In the Land of Lavender – The Best of the Luberon

In the Land of Lavender – The Best of the Luberon

It was well into autumn when I visited the Lubéron for the first time. Tourists were thin on the ground in the medieval villages perched atop craggy limestone ledges rising from the rolling valleys of this idyllic corner of Provence in the southern foothills of the Alps. I was in a photographer’s paradise! Until I caught my first glance at the lavender fields that are the symbol of the region. By now they were just sad rows of neatly trimmed dull green pincushions ready for the onset of winter.

Lavender Season

Luberon-lavender tourist.

My friend Ligaya strikes the de-rigueur pose in a lavender field.

For lavender, the blooming season starts around the summer solstice, peeks in early July and culminates with the harvest by the end of the month. It took me almost a decade to manage a return visit within this propitious timeframe. But finally, on a recent July morning, I am heading north from Aix-en-Provence at the wheel of a tiny cherry red rental car, the kind that gets laughs in Hollywood comedies about Europe. My co-pilote is a friend, who with impeccable sense of timing, recently announced her visit for precisely this week. This is her first time in the Lubéron. I am delighted to share with her the most spectacular spots of the region.

Picture Perfect Gordes

Luberon-Gorde village.

Gordes is the most visited village of the Lubéron.

Even in an area famous for its abundance of picturesque villages perchés (hilltop villages), the first glance at Gordes is guaranteed to take your breath away. Coming from the south, the narrow road leading to the crest of a cliff suddenly reveals, on the opposite side of the chasm, one of the most spectacular villages ever. Its tall white limestone houses are anchored to the rock face along lanes that wind upward toward the castle and church at the very top of the promontory. Don’t be surprised if the site looks vaguely familiar. It has scored a supporting role in several movies over the time, most notably the BBC mini-series, “A Year in Provence”, and the popular 2006 Ridley Scott movie, “A Good Year”, starring Russell Crowe.

To be honest, the view is the most interesting part of Gordes. We soon leave behind its quaint cobbled streets lined with souvenir shops and continue on to the main event of our itinerary, the lavender fields of the Abbaye de Sénanque.

Sénanque Abbey

Luberon-Senanque vista.

A bend in the road reveals a bird’s eye view of Sénanque.

It’s a slow-going four kilometers (2.5 miles) north from the village, via a steep downhill road cut into the rock face, to Sénanque. Halfway down the cliff, a vantage point reveals a bird’s eye preview of the 850-year-old abbey wedged into the narrow valley floor below, surrounded by it famous purple fields of lavender in full bloom.

Luberon-Senanque church

Our Lady of Sénanque is one of the finest examples of medieval Cistercian architecture in Provence.

Built in the twelfth century by Cistercian monks, Sénanque is one of the finest and best-preserved examples of Romanesque monastic architecture in Provence. The stark beauty of its limestone façade, weathered by the centuries to a pale heather gray, provides a perfect backdrop for the dense rows of purple flowers undulating in the warm summer breeze. This time of year, hundreds of visitors from around the world make their way daily to the abbey, eager to experience first hand and get their own shots of this unique place.

Luberon-Senanque gift shop.

The gift shop is adjacent to the medieval dormitory.

In spite of this influx of tourists, who are welcomed by lay people, the abbey maintains its monastic life, following the medieval cycle of prayer, silence, study and work of the cloistered Cistercian order. In addition to the cultivation and processing of lavender, the monks also keep hives. A wide range of lavender and honey products is available in the gift shop.

The church, reputed for its harmonious Romanesque lines arching toward a gently pointed barrel vault, is open to visitors. Also notable is the absence of main a portal. In keeping with the Cistercian ideals of simplicity, the entrance consists of two modest doors that open onto the side aisle. A guided visit of the adjoining twelfth century cloister and monastic buildings is also possible.

A Blazing Palette

Luberon-Roussillon.

Roussillon owes its vibrant colors to the nearby ochre quarries.

Leaving behind the fragrant lavender fields buzzing with honeybees and tourists, we head eastward along a shady country road to Roussillon. Situated atop one of the richest ochre deposits in the world, this tiny hilltop village emerges from a forest of lush green pine trees like a life-size Post-Impressionist painting. The ochre-tinted facades of the houses lined along the maze of narrow cobbled lanes create an astonishing palette of flaming colors ranging from subtle yellows to dark reds, set off by the vivid blue Provencal sky. Other than this spectacular sight, the main attraction of Roussillon is the Sentier des Ocres (Ochre Trail), a relatively easy hiking trail through the former ochre quarries and surrounding woods, which starts just at edge of the village.

After a day of touring the roller-coaster back roads of the Lubéron and taking in its most iconic sites, we leave behind its rugged perched villages to head south into a lovely valley filled with vineyards and olive groves.Our final destination of the day, the charming village of Lourmarin.

Good to Know

  • Getting There – Gordes is located 100 kilometers (62 miles) north of Marseille, 75 kilometers (46 miles) north of Aix-en-Provence and 50 kilometers (31 miles) east of Avignon.. Because of the narrow country roads in the Lubéron and the large influx of visitors during the summer months, driving times can vary widely with the seasons.
  • Visiting – Comprehensive information for visitors to the entire area is available through the official tourism site: Lubéron Coeur de Provence.

Location, location, location!

