Words by Nicola Brown
Who’s on gate?” Dad calls from the driver’s seat, rousing Mom and I from our snooze. I step out of the car to meet the warm stillness of a French country evening, crickets chirruping as they’ve done throughout the summer nights for the past 30 years.
A familiar childlike giddiness guides my hand on the rusty bolt, dashing gleefully with me into the walled garden.
This trip to France is a near-annual family pilgrimage, yet our 13th century farmhouse in the Dordogne is just as spellbinding now as my very first memories of it decades ago. Grape vines hug the half-a-metre-thick stone walls above which the steeply-gabled roof leans out, as if it might whisper something candidly to the old walnut tree. Dense leafy ivy continues its goal of trying to swallow the old pigsty, now a recycling pitstop for our many empty wine bottles.
La Vieille Maison has presided over centuries of history, and is full of the kind of delightful idiosyncrasies that make the odd spider worth tolerating. How many people have an arrow slit in their bathroom, for instance? Or a Lascaux Cave art replica from the time of the earliest humans painted on the living room wall?
From our hilltop vantage, I can just about still see the sun setting over the valley. I can see something else, too: nothing ever seems to change here.
It strikes me that this is what France excels at, and this is why we keep coming back. No matter what hideous and unwanted novelties the world throws at us, no matter what level of instability and angst we find ourselves living through. In this timeless little corner of the world, we can be content that everything is how we left it. At least here I know I can always find that genuine sense of coming home.
In the morning, it’s croissants. Dad can no longer hear the soft ping of the oven so he’s in charge of coffee. These buttery morsels go fast, so we wake up early for market days in Le Bugue on Tuesday mornings. In a fraying basket by the cast iron hearth are the other fruits of our haul: Reine-claude (plums) and pruneau (prunes), Cabécou de Rocamadour (local goat cheese) and fraises des bois (wild strawberries). The crowded market, narrowly sandwiched along the main street by ancient limestone buildings, celebrated its 700th anniversary in 2019.
Through the little kitchen window, I watch the neighbour’s chickens having their petit déjeuner too, and wonder what fine dish they will contribute to later. A rich coq-au-vin, perhaps?
Food is everywhere you look in France. But it’s more than just a hedonistic pleasure here; it’s an anchor that secures the centrality of family and tradition. For the French, cooking and eating together, as much as it’s about the food, is about the time spent with the people you’re eating with.
Sarlat-la-Canéda | Kevin Guillois
The following day after a heavy meal of confit de canard (duck confit) with creamy scalloped potatoes at Auberge Le Mirandol in Sarlat-la-Canéda, another of the charming medieval towns that dot the region, Dad and I exchange a grin across the table. We already know we’re both ordering crème brûlée for dessert. It’s a tradition.
Days later, we make our usual concerted effort to work off the crème brûlées on a 14-kilometre canoe trip down the Dordogne River. The most scenic stretch flows from the towering cliffs and stunning rock-hewn village of La Roque Gageac, winding through the valley known as "the land of a thousand chateaus" to Port d’Enveaux. If there is a more magical place to canoe in the world, I haven’t found it yet.
La Roque Gageac | Annie Spratt
I let the strong current do the work as I ogle the scenery, each bend revealing another strategically built castle defending its post. The once English-owned Castelnaud emerges first on the left bank, its powerful position seemingly unrivaled. That is until the river bends right and the yet-more-impressive Beynac, its French-owned rival, issues a challenge.
Chateau de Beynac | Gonz DDL
Staring each other down, they remain locked in a silent reminder of the struggle between the French and the English during the Hundred Years’ War. Seemingly unaware, families from all backgrounds picnic blissfully with fistfuls of baguette and third helpings of red wine on the grassy banks beneath the ramparts.
We float on as France takes its collective sieste in the hazy afternoon heat. A papery winged dragon fly perches on the inviting brim of Mom’s sun hat. They’ve always liked her best.
In distinct contrast to the serenity of the river is the speed of the roads. Dad’s Formula One-style driving on the winding single tracks is reliably punctuated by yelps of protest from the passenger seat. We’re trying to reach Meyrals before Galerie Magis closes. Among the hay bails and hamlets that whizz by is a field of straw-stuffed creatures adorned with everything from rusty hubcaps to swimming goggles. Meyrals’ annual scarecrow festival is in full swing.
Inside Pascal Magis’ studio we are all lost in the folds of one of his thick, textured abstracts. “This looks like a Périgord goose, or perhaps a willow tree, do you see?” asks Mom.
