An an­niver­sary re­turn to Sar­lat’s time­less beauty

The Washington Post Sunday - - TRAVEL - BY TOM SHRODER

When our chil­dren were 11 and 9, young enough to still be en­tirely in­side the fam­ily cir­cle but old enough to re­mem­ber, we splurged on a “once in a life­time va­ca­tion” and rented a small farm­house in South­west­ern France out­side the vil­lage of Saint-Cy­prien. Each day, our son and daugh­ter would say good­bye to the don­key that hung around our pa­tio and we’d climb in the tiny rented Re­nault and drive some­where in the fairy-tale beau­ti­ful Dor­dogne River re­gion. On one of these ex­cur­sions, we stum­bled on the pro­vin­cial city of Sar­lat.

An ac­ci­dent of his­tory and sev­eral cen­turies of stag­nant econ­omy had left Sar­lat’s cen­ter vir­tu­ally un­changed ar­chi­tec­turally since the days of siege en­gines and knights gal­lop­ing over draw­bridges. City fathers had wak­ened one morn­ing in the late 1950s to re­al­ize that, lean­ing above nar­row and wind­ing cob­ble­stone streets and al­leys, they had one of the largest col­lec­tions of in­tact me­dieval ar­chi­tec­ture in Europe. The French gov­ern­ment sub­si­dized restora­tion of the di­lap­i­dated an­cient struc­tures, and the taste­fully re­stored apart­ments (which half a mil­len­nium ago were the res­i­dences of wealthy no­ble fam­i­lies) be­gan, slowly at first, to at­tract tourists.

Back in 2000, we wan­dered the town cen­ter feel­ing like time trav­el­ers. We bought wooden cru­sader swords for the kids and hand­spun earth­en­ware pot­tery that

my wife and I still trea­sure. For din­ner, we found a tra­di­tional French restau­rant whose din­ing room, to our de­light, ex­tended into a nat­u­ral cav­ern. Our chil­dren, now far-flung and em­barked on lives of their own, still re­mem­ber that day 17 years later.

And so did my wife and I. Search­ing for a va­ca­tion des­ti­na­tion suit­ably cel­e­bra­tory of our 30th an­niver­sary, we thought of the mag­i­cal mo­ments on that long-ago day trip and put “apart­ments to rent in Sar­lat” into Google. On our first click, we scored: a re­cently ren­o­vated apart­ment in a 500-year-old build­ing dead in the cen­ter of the old town. We in­stantly booked it, then re­verse en­gi­neered the rest of the trip, be­gin­ning with a flight to Paris and a bou­tique apart­ment near the Place de la Republique for that first jet-lagged night. The next morn­ing, af­ter a glo­ri­ous buf­fet break­fast that I would es­ti­mate at about 4,000 calo­ries, we Ubered to the Auster­litz train sta­tion and hopped on a TGV ex­press train to Brive, a re­lax­ing fourhour sprint (av­er­age speed: 75 mph) through the un­re­lent­ingly in­ter­est­ing in­dus­trial and agri­cul­tural land­scapes south of the cap­i­tal. In Brive, we picked up a car a block from the train sta­tion and drove the fi­nal hour to Sar­lat.

As soon as we crossed into the depart­ment of Dor­dogne, the land­scape took on stun­ning beauty even fond mem­ory hadn’t done jus­tice. Fields un­du­lated in a green so in­tense it vi­brated. Hill­tops pro­vided vis­tas of sun­burst-yel­low rape­seed blos­soms stretch­ing to the hori­zon. Ev­ery struc­ture, from manor house to farm out­build­ing, was made of na­tive golden lime­stone blocks that seemed to glow in the sun­shine. Cas­tles, both ru­ined and re­stored, ap­peared around ev­ery curve. Chateaus astrad­dle ver­tig­i­nous, cave-pocked lime­stone cliffs at­tempted to outdo one another in the beauty and ex­tent of their gar­dens. It didn’t hurt that the lo­cal spe­cial­ties are foie gras, Berg­erac wine and farm-fresh pro­duce, all avail­able in an abun­dance of road­side mar­kets.

Our apart­ment, up two flights of wind­ing stone steps, had been stripped to the half-tim­bered walls, mod­ern­ized and dec­o­rated in re­strained Pot­tery Barn. Large win­dows looked out over the an­cient moss-cov­ered rooftops of lay­ered slate. Just out the front door, a nar­row al­ley opened on a Gothic cathe­dral and the main plaza, ringed by cafes and restau­rants. On Wed­nes­days and Satur­days, the plaza and the main streets of the town sprouted stalls and be­came the town mar­ket. In the old town, and the typ­i­cal small French pro­vin­cial city sur­round­ing it, restau­rants were abun­dant, though some­what lim­ited in va­ri­ety. Most pro­vided vari­a­tions on the theme of clas­sic French cui­sine with a lo­cal ac­cent. On the out­skirts of town (still eas­ily walk­a­ble from the cen­ter), we dis­cov­ered a place with ab­so­lutely au­then­tic Dutch pan­nekoeken (a hearty, low-coun­try take on crepes) and a cozy neigh­bor­hood pizze­ria.