Abbaye de Sénanque

In the Land of the good life – Château La Fleunie, Perigord

In the Land of the good life – Château La Fleunie, Perigord

Périgord… A word that conjures up medieval castles, precipitous cliffs, intriguing archeological sites and extravagantly rich food. I suspect the good life was born here, as wave after wave of our prehistoric ancestors came to settle in the many shelters conveniently hollowed out of the limestone cliffs by the Vézère and Dordogne rivers. And then there was the all-you-can-eat barbecue potential of the herds of reindeers that roamed the narrow alluvial valleys.

Perigord-Chateau La Fleunie.

Château La Fleunie is a medical castle reborn as boutique hotel.

By the middle ages, our forbearers were building fortresses to keep at bay the hordes of invaders eager to appropriate their good life. And from the bounty of their fertile land, they were creating a gastronomy that evolved into the pride of the region. Truffles and duck confit are traditional fare here.

Many fortified castles still stand on the hilltops, facing each other across the now peaceful banks of the rivers. Others materialize along the back roads that curve up and down the steep hills, when an opening in the foliage reveals turrets and crenellated walls. Some have remained private properties that can only be admired from afar, or historic sites to be visited in passing. But for visitors who yearn for a more personal experience, a number of these beautifully restored châteaux now have a new life as boutique hotels.

Le Château La FLeunie

Perigord - La Fleunie rear wing.

The rear wing of the hotel once housed the stables of the castle.

Little is known of the history of La Fleunie, other than it was built in the twelfth century by the Order of Saint John of Jerusalem, a community of monastic knights (later known as the Knight of Malta), on an estate given to them by the ruler of the area as reward for services rendered during the first crusades. The knights managed to hang on to their château for several centuries, and even enhance it in the fifteenth century (witness the Renaissance dormers). But eventually, local nobility moved in and the surrounding land became a part of their vast agricultural domain. Today, after a complete renovation in 1990 that mercifully preserved its original character, La Fleunie has become a charming 33-room, three-star hotel, secluded within its own 106-hectare (260-acre) estate.

Perigord-La Fleunie reception.

The public spaces have retained a medieval flair.

The first thing that attracts us to La Fleunie, other than the storybook looks of its pale U-shaped sandstone facades and four circular towers topped with sharply pointed slate roofs, is its location. The main purpose of our visit this weekend, Montignac, home to the world famous Paleolithic painted caves of Lascaux and the recently opened Centre International d’Art Parietal (International Center of Rock Wall Art), is only eight kilometers (five miles) away via a scenic back road. And all the other not-to-be-missed sites on our list (troglodyte villages of the Vézère Valley, and medieval gems along the Dordogne River) are all within a 45-minute drive. After a day spent roaming the countryside for prehistoric caves to Renaissance wonders, we enjoy returning to our very own château and relaxing on the lawn with a pre-dinner drink. Life is good at La Fleunie. And it’s about to get better.

La Table du Chevalier

Perigord-La Fleunie dining room.

The rustic dining room décor recalls its medieval history.

We are dining at La Table du Chevalier (the Knight’s Table) tonight, which the property’s website introduces as its restaurant gastronomique, the French code word for seriously upscale in both its cuisine and setting. No idle boast in a place where gastronomy has been a way of life ever since overweight ducks were first turned into foie gras.

Perigord-Table du Chevalier asparagus starter.

The cream of asparagus starter is garnished with foie gras.

 

The dining room is formal, decorated with a medieval flair that recalls the property’s history. The ancient beams that hold the soaring ceiling are adorned with brightly colored hand-painted garlands. The upholstery of the high back dining chairs recalls the faded tapestries hanging from on the rough limestone walls. The white linen-draped tables are set far apart to ensure the privacy and comfort of the guests. The stage is set for a memorable meal.

Memorable Meals

Perigord-La Fleunie spring lamb.

The filet of spring lamb is grilled to perfection.

After a lovely amuse-bouche of salmon tartare topped with a swirl of tangy, cloudlike lime mousse, I start with the chaud-froid d’asperges. The cool cream of fresh asparagus is garnished with paper-thin slices of smoked magret de canard (duck breast) and slivers of foie gras. It’s smooth, light and bursting with interesting flavors. I follow with a filet of spring lamb, grilled to medium-rare perfection, and served with alternating dollops of smoky purée of white beans and mousseline of potatoes enhanced with grainy old-style mustard. Brilliant in its apparent simplicity.

Perigord-Table du Chevalier confit.

The confit de canard is drizzled with nuggets of caramelized duck skin.

One of my dining companions, who can never pass up a duck confit, orders the innocuously listed “Confit de Canard with the chef’s potato purée”. It appears as a mysterious mound of smooth potatoes enhanced by chopped fresh vegetable and herbs, drizzled with bits of caramelized duck skin and topped with a crunchy ball of pastry filled with duck essence. A generous portion of boneless confit is concealed under the succulent potato puree. All it takes is a taste to convince all three of us accomplices on this girlfriends’ escapade to order it the following night.

Yes, we so thoroughly enjoy this first dinner that we reserve our table on the spot for the next evening.

The Knight behind the Table

Perigord -Chef Gregory Lafeuille

Chef Gregory Lafeuille.

