A Corsican Road Trip – Bastia to the Gulf of Porto

A Corsican Road Trip – Bastia to the Gulf of Porto

The overnight ferry from Toulon, the main naval and commercial port of the French Riviera, pulls into Bastia harbor in the bleak November dawn. Corsica rises from the Mediterranean like the lost continent of an old fairytale. Dull yellow lights haloed with fog outline an imposing fortification wall. Above it, a sleepy medieval town blend into the dark shadow of a mountain.

First Glimpse at Corsica – Bastia to Saint Florent

Corsica-Bastia dawn.

The port city of Bastia emerges from the Mediterranean dawn.

By the time my long time friend Kathleen, an expert and enthusiastic driver, has extracted our rented car from the jaws of the ferry, the pale morning sun has brought the waterfront to life. We leave the now bustling port city and head west into the mountains, snaking up the southern edge of Cap Corse, the narrow peninsula at the northern tip of the island. The scenery emerges from the morning mist, revealing ever-changing vistas with every hairpin turn.

Corsica-Patrimonio.

The village of Patrimonio is famous for its vineyards.

It’s a mere 17 kilometers (10 miles) from Bastia to the ancient mountainside village of Patrimonio, but due to the combined effects of the narrow squiggly mountain road and my constant requests for photo stops, it takes us almost one hour to cover the distance.The village finally comes into view, a cluster of sturdy stone houses overlooking a vast expanses of vineyards famed since Antiquity for their red, white and Muscat wines. Considered by many as the finest wine region on the island, Patrimonio was the first to gain the coveted AOC (Appelation d’Origine Controlée or protected designation of origin) status in 1968.

Corsica-Saint Florent.

The mountains of Cap Corse dominate the Gulf of Saint Florent.

From here, it’s 8 kilometers (5 miles) of downhill zigzags to Saint Florent, a small fishing port turned popular tourist destination. At the height of the season its renowned marina is filled with posh international yachts. However, on this sunny November morning the main attraction is the tiny medieval village huddled around its circular 15th Century Genoese watchtower, and overlooking the turquoise waters of its perfect half-moon bay.

From Île Rousse to Calvi

Corsica-Ile Rousse.

The city of Île Rousse takes its name from its offshore outcrops of red porphyry.

We are on the coastal road now, heading south toward Calvi with a halfway coffee break in Île Rousse, another picturesque resort town notable mainly in that, unlike almost every other important city in Corsica, it doesn’t trace back to the Genoese. Rather, it was founded in18th century by Corsican patriot leader Pascal Paoli, in an attempt to steer trade away from Calvi, which had failed to support the nationalist rebellion that briefly brought independence to the island. Even so, just offshore on the Île de la Pietra, the big promontory of copper porphyry that gave the town its name, a typical circular fortified watchtower reminds today’s visitors that starting in the 13th century, the Republic of Genoa ruled over Corsica for half a millennium. And had to defend the island from frequent raids by Ottoman pirates.

Corsica-Sant Antonino.

From its dominant position in the Balagne Mountains, Sant’Antonino overlooks the sea.

By then, the original inhabitants of the island had long tired of the waves of uninvited visitors with pillage on their mind and taken refuge into their rugged mountains to settle atop the highest vantage points available, distant water view preferred. On a whim we decide on a detour by the eagle’s nest village of Sant’Antonino (circa 9th century). This walled village with its picturesque houses, quaint alleyways and covered passages winding around a granitic outcrop some 500 meters (1600 feet) above sea level, is deservedly considered one of the most beautiful villages in France. And that’s not even taking into account the sensational views of the surrounding Balagne Mountains, their flanks covered with ancient olive groves and chestnut forests, all the way to the sea.

From Calvi to Porto

Corsica-Calvi fortress.

The fortress of Calvi stands out against the Balagne Mountains.

It’s past lunchtime by the time we reach Calvi, the largest port city on the northwestern side of the island. Its sheltered bay backing up to the mountains, large marina and five kilometers (three miles) of white sand beaches make it a favorite of cosmopolitan tourists. For the best perspective of the city, we decide on a picnic on the ramparts of the citadel that towers above the port. Built over several centuries, the fortifications enclose an entire small town with vantage points that offer dazzling views across the harbor and along the rocky coast.