Though it was stim­u­lat­ing to be in the mid­dle of such his­tory, the small­ness of the town — its photo-ready back streets could be ex­plored in an af­ter­noon — made us won­der at first about our de­ci­sion to spend two weeks there. But as we quickly re­al­ized, the best thing about lo­cat­ing in Sar­lat was leav­ing it. A 30- to 45-minute drive in any di­rec­tion brought us to des­ti­na­tions that were each more stun­ning than the last. Any one of them could have been the high­light of a trip. And for­get the des­ti­na­tions — the drives them­selves were breath­tak­ing. This part of France ap­par­ently has no strip malls, gated hous­ing de­vel­op­ments or ma­jor high­ways. All roads are wind­ing, rolling two-lane for­ays through the pages of a fairy tale. I felt dar­ing driv­ing at 45 mph on these by­ways while the lo­cals lined up be­hind me, im­pa­tiently wait­ing to pass. But more of­ten than not, we had the roads to our­selves as they nar­rowed into sin­gle-lane tracks (more than once we had to back up to let another car squeeze past) through in­creas­ingly tiny vil­lages and wooded hills. We of­ten found it hard to be­lieve these rus­tic tracks were lead­ing to ma­jor tourist des­ti­na­tions, but we were never dis­ap­pointed. Thank God we had GPS.

To the south, built into the al­most ver­ti­cal cliffs ris­ing from the lazily curv­ing Dor­dogne River, is Roque de Gageac, another town of me­dieval ori­gin whose roads were more like moun­tain goat tracks. If you have the res­pi­ra­tory for­ti­tude to climb them, you are re­warded with views of birds glid­ing on cur­rents along the soar­ing cliffs above and the pas­toral river val­ley un­wind­ing be­tween peaked tur­rets below.

A line of restau­rants runs along the river’s bank, and dur­ing spring and sum­mer you can buy pas­sage on an hour-long guided sight­see­ing trip in a tra­di­tional river­boat called a gabarre. The ad­ven­tur­ous can rent ca­noes to pad­dle down one of the more spec­tac­u­lar river pas­sages in the world, with a half-dozen cas­tles loom­ing on hill­tops high above and caves in­hab­ited since pre­his­tory pok­ing into the cliffs can­tilevered over the wa­ter.

Or you can drive another few min­utes up­river to the phe­nom­e­nal town of Domme, a nat­u­rally for­ti­fied vil­lage (bastide) built in the 13th cen­tury on a steep-sided hill­top nearly 800 feet above the river. Domme was fought over re­peat­edly dur­ing the Hun­dred Years’ War be­tween the French and English, and it’s easy to see why when you con­sider the view. The main part of the vil­lage lies at the very top of the hill along the edge of a sheer cliff com­mand­ing sight­lines along the en­tire val­ley. We stopped for lunch at a small cafe across from the town hall on the mar­ket square where lo­cals once gath­ered to watch public ex­e­cu­tions. A mod­est-look­ing tourism of­fice in the mid­dle of the square is built above the en­trance to a large cave sys­tem where res­i­dents hid dur­ing the fre­quent in­va­sions.

A few min­utes’ drive to the west brings you to the gates of the Chateau de Beynac, the cas­tle of child­hood fan­tasies and the set­ting for a raft of movies, in­clud­ing the ro­mance “Ever Af­ter” and the epic “Jeanne d’Arc.” There you can tromp around the mostly re­stored ram­parts and imag­ine barons and counts gath­er­ing in the great hall by a fire­place you could torch a red­wood in.

East again, another bit far­ther brings you to the 18th cen­tury Chateau de Mar­queyssac and its 19th cen­tury gar­dens, re­stored im­pec­ca­bly at the end of the 20th cen­tury and stretch­ing along the cliff top for a kilo­me­ter. The gar­den paths, me­an­der­ing through var­ied wa­ter fea­tures and knock­out over­looks, dou­bles as a hike up and down steep in­clines through rapidly chang­ing land­scapes — from im­pec­ca­bly man­i­cured shrubs and flow­ers to ro­man­ti­cally wild for­est. On one cliff edge, over­look­ing a wide val­ley of pic­turesque farm fields ris­ing to the Beynac chateau, an out­door bistro served, among other items, wine and salad of in­sanely fresh lo­cal in­gre­di­ents and toast topped with melted goat cheese. It was so good we came back twice.

A slightly longer trek just over an hour to the east through coun­try­side un­pop­u­lated but for a few farm vil­lages of a half-dozen stone houses brought us to the Gouf­fre de Padirac, a sink­hole about 10 sto­ries deep that leads into a vast cave sys­tem of spec­tac­u­lar sta­lag­mites and sta­lac­tites run through by an un­der­ground river. The first part of the tour pairs a hand­ful of vis­i­tors with their own boat­man who poles down­river to the first cataract — a mini falls rush­ing over the wa­ter-smoothed rock floor. There, you dis­em­bark to climb through a half-mile of great halls sev­eral hun­dred feet tall and filled with gi­ant min­eral for­ma­tions still grow­ing with each drip of wa­ter.