There was never any question for Gregory Lafeuille, the inspired young chef of La Table du Chevalier, that he belonged in the kitchen. By the tender age of eight, he had declared himself in charge of preparing his family’s desserts, and had already compiled his own notebook of recipes. Fast forward a decade or so, and this Perigord native is pursuing advanced cooking and pastry studies at the Lycée Hôtelier in nearby Souillac. There, he earns himself internships in prestigious local restaurants, including Le Vieux Pont at Belcastel (one Michelin star) and Michel Bras in Laguiol (three Michelin stars), as well as further afield with the Spanish luxury hospitality chain Parador. Back in Perigord, within three year of starting at Le Château in St Geniès, he works his way up to sous-chef. Another brush with stars follows, in London this time, at Chef Marcus Wareing’s eponymous Marcus restaurant in Belgravia (two Michelin stars) before returning home to join La Table du Chevalier. Here, after two years as sous-chef he assumes the top role in 2016, and now dishes out his own style of masterfully prepared, elegantly presented creations rich with the earthy flavors of the Perigord heartland.

Chef Lafeuille’s imaginative cuisine is so popular with local gourmets at well as La Fleunie guests that reservations are a must, especially on weekends.

Good to Know

  • Getting in TouchChâteau La Fleunie, Rue d’Aubas, 24570 Condat-sur-Vézère, France. Contact: e-mail lafleunie@free.fr,Tel: +33 (0)5 53 51 32 74
  • Getting There – Condat-sur-Vézère is located four hours by car southwest of Paris and 2 hours northeast of Bordeaux (Highway A89, exit n°17 Montignac-Lascaux).

A Few Souvenirs

Location, location, location!

Château La Fleurie

Troglodyte Living in the Valley of the Vézère

Troglodyte Living in the Valley of the Vézère

Since the dawn of time, humans have set up camp in the Valley of the Vézère, a verdant corner of southwestern France where the river meanders along the base of forested limestone cliffs. While the Vézère brought an ample supply of water, the galleries it hollowed into the soft stone offered secure shelter against predators and harsh weather conditions. They also provided the canvas upon which the first stone ages artists came to express themselves. Within a radius of 25 kilometers (15 miles) from the village of Les Eyzies de Tayac-Sireuil, there are 15 major archeological sites now rated UNESCO World Heritage Sites. Half of them are painted caves, including the world-famous Lascaux.

Layers of Time

Vezere-Bison

Found in the Abri de la Madeleine, this bison is carved on an reindeer antler. Les Eyzies, National Prehistory Museum.

While the painted caves say much about the sophistication of the people who created them and the fauna of their time, the archeological sites are no less fascinating. The early inhabitants of what was to become the Perigord Noir (thus named for its dense forests of dark oaks) have left proofs of the existence and way of life of layers upon layers of civilizations that succeeded here. Artifacts uncovered in La Micoque indicate occupancy of the area by our Paleolithic predecessors over 400,000 years ago. Then the Neanderthals showed up around 150,000 B.C. and left abundant clues of their lifestyle in Le Moustier. And finally our direct ancestors, the Homo Sapiens settled in Cro-Magnon some 30,000 years ago. While these sites only have reference value today, as they have been thoroughly excavated since late nineteeth century and are currently closed to visitors, a number of other sites are inviting us to visit our history.

The Magdalenian Age

Vezere - Troglodyte Madeleine.

Tucked high into the cliff, the troglodyte medieval village of La Madeleine overhangs the river. Beneath it, the prehistoric site is concealed by vegetation.

La Madeleine is a 250-meter (820-foot) long rock shelter complex within a 45-meter (150-foot) high cliff on the right bank of the Vézère. Its southern orientation and easy access to the water made it especially desirable to inhabitants that occupied the site from prehistoric times to the nineteenth century. Tucked within the base of the overhanging cliff, the Abri de la Madeleine (Magdalene Shelter) sits just a few meters above today’s river bank. It is recognized as having been densely occupied from five millennia, starting in 17,000 B.C., by tribes of semi-nomadic hunter-gathers.

Vezere - Madeleine horse baton.

Perforated baton with low relief horse, from La Madeleine. London, British Museum.

Discovered in the mid-nineteenth century, it yielded a treasure trove of silex tools for domestic and hunting use, bone needles and jewelry, harpoons and spear tips made of antlers, many decorated with engravings of animals. So important was the find that archeologists officially named the Upper Paleolithic culture in Western Europe the  Magdalenian Period. In total, some 500 pieces were found, most are on display at the Musée National de la Préhistoire in nearby Les Eyzie, with the remainder shared with museums around the world.

A Troglodyte Village

Vezere - Madeleine troglodyte home

The settlers built individual dwellings within the cave.

The next major occupancy of La Madeleine began in the ninth century. The local population, long settled in villages along the river in spite of a millennium of successive invasions (Romans, Visigoths and assorted barbarians) were now having to face waves of Norman river-born pirates (a.k.a Vikings). Some wisely took to the hills. In this case a long horizontal shelter carved halfway up the cliff, just upstream from the Abri. It offered a natural stronghold and an unlimited supply of stone. Over the next centuries, they set out to make it the secure troglodyte community we can still see today.

Vezere-Village street.

The layout of the homes was dictated by the shape of the rock.