Corsica-Scandola Reserve

The Scandola Peninsula is hewn from red porphyry cliffs tumbling into the sea.

Although unsubstantiated, Calvi (along with several other cities including Genoa) steadfastly hangs on to its claim to be the birthplace of Christopher Columbus, and even points visitors to his purported birth home right inside the citadel. We pass on the opportunity and continue south toward the Gulf of Porto.

Corsica-Gulf of Porto.

A Genoese tower guards the Gulf of Porto.

By now, just as we think we’ve gotten used the narrow, constantly winding roller-coaster of Corsican roads, the ride from Calvi to Porto reaches new, stomach-churning heights. Hewn high into the red porphyry cliffs of the Scandola Peninsula, this stretch consists of 80 kilometers (50 miles) of endless switchbacks clinging to the rock face between pinnacles and ravines. This road skirts the edge of the spectacular Scandola Nature Reserve, a UNESCO-listed World Heritage Site covering 900 hectares (2200 acres) of gnarled claw-like inlets, hidden coves and offshore islands rising from 1000 hectares (2500) of crystalline turquoise waters.

Overnight in Porto

Corsica-Porto sunset.

Sunset over the Genoese tower of Gulf of Porto.

This first day of our Corsican adventure ends in the quiet seashore village of Porto, deep in a remote creek of the Gulf. Thanks to its ideal location in the heart of the most scenic landscapes on the western side of the island, it had developed over the past few decades into a laidback tourist destination. From our seaside balcony at one of the small hotels that now line the waterfront, we enjoy watching the sun set over (what else?) the commanding Genoese tower perched on a rocky crag at the mouth of the Porto river.

Gulf of Porto panorama.

Good to Know

  • Getting there – Corsica is a French island located some 200 kilometers(120 miles) off the French Riviera coast. By air: It is served year round by regular flights from several French mainland airports to Ajaccio, Bastia, Calvi and Figari (north of Bonifacio). From May to September seasonal lowcost airlines also offer frequent flights to and from other European destinations. By sea: Three major ferry lines serve the island’s six ferry ports (Ajaccio, Bastia, Calvi, Île Rousse, Porto- Vecchio and Propriano, that can be reached from Marseille, Toulon and Nice. There are daily overnight and daytime crossings year round, with additional ones during the summer season. On this recent trip, we sailed with Corisca Ferries between Toulon to Bastia.
  • Getting around – There are limited train and bus connections between the main destinations around the island. However the majority of visitors travel by car to make the most of the stupendous scenery.
  • Where to stay – For this first of our four-night trip, we stayed at the pleasant, full-service, 24-room, three-star seaside hotel Le Subrini, La Marine de Porto, 20150 Porto-Ota, France. Contact: tel. +33(0)4 95 26 14 94, e-mail subrini@hotels-porto.com.

A Few Souvenirs

Location, location, location!

Bastia

Golf of Porto, Corsica

From the Vineyards to the Sea – the Douro River

From the Vineyards to the Sea – the Douro River

A gauzy veil of early morning mist hovers over Porto’s Ribeira pier when we board the Tomaz de Douro for a daylong cruise to the birthplace of the celebrated Vinho do Porto. The prized liquid gold of Portugal may be coming of age right across the river, in the Gaia cellars of world-renowned Port producers, but it is some 60 kilometers (40 miles) upriver, in the famed vineyards of the Douro Valley that it all begins.

A Cruise Back in Time

Douro-Maria Pia Bridge.

Gustave Eiffel’s Maria Pia Bridge (circa 1877) straddles the Douro just upriver from the historic center of Porto

Leaving behind the bustle of the piers and the soaring bridges of Porto, we meander upstream between the cliff-like banks. Soon the dense mosaic of homes climbing up the hills of historic Porto fades away, gradually replaced by stately haciendas surrounded by lush vegetation. Eventually, just as the sun begins to pierce through the mist, we enter a pristine nature preserve. Herons feed in the shallows and bright kayaks silently slide by on their way downstream.

Douro-pink hacienda.

Haciendas dot the banks of the Douro.

After days of roaming through the cobbled city streets, it is a treat to settle on the viewing deck and watch villages drift by. By late morning, we reach the first of the two locks on our itinerary, a reminder that the Douro was not always the serene river we enjoy today. Until it was tamed by a series of dams in the 20th century, it was a turbulent stream coming from the high sierras of northwestern Spain. Starting in the 1960’s, dams and locks were built to normalize traffic along the river.