To the north is the town of Les Eyzies-de-Tayac-Sireuil, which bends along the Vezere River, where the 30,000year-old skele­tons of Cro-Magnon man, our first Homo sapi­ens cousin, were dis­cov­ered in the mid-19th cen­tury. The quaint town is still sit­u­ated among dozens of caves, many of which have pre­his­toric wall paint­ings. The most mag­nif­i­cent cave art is in the Las­caux cave, another 28 min­utes up the road in the town of Mon­tignac. When it be­came clear that end­less streams of vis­i­tors were caus­ing the paint­ings to de­cay, an iden­ti­cal replica of the cave and the art were cre­ated for vis­i­tors to en­joy, while the real thing re­mained sealed off to all

but re­searchers. The replica, Las­caux II, ap­pears so au­then­tic that it pro­voked the same awed rev­er­ence and thoughts about the na­ture of hu­mankind the orig­i­nal would have.

On the way back to Sar­lat from Les Eyzies, we no­ticed a plain sign along the road with an ar­row point­ing to the Chateau de Com­mar­que. By this point, cas­tles pop­ping up un­ex­pect­edly was a com­mon oc­cur­rence. In fact, they don’t even al­ways have signs. On the way to the Padirac cave we took a wrong turn and found our­selves on a farm road aim­ing to­ward a hill with two ru­ined cas­tle tow­ers sit­ting atop it with­out any com­mem­o­ra­tion other than a blunt pri­vate-prop­erty warn­ing.

But here was one invit­ing us to visit. We turned off the road and a se­ries of ever smaller roads un­til we were sure we’d made a wrong turn some­where. But just as we were about to give up, we came to a dirt park­ing lot in a grove of trees with an ar­row point­ing down a trail through the woods. Af­ter about 700 me­ters, the woods ended at a line of ex­posed lime­stone reach­ing to the sky and stretch­ing away into an open meadow. The chateau rose dra­mat­i­cally to the left, loom­ing atop the rocks, while another chateau, this one pri­vate, stood out among the heights on the other side of the val­ley, not so much as a road be­tween them. We paid a nom­i­nal ad­mis­sion and climbed up the es­carp­ment all the way to the top where there was a wide ar­ray of ru­ins, from a stone chapel to a sol­diers’ bar­racks and ul­ti­mately to the 12th­cen­tury keep. By the end of the 20th cen­tury, Com­mar­que was a for­got­ten ruin, al­most en­tirely top­pled, buried or re­claimed by the for­est, un­til a di­rect de­scen­dant of the orig­i­nal lords of the cas­tle be­gan an am­bi­tious pri­vate-public restora­tion of the chateau and ex­plo­ration of a cave be­neath it, filled with pre­his­toric paint­ings and sculp­ture.

Be­tween its bot­tom­less his­tory, its stark beauty and re­mark­able iso­la­tion, that visit to Com­mar­que is some­thing I’ll never for­get. Com­ing on it by ac­ci­dent only made it that much bet­ter, and ul­ti­mately, those happy ac­ci­dents de­fined our stay. On one of our longer day trips, we were head­ing back to Sar­lat but still an hour out and in des­per­ate need of a rest stop. But this wasn’t In­ter­state 95 we were on — un­less we wanted to take our chances go­ing au na­turel in a field, we seemed to be out of luck. Then we came to a cross­roads and a lit­tle town, pic­fol­lowed turesque but seem­ingly de­serted, of about a dozen two-story, stone­and-stucco build­ings shoul­der to shoul­der along one main street that looked like a set for some World War II movie. At one end was a gothic church spire, and at the other another bland two-story struc­ture with a sign in­di­cat­ing that this was “La Bonne Fran­quette” restau­rant. We parked and peeked in through the open doors to a dimly lit din­ing room with a hand­ful of ta­bles, all empty but one. We were du­bi­ous, but didn’t feel we could ask to use the fa­cil­i­ties with­out or­der­ing some­thing to eat. As we sat, the host­ess came over and asked if we wouldn’t rather eat out on the ter­race. It was more of a va­cant lot be­neath a 200-yearold flow­er­ing tree whose gnarled trunk and branches had been trained to twine over a trel­lis. Across the lot, loom­ing above another build­ing, was the church steeple.

A teenage boy, no doubt the son of the host­ess, waited on us, ob­vi­ously ex­cited to serve such ex­otic cus­tomers and blush­ingly try out a few sen­tences of English. Though there was only red meat on the menu, our lit­eral garçon per­suaded the chef to pre­pare fish, which to our shock came out of the kitchen fresh and flaky, and served in a de­li­cious sauce along with ten­derly steamed fresh veg­eta­bles and an ex­cel­lent salad. The sun shone, the church bell sounded, and even though it was midafter­noon, we couldn’t turn down the cof­fee. We just wanted to make the mo­ment last.

TOM SHRODER

A steep switch­back leads through the me­dieval French vil­lage of La Roque Gageac, above the Dor­dogne River.

PHO­TOS BY TOM SHRODER

TOP: On mar­ket day, the main plaza of Sar­lat, France, is full of booths un­der cover of canopies. ABOVE: Rue de la Republique, the main shop­ping street, is part of a me­dieval street plan. Burg­ers came later.

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