Beyond the fortified guard post at the top of a steep lane so narrow it can only be managed by one person at a time, the village stretched along a “street” protected from the abyss by a sturdy stone parapet. Already provided with a common floor and roof, the inhabitants fashioned their individual homes with external walls of rough hewn stone and internal adobe partitions. The layout of the dwellings varied, dictated by the shape of the rock, but all followed the same two level pattern. Pigs, sheep, goats and poultry were kept in the lower level “barn,” with the family living in the loft above. An area of the village was allocated to craftsmen, traces of their tools still visible.

Vezere-Madeleine Chapel.

The chapel boasts a Gothic nave and two Romanesque alters.

The supplies to sustain the village came mainly by barges, and were hoisted up by a system of pulleys. There was also a kitchen garden within this fortified enclave, to provide vegetables even in times of siege. The most spectacular feature of the village, other than its panoramic view of the valley, is its gothic chapel. Built in the fourteenth century at the edge of the precipice, on the foundations of a previous Romanesque chapel, it is dedicated to Sainte Madeleine. Walking along this stretch of cliff, it is easy to imagine the vibrant life of the medieval troglodyte community. The village flourished thought the Hundred Years’ War and the Wars of Religion, then showed a marked decline in the seventeenth century. It did, however, remain inhabited until the nineteenth century.

The Cliff Manor of Reignac

Vezere - Reignac.

Reignac is the only fully preserved cliff manor in France.

A mere three kilometers (two miles) upriver from La Madeleine, La Maison Forte de Reignac offers an other important insight into the medieval life of the area. While the site is known to have been settled since Magdalenian times, and a number of its prehistoric artifacts are on display in the large underground antechamber of its original entrance, the uniqueness of the cliff manor is its medieval history.

 

 

Vezere-Reignac entrance.

Fortified entrance of the Reignac Cliff Manor.

This fourteenth century citadel emerges from the face of a sheer cliff. Built first as a stronghold for the ruler of the area, it evolved into a fortified cliff manor in the sixteenth century when windows replaced the arrow slits and a proper façade took shape. Little has changed since then, although Reignac was occupied until the nineteenth century. Today, it is the only remaining intact cliff mansion in France.

 

Vezere-Reignac dining room.

The interior of the manor is remarkably spacious.

Seen from the outside, it is impossible to evaluate how large the manor really is. The bland façade with its fortified gatehouse conceals a multi-level maze of spacious chambers, including a main hall, weapons room, kitchen, dining room, several bedrooms and a guards’ dormitory. And de rigueur accommodations in any self-respecting medieval castle, prison cells and a  dungeon. All the rooms are fully furnished with antiques of the period. The hour-long guided visit is well scripted and informative, well worth the steep climb from the valley-floor parking lot.

La Grotte du Grand Roc

Vezere-Grand Roc.

La Grotte du Grand Roc.

Another cave not to be missed while in the area has nothing to do with either our stone-age or medieval forbearers. Rather, it is a gift from nature. Just five kilometers (three miles) from Les Eyzies, and once again halfway up a cliff overlooking the Valley of the Vezere, La Grotte du Grand Roc is a narrow, winding fairy grotto filled with thousands of small stalactites hanging from its ceiling and stalagmites rising toward them, in the most improbable shapes. A few of them have connected to form columns, but mainly they display an amazing array of eccentric rock formations. In case you are wondering, eccentric rock formations have to do with the velocity of the dripping droplets of calcite-laden water and how they land on the floor, projecting sediments randomly in all directions. They must have done it just right in Grand Roc, because the cave is filled with star and spike-shaped concretions that defy gravity and strain the limit of imagination!

The guided visit is lead by a geologist and take about an hour, I think. Time seems to stand still in this surreal environment.

Good to Know

  • Getting There – Les Eyzies de Tayac-Sireuil is located 5.5 hours by car southwest of Paris, 2.5 hours northeast of Bordeaux and 2.5 hours north of Toulouse. Nearest commercial airports are Brive Vallee Dordogne Airport, 55 minutes northeast and Bergerac Dordogne Perigord Airport, one and a half hour west of Les Eyzies.
  • Getting Around – All these and several other remarkable sites are within a few kilometers of each other. Unless you are an avid hiker or cyclist, a car is necessary to get around.
  • Visiting Village de la Madeleine 20260 Tursac, Dordogne, France. Contact: e-mail lamadelainegrandsite@gmail.com. Tel. +33 (0) 5 53 46 36 88. Maison Forte de Reignac – 20360 Tursac, Dordogne, France. Contact: e-mail info@maison-forte-reignac.com. Tel. +33 (0) 5 53 50 67 28. Grotte du Grand Roc – 24620 Les Eyzies de Tayac, Dordogne, France. Contact: e-mail grandroc@perigord.com. Tel. +33 (0) 5 53 06 92 70. All three sites are open year-round. Opening hours vary with the seasons and can be found on their individual websites.
  • Staying There – There are lodging options to suit all tastes and budgets within easy access to all the main sites of the Vézère Valley. We opted for the Chateau la Fleunie, a fully restored medieval castle turned three star boutique hotel in for its bucolic setting and superb gourmet restaurant in Condat-sur-Vézère.

A Few Souvenirs

Location, location, location!