Douro-Crestuma lock.

The lock of the Crestuma-Lever Dam.

Shortly after we enter the lock of the Crestuma-Lever Dam, lunch is announced in the glassed-in dining room on the lower deck. It is a formally served meal of traditional local fare, preceded by an appetizer of assorted bacalhau (dry, salted cod), vegetable and cheese fritters paired with glass of lovely white Port aperitif. By the end of the meal, we pass through the lock of the Carrapatelo Dam and landscape changes. The wild slopes turn into socalcos, terraced vineyards hewn into the riverbanks. They follow the sinuous contours of the valley to mold a unique landscape with its own microclimate. It is this product of two millennia of human labor that has earned the Douro vineyards their UNESCO World Heritage status in 2001.

Two Millenia of Human Labor

Douro-Terraced vineyards.

The terraced vineyards of the Douro.

Harvest time came early this year, and in the fading days of summer the sprawling whitewashed quintas (country estates) and the yellowing rows of gnarled vines that surround them are a surprisingly silent place. Suddenly, a familiar black silhouette materializes among the ripple of terraces. It’s the world famous Sandeman Don (or Sir) draped in his traditional Portuguese student’s cape and wide Spanish hat, growing to gigantesque proportions as we draw nearer. We definitely are in the heart of Port country.

Douro-Sandeman.

The familiar silhouette of the Sandeman Don overlooks the rippling vineyards.

The Tomaz de Douro pulls into the sleepy little town of Peso da Régua, where Pedro Batista, the friendly English-speaking guide who has been with us throughout the cruise, shepherds us to the tiny train station a short walk away from the dock for the two-hour ride back to Porto. “The best views are on the left side,” he hints as we board.

Whilst serious oenophiles may want to extend their time of the area with visits of some of the famous quintas, I find this daylong cruise to be a comprehensive introduction to the spectacular Douro Valley. And the slow, cliff-hugging ride back to Porto on a train of another century offers yet another perspective of the unique landscapes of one of the oldest wine-growing regions in Europe.

Douro-Panorama

Westward to the Sea

Although the city of Porto is located inland from the Atlantic, the Douro’s estuary is just an easy ninety-minute walk from the Ribeira waterfront, following the right bank of the river to the sea. Along the way, we pass through the colorful medieval neighborhood of Miragaia. Located outside of the old city walls, this arrabalde (suburb), it is where the Jews and Armenians of Porto used to live.

Douro-Foz Lighthouse.

The Felgueiras Lighthouse in Foz do Douro.

In Miragia, houses are constructed below the level of the Douro, on an ancient beach where the boats of the Discoveries Era were built to carry explorers headed for the Cape of Good Hope and settlers bound for outposts of the empire. Nowadays the houses are protected by a wall, their upper floors built over arches that give that give the whole neighborhood a unique atmosphere. We keeep going and pass the small fishing village of Afurada before reaching the seaside resort town of Foz do Douro. Its lovely 19th century Passeio Alegre Garden with its grove of palm trees overlooking the ocean was designed by German landscape architect Emille David (of Crystal Palace Gardens fame).

Douro-Matosinhos Sardines.

Grilled Sardines and Vinho Verde are a Matosinhos tradition.

It’s another hour-long walk along the shore to Matosinhos. Today, the town’s long fishing tradition is most noticeable by the large charcoal grills in front of its many seafood restaurants. A variety of fish, from sardines and sea bass to cod and shad are roasting in the open air. The restaurants are packed with locals. We join them for a bountiful meal of fresh grilled fish and boiled potatoes drizzled with olive oil, washed down with a glass of refreshing Vinho Verde (green wine, which in this case refer to the young age of the wine rather than its color). It’s the perfect way to cap the long morning walk by the sea.