We watched our favourite local painter become a world-renowned artist over the years before (and after) he died in 2011. His youthful spirit echoes my own memories of this studio as a young girl, and it lives on in the sprightly brushstrokes of an original acrylic now hanging in my parents’ living room in Canada. I can still remember that kind crinkle with a hint of mischief in his eyes and the paint splattered liberally all over his Italian leather shoes.
The Dordogne seems a fitting place to be an artist or a poet, devoid of all the digital distractions of modern life. Growing up, I spent many idle hours buried in books, curled into doorways or perched on window sills like so many a French cat. Or inventing games with my cousins that involved racing around a ping pong table in the barn on tiny tricycles well into the years when we’d outgrown them, determinedly draping our adult-length legs over the handlebars to reach the pedals.
Since we bought this little house in rural southern France, we’ve never had a TV. There’s no phone, and there’s no internet. When we get back after a day of wine tasting at Chateau de Tiregand, or an alfresco classical concert on the grounds of Chateau de Campagne, we sit and we talk. We spend time together as a family.
As I embark on my own journey of building a family in the next few years, I can’t wait to share this special corner of the world with them. I hope, in turn, my kids will share it with their kids too, so no matter how much the world changes through the generations, our family will always have La Vieille Maison, a place that never changes; a place to call home.
ON OUR LAST NIGHT, we’re enjoying one of the region’s fanciest culinary treats alongside one of its least fancy: foie gras, a rich liver pâté, and cassoulet, a sausage and white bean stew. Beyond the kitchen window it’s pitch black outside and even the crickets have gone to bed. Mum’s head gently bobs as she nods off at the table. I can feel my eyes are closing too.
“Come on, put your shoes on, I want to show you something,” comes Dad’s voice from the doorway. We take that walk a few yards down the road, the beam of the flashlight the only thing I can see, scanning ahead across the gravel. With each familiar step I get a year younger until we reach the darkest point on the hill and I am no more than six, my tiny hand lost in his giant palm. He clicks the flashlight off and the sky erupts in a billion stars. The prominent band of the Milky Way glows in celestial prowess as the light pollution of the modern world seems a distant memory. I remember learning when I was young that, because of how long it takes their light to reach Earth, when we look at the stars we see them as they were years ago.
“Look, there’s the Saucepan,” Dad says, “and Orion’s belt.” I can just about make out the knowing smile on his face. “Exactly where we left them.”
When You Go
Les Jardins de Marqueyssac, Dordogne | Natalia Terskaya
SEE & DO
Where to shop at local farmers’ markets: Le Bugue Market on Tuesday mornings is reliably packed with locals and tourists from around the world. Bargaining is de rigueur so don’t be afraid to try. You’ll find everything from local fruit and veg, cheeses, olives, nuts and sweet treats to handicrafts, textiles, summer clothing and the guy who sells wine out of his vintage Citroën.
Where to see cave paintings: Font de Gaume in Les-Eyzies-de-Tayac- Sireuil is a spectacular natural history site where you can get up close to some of the most awe-inspiring cave paintings in the region. Dating from 17,000 BC, the prehistoric art includes a bison whose legs and belly are formed by the stalactite contours and cavities of the wall and seems to come alive in the flicker of candlelight.
Where to rent canoes along the Dordogne River: Canoe Roquegeoffre or Canoe Détente Dordogne are both located in Port d’Enveaux. They offer canoes and kayaks with paddles, lifejackets and waterproof buckets. A bus takes you from here up river to any number of starting points. Make sure to go from the put-in point at La Roque Gageac to take advantage of the most scenic portion of the river.
Eat & Drink
Duck confit | Eric McNew
Regional specialties: Auberge Le Mirandol in Sarlat-le-Canéda serves many of the region's specialties – confit de canard, foie gras, gateau aux noix (walnut cake) – at more reasonable prices than the eateries along the main thoroughfare. You’ll find it tucked away at the intersection of three beautiful cobbled alleyways. Eat on the terrace but poke your head inside to explore the natural cave at the back of this 15th-century restaurant.
Where to go wine tasting: Head to Château de Tiregand in Creysse for free wine tasting on vast castle grounds. Needless to say, we've tasted a lot of local wine here over the past 30 years and this chateau continues to produce our favourites. The little-known appellation of Pécharmants in the Dordogne produces a heavenly blend of Merlot, Malbec, Cabernet Sauvignon and Cabernet Franc. Don’t leave without trying the Grand Millésime.