Les Eyzies de Tayac-Sireuil

Along the Dordogne River Valley – Life in the Past Lane

Along the Dordogne River Valley – Life in the Past Lane

Helen of Troy may have been the cause of a decade-long war and the launch of a thousand ships, but Eleanor of Aquitaine did her one better. Her own complicated matrimonial saga started a 300-year conflict between France and England, triggered a boom in fortress building and culminated in the Hundred Years’ War. Actually the war in question lasted 116 years, from 1337 to 1453, but let’s not quibble.

The Most Desirable Heiress of her Time

Dordogne-Castle.

Medieval castles punctuate the landscape of the Dordogne.

The trouble started in April 1137, when William X, Duke of Aquitaine, died leaving his eldest daughter, 15 year old Eleanor the most eligible heiress in Europe. The new Duchess’s lands, all of southwestern France, represented the largest and richest province of the country (almost one third of today’s France). In days when kidnapping an heiress was considered a viable option to secure a title, her father had had the foresight to appoint none other than the King of France as her guardian until a suitable suitor came along. However, Louis VI, already with one foot in the grave himself, thought it far more expeditious to bring Aquitaine under the French crown by marrying off Eleanor to his 17-year old heir, Prince Louis. A tidy solution that greatly increased the power of France and its ruling family. The wedding took place in July, followed within two weeks by the death of the king.

Dordogne-Laussel

Although in disrepair, the Chateau de Laussel continues to cut an imposing figure.

By all accounts, the young Louis VII was smitten with is new bride. She apparently was less enthusiastic. It took her 15 years, but she ultimately managed to get her marriage annulled by the pope in March 1152. Within 10 weeks she was remarried to Henri II, the soon to be King of England, bringing Aquitaine to the English crown in the process. And that’s when the mayhem really began.

Memories of a Turbulent Past

Dordogne-Beynac-et-Cazenac.

Clustered under its twelfth century fortress, the village of Beynac-et-Cazenac still thrives.

The French side may have shrugged off losing the Duchess, but the duchy was another story. On its eastern side the Perigord Noir, an exceptionally scenic area of rocky cliffs covered with forests of dark oaks at confluence of the Dordogne and the Vézère rivers, was especially contested. The Dordogne river became the border between the two enemy lines, causing both sides to build countless fortified castles, monasteries and bastides (walled villages) facing each other on both banks of the river. Many of them are still standing today, and most are beautifully maintained, making for stunning vistas and lots of impromptu photo stops. So dense are the touristic riches of the area that it would take a lengthy stay to do more than scratch the surface. Here is just a sampling of my favorite “must-sees.”

A Bastide in the Sky

Dordogne-Domme

The bastide de Domme has retained all its medieval charm.

Founded in 1283 on a high rocky outcrop overlooking the Dordogne, Domme is a bastide remarkable not only for the breathtaking 180 degree view of the valley from its vast terraced belvedere, but also for its intact yellow sandstone fortifications. The only entrance into the village is through a large fortified gate flanked by two imposing towers at the bottom of the central street. In addition to their protective purpose, the towers once served as prisons, and you can still see the religious symbols scratched in the stone by the Templars that were incarcerated there during the fourteenth century. At the top of the village, near the original covered market hall with its impressive carpentry roof supported by stone pillars, a discrete entrance leads into a network of caves beneath the village. These have been used as hideouts throughout eight hundred years of conflicts, most recently during World War II.

A Gem on the River

Dordogne-Roque Gageac pano.

The remains of the original cave fortress overhang the village.

Wedged against a high cliff overhanging a sundrenched curve of the north bank of the Dordogne, La Roque-Gageac is a photographer’s delight. Although sitting on a site believed to have been occupied since prehistoric times, its documented existence traces back to the mid-ninth century, when Vikings were sailing their longboats up the river with raiding on their mind. For the first few centuries of its existence, La Roque-Gageac was a troglodyte fortress, set in caves some 40 meters (130 feet) above the river, the remains of which can still be seen above the village today. It was not until the end of the Hundred Years’ War that the “Laroquois,” as its residents are called, felt safe enough to move down to the lovely Renaissance homes that we see today, lining the riverbank and the narrow footpaths climbing to the base of the cliff.

Dordogne-Roque-Gageac River.

La Roque-Gageac is at its most striking viewed from the river.

By then the Dordogne was plied by gabarres, the traditional flat-bottom barges that transported cargo down the river to Bordeaux until the arrival of the railroad put them out of business at the end of the nineteenth century. Today, the gabarres sail once more, taking tourists on a relaxed one-hour, seven-kilometer (4.5 mile) cruise downriver to the Castelnaud Bridge, at the base of the eponymous twelfth century fortress. It is the best way to see the village (and the castle). If you prefer to do your own paddling, there are kayaks for rent on the riverbank.

A Medieval Showcase

Sarlat-Gisson Manoir

The Manoir de Gisson, built for a family merchants, dominates the market square.

The most famous town in Perigord Noir, Sarlat-la-Canéda, or just plain Sarlat, is recognized as one of the most attractive medieval towns in France. Its traceable past began in the ninth century with the creation of a Benedictine abbey. As the abbey grew, so did the town around it, to become a wealthy local center of commerce. Many of the grand medieval houses we see today were built by rich merchants of that time. Unfortunately, like most of the region, Sarlat was brought to its knees by the Hundred Years’ War, and didn’t begin to rise again until the beginning of the sixteenth century.

