and everything fits a small scale (population: about 1,500). Martel feels nothing like a theme park or tourist trap, though the tour buses do visit.


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Land of the Grape

Another roadside attraction.

Wouldn’t you know, though, hardly five miles from Saint-Denis-près-Martel and not yet at the village of Martel, my destination, I began to feel a blister. My expensive, made-to-order hiking shoes, which had never troubled me, chose this moment to give me grief, on the verge of fulfilling my longtime dream. I padded the spot as best I could and tried to shrug away my frustration. I’d sensed that this trip would be a test of character; I just hadn’t known exactly how. But there was much more to come.

Meanwhile, I enjoyed the scenery. Most houses by the roadside had fences, and most of those fences had grape vines trained horizontally, so that bunches of purple grapes hung down invitingly. They weren’t enough to make wine from, but once in a while, I saw small vineyards too. I was tempted to taste the grapes growing on the fences but refrained, thinking I might offend the owners. I found out later I could have, that the grapes don’t matter. It’s the truffles that matter, very expensive delicacies, and people who trespass to hunt them find a heap of trouble.

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Oh, What a Beautiful Morning

On the road to Martel.

I got lost, of course, right afterward. But I knew my general direction, and I had a good map (I recommend the 1:25,000 topographical maps from the National Geographical Institute, the Institut Géographic National), so I wasn’t worried. How could I be, when the scenery was so enchanting, and a wrong turn meant I saw more of it?

I walked back lanes flanked by sunstruck fields, already warming by ten o’clock, the mist rapidly vanishing like a wraith unwilling to be seen by day. Corn grew in places, the plants two feet taller than me, though I noticed rust in spots and wondered how the crop would be this year. Brilliant reddish pumpkins grew in small plots by the roadside, and beyond lay rolling hills set with copses, perhaps as windbreaks. Apple trees flanked my way, at times, and walnuts, the shells from previous seasons crunching underfoot occasionally. Best of all, it was very, very quiet.

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