Douro-Atlantic Sails,

 

Good to Know

  • Getting there – To the sea. If you prefer not to walk, or for the return trip to the city, the most scenic bus line route in Porto (bus 500), departs from the center of the city (at Aveniad dos Allados). It crosses the historic center and follows the coast to end at the Matosinhos central market. You can catch the bus at any stop along the way in either direction and purchase a ticket from the conductor (€1,70 at the time of my visit). To the Douro Vineyards. There are a number of companies with varied boat types offering cruises from Porto the Douro vineyards. At the recommendation of a local acquaintance, I opted for the Tomaz do Douro, with offices at Praça da Ribeira  5, 4050-513 Porto. Contact: tel. +351 222 081 935, e-mail. geral@tomazdodouro.com.
  • Best avoided unless you yearn for a bygone era transportation experience. A rickety tram (line 1) outfitted with old leather seats and wood paneling departs half-hourly (more or less) from Praca do Infante Square where tourists jostle for position in an unruly waiting line. It follows the river non-stop to Esplanada do Castelo on the Foz de Douro waterfront. The ride takes about 25 minutes and cost €2.50. The tram is usually packed, so chances are that you will be too busy trying to keep your balance as it rocks along to enjoy any of the scenery.

 

Location, location, location!

Douro River Valley.

Foz do Douro

Matosinhos

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

Journey to the Edge of Africa – The Damaraland Experience

Journey to the Edge of Africa – The Damaraland Experience

After the featureless desolation of the Skeleton Coast, entering Damaraland feels like emerging onto another planet. Under an improbably vivid sky, a prehistoric landscape of massive conical granite kopjies and mountaintops flattened by an eternity of erosion rises from barren gravel plains to an endless horizon.

Life in the Desert

Damaraland-Kudus

Kudus manage to exist on the sparse vegetation.

Yet occasional patches of dusty vegetation hint at water somewhere below the parched ground. In a land that receives less than 150 millimeters (5.9 inches) of annual rainfall, and sometime none at all, camel thorn acacias outline the bed of an ephemeral river quickly absorbed into underground aquifers for storage. Beneath the trees, a family of kudus methodically munches on the sparse shrubbery. Further on, we come across clumps of euphorbia, their spindly grey stems toxic to all living things except oryx and rhinos. Then Jimmy Limbo, our outstanding Wilderness Safaris guide, points to something that has to be one of the most bizarre plants on the planet.

Damaraland-Welwitschia.

The welwitschia plant traces back to Jurassic times.

At first glance, it looks like an old tire blown to shreds, with rubbery red berries growing out of it. It’s the welwitschia, two strap-shaped leaves growing from a woody center (or caudex) to reach up to two meters (6.5 feet) in length. Like blades of grass, the leaves grow from the base, so that they can keep going even when their tip gets worn off. The oldest living specimens are estimated to be between 1,500 and 2,000 years old. Long before the plant, which traces back to the Jurassic period and is endemic to Damaraland, was “discovered” in 1859 by Friedrich Welwitsch, it was known as onvanga (desert onion) to the Herero people.

Mountains of Burnished Gold

Namibia-Damaraland

The colossal sandstone ridges are ablaze in the setting sun.

We have been driving for a couple of hours, Jimmy unerringly stirring our custom-built land cruiser through the unchartered immensity of a scenery that keeps getting ever more dramatic. The setting sun is turning the mountains into a colossal backdrop of burnished gold by the time we reach our small, semi-permanent private camp of domed tents tucked within the spectacular boulders of a sandstone ridge. After dinner, a braai (southern African barbecue) under a canopy of stars, a spectacular full moon rises, as if on cue, over the ridge.

Damaraland-giraffe

Angola giraffes have adapated to the arid rockly terrain.

Morning comes early, and most of the day is spent bouncing on the back of the land cruiser, tracking rare desert-adapted elephants through an ever-changing scenery of rock and sand. Incredibly, this sun-baked land is able to sustain small populations of creatures who have adapted their life-style to survive in these almost waterless conditions. We sight small herds of springboks, oryx, ostriches and even the occasional zebra and giraffe, as well as desert squirrels and birds.

Damaraland-Desert squirrel.

The desert squirrel uses its bushy tail for shade.

 

The elephants, although they have left a number of clues of their recent passage, keep eluding us. These pachyderms, who can travel up to 70 kilometers (over 40 miles) per day in their quest for food and water, seem to have headed for the hills. But Jimmy will not be stymied. We follow their uphill tracks onto a rocky terrain that lends a whole new meaning to off-road driving, to the base of a ridge where we abandon the car. It’s on foot from here on. I stumble my way to the top in his wake.

Damaraland-Desert elephants.

Desert elephants are constantly on the move in seach of water.