Sarlat-Boetie

The birthplace and residence of native son Étienne de La Boétie, a revered fifteenth century writer and philosopher.

Another period of prosperity ensued, to which we owe the Renaissance gems of the city. Then came the Wars of Religion, and another thirty years of chaos and ruin. However, firmly Catholic Sarlat ended up on the winning side. The city, now a bishopric, was once again firmly established. Until the Revolution reshuffled the cards once more. Stripped of its religious importance and far removed from the main centers of powers, the city withered away, a forgotten backwater town until the second half of the twentieth century. A lucky turn of fate, as its isolation protected its historic center from the desecrations inflicted in the name of modernization on more prosperous town in the decades immediately following World War II. More recently, the importance of Sarlat’s cultural heritage recognized, sufficient funding was allocated to undertake an extensive program of restoration. The town center is now also listed as a protected area to restrict future development.

Sarlat-Market.

To this day, Sarlat remains the market hub of the Perigord Noir.

Beyond its return to its Medieval and Renaissance glory, the greatest charm of Sarlat is that, far from becoming a “museum city,” it remains a vibrant, lived-in place, and the thriving market town of its distant past. In addition to the weekly all-products market that fills its city center every Saturday, there is the twice-weekly food market (Wednesday and Saturday) and the traditional truffles and foie gras markets throughout the winter months. Meanwhile, during the warmer months, after the busses of day-trippers have moved on, the city slows down and the terraces of the old town fill up with resident taking in the atmosphere of another era while enjoying the duck confits, truffled foie gras salads and other traditional culinary delights of the region. Although the city can be explored in a few hours, it is worth planning to stay a day or two just to enjoy a rare moment of life in the past lane.

From its vast terraced belvedere, Domme offers a breathtaking view of the Dordogne Valley.

Good to Know

  • Getting There – Sarlat is located 5.5 hours by car southwest of Paris 2.5 hours northeast of Bordeaux and 2.5 hours North of Toulouse. Nearest commercial airports are Brive Vallee Dordogne Airport 55 minutes northeast and Bergerac Dordogne Perigord Airport, 1.30 hour west of Sarlat.
  • Getting AroundAll these and more remarkable sites are within a 10-kilometer radius of each other. Unless you are an avid hiker or cyclist, a car is necessary to get around.
  • Staying There – There are lodging options to suit all tastes and budgets within easy access to all the main sites of the Dordogne Valley. We opted for the Chateau la Fleunie, a fully restored medieval castle turned three star boutique hotel in for its bucolic setting and superb gourmet restaurant in Condat-sur-Vézère.

Location, location, location!

Sarlat

Scenes From The Stone Age – The Cave Paintings of Lascaux

Scenes From The Stone Age – The Cave Paintings of Lascaux

On a September afternoon of 1940 in a quiet corner of the Dordogne in southwestern France, four teenagers were walking into the forest above the village of Montignac when their dog vanished into a hole. They crawled in to the rescue and stumbled upon one of the richest Stone Age art galleries in the world.

FR-Lascaux Bull.

The iconic Lascaux bulls.

La Grotte de Lascaux, or simply Lascaux as it is commonly known, is a network of limestone caves located high above the Vézère River valley. Over 600 paintings decorate its interior walls and ceiling. The polychrome images in vivid black, brown, red, yellow and white, are estimated to date back between 17,000 and 20,000 years. They represent mainly large mammals known through fossil records to have been native to the area at the time. Beyond their numbers, scale and age, it is their exceptional quality and sophistication that make them one of the greatest treasure trove of Paleolithic art ever discovered.

Patrimony in Peril

FR-Lascaux Chinese Horse.

The “Chinese” horse.

Lascaux opened to the public in 1948 and soon more than 1,000 visitors a day came to see the Stone Age pictures that changed the way we think about our Cro-Magnon ancestors. Within a few years, the paintings, which had remained in pristine condition for millennia in a cave sealed by the formation of a protective layer of clay in the soil, began to deteriorate. To stop the damage from the carbon dioxide and the rise in humidity generated by the presence of visitors, the cave was permanently closed in 1963.

FR-Lascaux red-black horse

The great black and red horse.

Conscious of the significance of Lascaux, the French Ministry of Culture funded the creation of an exact replica of the main areas of the cave, the Hall of Bulls and the Axial Recess, which together contain a majority of the artwork at the site. This Lascaux II, built on the same hill and only 200 meters (650 feet) away from the original cave opened in 1983. Since then, it has received over 10 million visitors. But in time, there began to be signs that the traffic of too many visitors on top of the hill was affecting the original cave.

Meanwhile, a traveling exhibit dubbed Lascaux III, consisting of five life-size panels of images not included in Lascaux II as well as a virtual tour of the entire cave, has been seen in a number of European, North American and Asian destinations since 2012.

The Birth of Lascaux IV

It was in 2010, the 70th anniversary of the cave’s discovery, that the International Center of Rock Wall Art of Montignac-Lascaux project was announced. Its mission was to give better public access to the treasures of this unique UNESCO World Heritage site and foster a better understanding of the history and meaning of Paleolithic cave art. A design competition was launched in 2011 to create Lascaux IV. The proposal of Norwegian architect Kjetil Trædal Thorsen, a founding principal of Oslo-based Snøhetta design studio, was selected from a field of 80 entries from all over the world.

