© Jeremy Ferguson
France at its most enchanting
The Dordogne countryside known for its castles and cuisine
There is in us, I believe, a sublimated thirst for beauty, and when we engage it fully, we drink it in with the ferocity of the dying man at the oasis. Twenty-five years ago, I found such a place. Here was beauty in fields of poppies and sunflowers, beauty in ancient stone, beauty in the play of light, beauty in the cloudscapes, beauty on the table. Welcome to the Dordogne, that landlocked département of southwest France, and I’m wondering why it took me so long to return.
I have become something of a flâneur in my geezerhood, one who wanders with no particular destination and a certain anticipation of wonder. Balzac defined flanerie as the “gastronomy of the eye.”
The département sprawls across the French southwest on the banks of the Dordogne River itself, which rushes out of the Massif Central, then drifts westward among limestone cliffs, forest dappled green-and-gold, splendidly preserved medieval villages and gauntlets of feudal castles. It is easily the longest and loveliest river in France.
The French honour their countryside. The purity of it can stagger a Canadian accustomed to strip malls, McDonald’s, Burger King and Starbucks. Many castles were ravaged in the Hundred Years’ War, which raged on for closer to 300 years as France and England battled for ownership of southwest France. Then it happened all over again in the unspeakably brutal Wars of Religion in the 16th and 17th centuries.
So we stand at the foot of Beynac village, gazing 200 metres up at its magnificent fortress perched against a flared sky. The French had Château de Beynac (beynac-en-perigord.com/en/the-fortress.html). Across the river on its promontory, Château de Castelnaud (castelnaud.com), the English stronghold, glowers at its ancient enemy. One wonders if the English caused the most damage by catapulting their puddings at Beynac’s battlements.
Some of these castles are the property of one-percenters from as far off as Texas and Tokyo, but there are still plenty to visit. I prefer castles from a distance. It was their formidable exteriors, after all, that were calculated to impress friends and intimidate the foe. Not for me, the fussy interiors.
Josephine Baker’s château
The exception is Château des Milandes (milandes.com), which was built by the owners of Castelnaud when they finally sought a more genteel lifestyle in 1489. The trappings of defense gave way to elegant gardens, ivy-covered turrets, choruses of gargoyles and sumptuous apartments.
The château’s most remarkable owner, however, was a profoundly modern woman. Josephine Baker was a black American, born in a St. Louis slum, who found her destiny in the racially tolerant France of the 1920s. At the Folies Bergère at age 20, she dazzled Paris with her melodious voice, magical smile and lithe brown body, belting out le jazz hot wearing nothing more than a string of artificial bananas. She was the 20th century’s first real sex symbol. Ernest Hemingway called her "the most beautiful woman there is, there ever was, or ever will be."
I was persuaded to enter the château on learning it was no wax museum, but an intricate space dedicated to the life of this amazing woman. I’d been a fool for not visiting earlier.
Milandes comes with unusual perks: it has an honest little brasserie in the garden, the chanteuse-chatelaine’s voice floating through the linden trees. For a modest price, we ate a very good lunch of foie gras, confit of duck with green salad and potatoes Sarladaise laced with garlic, and dessert of walnut tart.
There was, too, at no charge, one of those eye-opening raptor shows, in which birds of prey, from barn owls to American bald eagles, demonstrate their predatory prowess.
But it is the rooms, 24 of them, detailing Baker’s life, that own the memory. Here are glamorous posters, vintage photographs, film clips, documents and dazzling costumes bringing Baker, who died in 1975, to life. An image of the ravishingly mischievous young vamp nearly stops the heart. We see the mature Baker receiving the Legion of Honour for her work as a spy under the noses of the Nazis in WWII. Here, see Josephine Baker, civil rights activist. There, see the elderly woman forced from her beloved château — her “Sleeping Beauty” castle — and compelled to live on charity.
Talk of the towns
There was another château to discover this time: the devastated Château de Commarque (commarque.com), a 12th century wreck now under restoration. It recalls the old irony: a ruin is more spellbinding than the original, just as an aging actor easily steals the audience from a muscled pretty boy.
And the peppering of Les Plus Beaux Villages de France (france-beautiful-villages.org): Monpazier is a classic bastide, a fortified village, its arcaded square prompting visions of somersaulting jesters and jugglers. Domme sits high on a crag, its Dordogne panorama supreme. La Roque-Gageac occupies a finger of land between the Dordogne and steep cliffs, and turns to gold at dusk. Saint-Cyprien hosts a boisterous street market twice a week. Saint-Léon-sur-Vézère sits on one of the most exquisite stretches of the river as it flows through the Vézère Valley.
The town of Sarlat is tourism central. It lists more registered historic buildings per square kilometre than any city in Europe. I’ve wandered its medieval heart a dozen times, a stroll through the 14th century, all ochre-hued stone, tilted streets and half-timbered buildings with steep slate rooftops.
But this time, I found myself on the less explored, far side of the central Rue de la République. I wandered into a warren of tiny residential streets and alleys dusted in time. I expected D’Artagnan, Cyrano de Bergerac and Quasimodo to fly from the shadows. Such a thing makes a flâneur’s day.
And would I ever write a story without talking about food? The Dordogne used to be Périgord of yore and it remains the pinnacle of gastronomie chosen by the French themselves. Mention the Dordogne even in Paris and a Frenchman will smack his lips in Dolby Sound.
The Dordogne’s giants are foie gras, truffles and confit de canard. They assume religious proportions. A great chef once described foie gras as “the cocaine of cuisine.” Once denounced as the work of the devil, the truffle is as cherished as it is expensive: the largest-ever Périgord black truffle, weighing 1.3 kilos, sold for about $2000 in 2013.
But humble me, I’d happily trade these grandiose delicacies for the vastly more affordable confit, the juicy duck thigh preserved in crinolines of its own fat and gently roasted. We do this in Canada with our native Pekin or Long Island duck, and it’s decent enough, but here in the Dordogne, we have the French Moulard duck, a hybrid that has three times the flavour. Did I say something about beauty on the plate? With potatoes fried in duck fat and garlic, it’s in itself a reason to return.
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