By the time I have caught my breath, a small line of elephants are moving toward us on the path below, three adults and three calves in various stages of maturity, bronzed with desert dust. Even from up here, they appear visibly leaner that their brethrens of the savannah, and with longer, thinner legs that enable them to travel long distances to reach a water source. They browse sparingly, without tearing off the trees like elephants living in higher rainfall areas. From our perch, we observe them for some time in detail, until they continue on their ponderous way up and vanish over the opposite ridge.

An Uncertain Spring

Damaraland-Twyfelfontein Valley.

The sandstone valley of Twyfelfontein holds one of the largest concentration of petroglyphs in Africa.

The next day, we visit Twyfelfontein (or Uncertain Spring in Afrikaans), so named by a settler, David Levine, who bough land there in 1948 in hope that the spring on the property would provide sufficient water for his family and livestock. Today, the name, along with a couple of crumbling walls from his tiny homestead, are all that remain from his twelve-year experiment.

Damaraland-Twyfelfontein engravings.

The engravings include a diversity of animals and foot prints.

However, the Twyfelfontein valley, has been inhabited by Stone-age hunter-gatherers, the first Damara people, since approximately 6,000 years ago. Then 2,000 to 2,500 years ago came the Khoikhoi herders, an ethnic group related to the San (Bushmen). Both groups used the valley, then known under its Damara name of |Ui-||Aes (or jumping waterhole in Bushmen click language), as a place of worship to conduct their chamanist rituals. On the slopes of the sandstone table mountain that flanks the valley, these early Damara left us one of the largest concentration of petroglyphs (rock engravings) in Africa. All are chiseled in exposed locations on the massive rock face of free-standing boulders. The Khoikhoi also produced some rock engravings that can be clearly differentiated from the earlier ones. In all, over 2500 engravings have been identified so far, making the valley one of the oldest and most important open-air art galleries in Africa. UNESCO declared Twyfelfontein a World Heritage Site in 2007.

Damaraland-Twyfelfontein Lion Man.

Twyfelfontein’s most intriguing figure is known as the Lion Man.

The images depict an astonishing diversity of animals, elephants, rhinos, giraffes, oryx , kudus, zebras and more, as well as foot prints. There are also a few instances of animals that do not occur in the area, such as seals and flamingos. Did some of these hunter-gatherers come from the coastal area more than 100 kilometers of arid desert away? Some graphics are also believed to be maps showing the location of waterholes. Originally, the theory was that people simply depicted what they saw around them and the game they hunted. Could they have also served an educational purpose? Today these engraving are thought to represent the transformation of humans into animals, an important aspect of the belief system and shamanist rituals of their authors.

One of the most notable is the Lion Man. This lion is represented with a prey in his mouth, five toes on each foot (whereas lions only have four), and a very tall tail that ends with a six-toed footprint. Could this deliberate combination of human and animal features indicate that this shaman has transform into a lion? All these unanswered questions only add to the magic of Twyfelfontein.

Damaraland-Vista

Prehistoric Damaraland vista.

Good to Know

  • Twyfelfontein is easily accessible by road. From the main (paved) road C39 betweem Sesfontein and Khorixas, take the secondary (gravel) road D3214 for approximately 20 kilometers (12 miles) to the site. The visitor Center is open from 8:00 am to 5:00 pm daily, with last admission at 3:30 pm. The engravings can only be visited with a local guide following a predetermined itinerary. Admission is N$ 50, or approximately $ 4 US, guided tour included.
  • Wilderness Safaris is a major ecotourism tour operator with a significant presence throughout eastern and southern Africa over the past three decades. They offer private access to some 2.5 million hectares (six million acres) of Africa’s finest wildlife and wilderness areas. While they do not take direct bookings, they work with a global network of destination specialists, including Wild about Africa, who I selected to arrange this journey around Namibia.
  • Wild about Africa is an established destination specialist focusing on moderately-priced, solo traveler-friendly small group safaris (maximum 7 participants) in Bostwana, Namibia and Zambia. Wild about Africa, 10 & 11 Upper Square, Old Isleworth, Middlesex, TW7 7BJ, U.K.   Contact: e-mail enquiries @ wildaboutafrica.com, +1-800-242-2434 (U.S.), +44 (0) 20 8758 4717 (U.K.).

Location, location, location!

Twyfelfontein, Namibia