FR-Lascaux IV.

The International Center of Rock Wall Art, a.k.a Lascaux IV.  in Montignac, Dordogne.

His sprawling concrete and glass structure is unobtrusively wedged into the base of the forested hill that contains both the original cave and its Lascaux II replica. Its design evokes a futuristic version of the rock shelters found throughout the Dordogne region.

The Lascaux IV Experience

FR-Lascaux Hall of Bulls.

The Hall of the Bulls.

Beyond the vast central reception area, the guided visit follows a thoughtfully choreographed itinerary, starting with a glass elevator ride to the Belvedere rooftop. From there, the view of the Vézère River valley and the village of Montignac is what the four boys would have seen on that long ago September afternoon. And in case we fail to make the connection, a discrete sound track in the woods evokes their presence and that of their adventurous canine companion. Then it’s down the slight incline of a canyon-like corridor open to the sky, into a dark projection space where a short film takes us back to the Magdalenian period (17,000 to 12,000 years ago) with its tundra landscape, woolly rhinos, bison, lions and Cro-Magnon men. Another brief walk outside and we reenter the building. Suddenly, we are in the cave, right at the boulder where the original exploration began.

FR-Lascaux stags.

The stags sport spectacular antlers.

A moment later, we arrive at the Hall of the Bulls. Although I have seen many reproductions over the years, the in-situ sight of the massive beasts in motion leaves me breathless. The cool temperature, the subdued lighting that hints at the flicker of oil lamps, the faintly stale cave smell, the muffled sounds, everything “feels right.” To allow full focus on the experience, digital devices don’t work in the cave, and photography is strictly prohibited.

As I go further into the tunnels, more animal figures keep coming at me, beautifully detailed stags with their elaborate antlers, galloping horses, fighting ibex and bison shedding their winter coat. As the passage narrows and its ceiling lowers, I find myself closer to red and black cows and polychrome horses. Their proximity makes it easier to spot how the original artists incorporated the faintest relief in the rock into their work.

Stone Age Art in Today’s World

FR-Lascaux falling horse.

The falling horse.

The entire cave and its overwhelming paintings are reproduced down to millimeter accuracy. The latest advances in laser imaging technology, 3D digital scanning and printing enabled today’s artists to recreate every nook and cranny in minute detail. The use of polystyrene, resin and fiberglass “stone veil” coating recreated the walls and their covering, including the ubiquitous streaks of moonmilk and even the faint sparkle that still exist in places.

 

FR-Lascaux deers/

The herd of swimming deers

High definition images of the paintings were then projected onto this perfect Stone Age canvas and manually copied pixel by pixel. At the end of the passage known as the Axial Recess, I pass the famous painting of the falling horse, before looping back to a side passage with a herd of swimming deer on the right wall and two massive bison on the left. By the time I exit the cave, I am breathless with awe at the timeless power of the art within. Is this perfect duplicate any less powerful, less meaningful than the original? This is the source of much controversy, and ultimately a matter of personal opinion. For me, it evokes the same emotional reaction that expect I would I have experienced in the original.

FR-Lascaux Studio.

The cave’s major works are represented in life-size units hanging from the ceiling.

The guided tour ends as we exit the cave and enter the Lascaux Studio, a vast hall where all the  major works from the cave are represented in eight life-size units hanging from the ceiling. Some of the panels include ultraviolet demonstrations of prehistoric engraving and painting techniques. Here visitors are free to explore and snap pictures to their heart’s content. Guides remain on hand to answer any questions.

The Gallerly of Imagination

FR-Lascaux virtual reality.

Virtual reality stations are available to visitors.

Further along, virtual reality stations enable visitors to scan the surface of the model and view the works from various vantage points within the cave.

The last space is the Gallery of Imagination, a digital cave where 90 large floating touch-screens explore the connections between cave art and contemporary art.

 Good to Know

  • Getting There The Centre International d’Art Parietal (International Center of Rock Wall Art) in Montignac, Dordogne, France, which is home to Lascaux IV, is located four hours by car southwest of Paris and 2 hours northeast of Bordeaux, (Highway A89, exit n°17 Montignac-Lascaux).
  • VisitingLascaux IV is open daily throughout the year – Consult their website for opening hours, which vary with the seasons, and advanced tickets purchases (strongly recommended).
  • The entire Lascaux IV site is fully wheelchair accessible.
  • Lascaux was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1979 as part of the Prehistoric Sites and Decorated Caves of the Vézère Valley.
  • In addition to Lascaux IV, Kjetil Trædal Thorsen credits include the Oslo Opera House, the Bibliotheca Alexandrina in Egypt and the National September 11 Memorial Museum Pavilion in New York City.
  • Staying There – There are lodging options to suit all tastes and budgets within easy range of the Lascaux site. We opted for the Chateau la Fleunie, a fully restored medieval castle turned three star boutique hotel for its bucolic setting, superb gourmet restaurant and close proximity (eight kilometers, i.e. five miles) via a scenic back road from Lascaux.

A Few Souvenirs

Location, location, location!

