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Getting Creatively Lost: A Ramble Through France

Different Scenery

On the road to Martel.

Hiking in France seldom looks or feels like its American counterpart, especially not like the Pacific Northwest, where I live. Despite what I saw on the train south to Brive, you’ll find few French forests as densely wooded or as large as ours, and in most places, you’re seldom far from human habitation, except that the houses have a different character.

So it was in the Dordogne. In some ten-mile stretches between villages, two or three miles at most might be forest trails. Rather, I spent more time on paths between fields or on back roads, hardly wider than a car, and I might pass hours without seeing any cars. Nor did I meet other hikers, but that was likely because French schools had already reopened for business.

The route from the Saint-Denis-près-Martel wound up a steep, two lane road, heavily trafficked–and then I turned up a country lane and was alone. I passed lovingly restored stone houses with roofs of slate or terra-cotta tiles; a raptor, probably a buzzard, flitted between the trees.

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Stepping into the Dream

The hills behind the train station at Saint-Denis-près-Martel.

The station at Saint-Denis-près-Martel was about the size of a two-car garage. As the train pulled out, heading further south, I experienced a slight moment of panic: The motorized world has left me behind. From now on, everywhere I go, my feet have to take me there.

I went around to the back of the station and readied myself for the long journey. I carried thirteen pounds of gear, including my two packs, but my inner resources would be the ones that mattered. My French is good; my sense of direction isn’t.

The mist nestled like a sleepy cloud on field and pastures, gilded by the morning sun; green hills beckoned beyond. It was just another summer day in the Dordogne, but to me, I had never seen anything so compelling. My heart raced with anticipation, and I pulled out my map and compass. After years of wouldn’t-it-be-wonderful and months of preparation, I was about to find out whether hiking village-to-village in the Dordogne was the idyll I’d dreamed of.

But first, I had to retie my shoes.

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Plane, Trains, But No Automobile

Those lovely stripes that tell you you're on the Grande Randonnée.

I flew to Paris on Labor Day and landed Tuesday morning. Since I had a few hours before my train south, I visited the Musée d’Orsay. It’s one of my favorite destinations in Paris, but again, practicality ruled, because the Orsay happens to have a cloakroom, where I stored my backpack, and not all Parisian museums do. I paid homage to Manet, Corot, Bonnard, and other artists, and headed to a restaurant I know, la Côté Bergamote, near the Mabillon métro stop.

I lunched on a Middle Eastern salad with chicken and julienned vegetables and got a pointer or two on how to make their to-die-for almond mousseline, which I’d enjoyed on a previous visit. I felt jazzed, bouncy, delighted to be in Paris, despite the high-eighties temperature. But I wilted during a dull, hot train ride to Brive-la-Gaillarde, 300 miles south. Not much to say about it, except that after an hour or two, we crossed the eastern Loire Valley, and I was surprised to see so many trees, there and further south. I’d thought the area had been heavily deforested.

Even from Brive, I still had one more train to catch the next morning, about twenty-five miles further south to Saint-Denis-près-Martel, where my adventure would begin.

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Barn, between Martel and St.-Sozy.

I chose the Dordogne for practical reasons above all. Sure, the area is rich in history. It was part of Aquitaine, the ancient province from which the remarkable Eleanor hailed before she married a French Louis and an English Henry and ran afoul of both king-husbands. And yes, I wanted to see the old farmhouses and castles and the beautiful river the guidebooks talked so much about.

But the Dordogne is also a place where the terrain, though hardly flat, is gentle enough for my geezer legs; I could get close enough by rail to my starting point; and where I could find a string of villages in which to spend extra time to hike in the neighborhood. Though it takes research, it’s fairly straightforward to find an itinerary that suits you. If you’re interested in a trip like this, check out the self-guided tour companies like Sentiers de France and Inntravel, based in the UK. Both have good Web sites.

You might also consider a subscription to SityTrail, which, for 25€ a year, gives you a contour map of France that fits on your cell phone, tablet, or computer. The map includes the major trail system, the so-called GR (Grande Randonnée) and has a GPS function, if your device permits.

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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.

Like this blog? I invite you to visit my other one, Novelhistorian, in which I review historical fiction and history.  Read More 

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Last Post

I'm sorry to have to say that this is my last post, at least for the foreseeable future. Changes in my work schedule have made it difficult to keep up with this page, so I've decided to close down until I find a way to continue.

I apologize for the abrupt notice and wish  Read More 
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We Never Make Mistakes

But even to suggest that the General Staff had planned the invasion terror in preparation for the military occupation to follow revealed what I believe the greatest, costliest weakness among Wilhelmine Germany’s leadership: the pretense of omniscience. Official Germany preferred to confess to wanton terror rather than concede a human inability to control  Read More 
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Why They Didn't Plan It

Several historians, perhaps most famously Barbara Tuchman, have argued that the Germans intended the terror to cow the Belgian population and guarantee their quiescence. That would explain, more concretely than mass hysteria, why so many punishments occurred.

However, as I said, no strong evidence supports this contention, except in the case of Dinant. Otherwise,  Read More 
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A Predictable Result?

The invaders, suspicious of the Belgians from the get-go, labored under tremendous emotional and physical stress, and believed that they were the embattled, surrounded forces even though they outnumbered the Belgian Army by more than seven to one. The Germans were primed to see francs-tireurs, so they saw them–hundreds of times, in every  Read More 
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Raising the Stakes

Carrying out such an ambitious invasion plan was demanding enough, but the men assigned to the task were mostly reservists, plucked from civilian life only days before. The shock to body, spirit, and psyche must have been enormous. Few except aging career officers had served in 1870-71, so the vast majority of invaders had  Read More 
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