Lascaux IV

Paris – Vermeer at the Louvre

Paris – Vermeer at the Louvre

The Louvre requires no introduction. With a world-famous collection ranging from Antiquity to the Nineteenth Century, the once royal palace on the right bank of the Seine turned public museum in 1793 is a central Paris landmark that attracts close to ten millions visitors annually. I resolved long ago to refrain when ever possible from being one of them.

A Rare Landmark Exhibition

Paris-Louvre, Vermeer Woman at Virginal.

Johannes Vermeer, A Young Woman Seated at the Virginal. Oil on canvas. 25.2 x 20 cm. (9 7/8 x 7 7/8 in…), New York The Leiden Collection.

But there are times when accommodations must be made, and crowds braved. The entrancing new temporary exhibit: “Vermeer and the Masters of Genre Painting “ is one such moment. This landmark event offers the largest and most dazzling selection of Vermeer works I could even hope to see in one place. Twelve in all are on display, or one third of Johannes Vermeer’s entire known output. Among them are The Milkmaid, on loan from the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam and poster image for the exhibition, the elaborately composed Lady Writing a Letter with her Maid, from the National Gallery of Ireland in Dublin, and the exquisite miniature-like Young Woman Seated at a Virginal, from a private collection in New York.

 

The Masters of Genre

Paris-Louvre, Metsu Woman Letter.

Gabriel Metsu, Young Woman Reading a Letter. Oil on wood panel 52,5 x 40,2 cm. (20.7 x 15.8 in.), Dublin, National Gallery of Ireland, (Beit Collection)

More than 70 works by Vermeer’s fellow “Masters of Genre Painting” of the Dutch Golden Age, including Gerard ter Borch, Gerrit Dou, Pieter de Hooch, Gabriel Metsu, Caspar Netscher, Samuel van Hoogstaten, Frans van Mieris and Jan Steen are also included. These “Genre” painters were a group of artists who rejected the grand classic subjects of epic kings, Olympian myths, bloody battles and gory martyrdoms of traditional art to take us instead into the homes and everyday life of Dutch merchants of the time. With women as their central characters, they immortalized with delicate precision the mundane moments of domestic life from the servants’ perspective as well as their mistresses’.

 

 

The Genius of Vermeer

Paris-Louvre, Vermeer Lady Writing.

Johannes Vermeer, A Lady Writing. Oil on canvas, 45 x 39.9 cm. (17 3/4 x 15 3/4 in.), Washington D.C., National Gallery of Art.

By juxtaposing works related in theme, composition and technique, this exhibition also demonstrates how these artists inspired and rivaled each other. And it provides a unique opportunity to understand what makes Vermeer stand out from his Golden Age peers. For me, the genius of Vermeer is in his unique use a sensuously cool palette, the lapis blues and pale golden yellows, and the silvery northern light that gives his subjects an enigmatic mood. The other painters in this magnificent display represent similar scenes with exquisite artistry: women writing letters, playing the harpsichord or the lute, and servants engaged in domestic chores. But to me, only Vermeer looks beyond the concrete world depicted by his contemporaries, to create a more insightful mood that hints at the inner life of his subject. Several of them seem to interrupt their writing or music-playing to engage me and make me part of the moment.

Paris-Louvre-Vermeer Pearl Necklace,

Johannes Vermeer, Woman with a Pearl Necklace. Oil on canvas. 55 x 45 cm. (21 5/8 x 17 3/4 in.), Berlin. Staatliche Museen Preußischer Kulturbesitz.

Others seem fully absorbed in their own world. I find myself wondering: what is she thinking, this young woman in her elegant chamber, holding up a pearl necklace as she looks intently at herself in the mirror? Is she putting it on or removing it? What does this necklace mean to her? Or even more poignantly, who is this young milkmaid in the austere kitchen? In the gray light of dawn, her downcast eyes and expressionless face suggests tired concentration as she cautiously pours milk from an earthenware jug to prepare breakfast before the rest of the household begins to stir. I see the story of a long-ago life behind every Vermeer painting, a life I want to know more about.

 

 

Good to Know

  • Visiting – The  Musée du Louvre, 75001, Paris, France, is open Wednesday through Monday from 9:00 am to 6:00 pm, with night openings until 9:45 pm on Wednesday and Friday. It is closed on Tuesday, and on January 1, May 1 and December 25. Contact: tel. +33 (0) 1 40 20 53 17, e-mail. info@louvre.fr.
  • Getting there –There is easy public transportation from anywhere in Paris to the museum: metro station Palais-Royal/Musée du Louvre (lines 1 and 7) or bus stop right in front of the Pyramid ( lines 21, 24, 27, 39, 48, 68, 69, 72, 81, 95, and the Paris Open Tour bus).
  • Admission to Vermeer and the Masters of Genre Painting – This temporary exhibition, which runs from February 22 to May 22, 2017, requires a special admission ticket for a specific date and time. It must be purchased in advance through the museum’s on-line ticket office: on-line ticket office
  • If you miss the Paris viewing – Don’t despair. After its Paris star debut, the exposition, which was realized in partnership with the National Gallery of Ireland in Dublin and the National Gallery of Art in Washington, will travel to the partner venues: National Gallery of Ireland, Dublin, from June 17 to September 17, 2017, and National Gallery of Art, Washington D.C. from October 22, 2017, to January 21, 2018.

Location, location, location!

Musée du Louvre