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Part Seven. Black Socks and Sandals

January 6, 2013

I’d slept on trains and eaten picnics; I’d stayed in hotels and eaten in caffs, but I hadn’t stayed stayed, as it were, until a friend suggested that a group of us could book her cousin’s house near Eymet in the Dordogne.

Even then the Dordogne was known to be the mecca for the British seeking to live in France, but not rich enough for Paris or the Riviera. Not that those living there thought of themselves like that, of course….they were there for the peace of the countryside and the French lifestyle.

The cousin was going to be in England for a month, but we could only afford a fortnight between the four of us, even at ‘family’ rates and sharing one car, although, to be fair, none of us could have taken more time away from work, allowing for getting there and back even in the dog days of summer.

The idea was to drop down as directly as possible, avoiding the motorways – not that there were that many at that time – stopping if anything caught our fancy. Even sharing the driving it was clear from the map that speed was not going to be a feature of the trip, but at least the passengers would see something of the changing landscape of France.

Thanks in part to our maps and in part to our mapreading, we saw rather more of old town centres than we had bargained for….interesting though they were and, inevitably, became lost in Rouen. Years later I was still, inevitably, becoming lost in Rouen even when the European autoroutes swept drivers into tunnels which avoided some of the inner city roads  I could still find myself in the fume ridden industrial area besmirching the banks of the Seine, or crawling through endless suburbs, red lights at every junction and cursing the Toutes Directions signs. I never remember seeing the cathedral…

Heading out over the waterless plain to the south we managed to see the church and chateau at Le Neubourg at least twice before escaping in the direction of Conches-en-Ouche under its ruined keep, and down into the woods and streams around Senonches before taking the main road to Nogent le Rotrou…passengers vowed to silence save for the navigator in the suicide seat.
It would be one of the few places passed or visited on this journey that I would see again…its narrow streets as much of an obstacle to progress then as they would be years later in that town hunched and cramped under its fortress on the hill.

Then via St. Calais to Montoire sur le Loir where Petain agreed to collaborate with Hitler, meeting him in the same railway carriage that was used for the German surrender at Compiegne in 1918. A pretty place, but we were off to Tours, joining the major roads and keeping our eyes open and our mouths shut.
The Loire disappointed…..such a small stream to bear so much history….it was not until later I realised that the bulk of the water in the Loire is brought in by the Vienne….the confluence being well downstream of Tours.
Through Tours and out onto quieter roads to Ste. Catherine de Fierbois where Joan of Arc stayed before her meeting with the dauphin at Chinon. The church where the sword of Charles Martel was allegedly discovered is later than her time….but the hostel for pilgrims where she put up still existed, though we were discovering that time was flying past us and we had to press on.

In and out of Chatellerault and following the Vienne upstream to Chauvigny, where at that point no one had thought to set up the now famous ‘Geants du Ciel’ spectacular, where birds of prey wheel over the heads of spectators above the towers of the fortifications, just one of the many attraction parks clustering round Poitier’s Futuroscope – Planet of the Crocodiles, Valley of the Apes – feeding off and feeding in their turn the cheap flights of the Ryanair empire.

We had planned to spend the night at Civaux for two reasons.
The first was that the hotel…found in a guidebook in those pre internet days…was cheap and the second was that two of us wanted to visit the remains of the Merovingian necropolis there.
We had had a tiring day….flasks and sandwiches rather than leisurely lunches as the drivers took their turns…so to find the hotel closed was not a welcome sight.
Why was the hotel closed in the height of the holiday season?
The notice in the window said it all.
Closed for holidays.

We pushed on to Lussac les Chateaux, whose cave drawings seem to attract far less attention that the paintings at Lascaux, found a bar with rooms to let and crashed out.
To this day I have not yet visited the necropolis….I’ve come close so many times, but something has always happened to derail my plans.

An early start and following the Vienne upstream through Persac to l’Isle Jourdain and on to Confolons, the Vienne still wide and full of water, via quiet Chabanais to Rochechouart, skirting the Limousin to arrive at last in the Dordogne, in the Perigord vert, at Nontron.
The last leg.

Brantome on the river Dronne, the abbey as beautiful as photographs portrayed it….Chancelade, not then swallowed whole by Perigueux, then some unwelcome main road until able to turn off on the road through Vergt in the Perigord blanc….which always returned to mind in the strawberry season when Vergt’s fruit would be seen as far north as the Loire.
Bergerac, before it’s bypass…then down through Fonroque, wine tasting signs appearing on the roadside until the driver called out…

This is it. Eymet!

Are you sure?

Yes, it has to be…the English are here. I’ve just seen a man in black socks and sandals.

  1. The litany of names is so evocative, Helen, even for me who only knows them from what I’ve read, never having been to these areas. You’re lucky to have travelled there in the days of less traffic and fewer English in black socks and sandals.

  2. I’ve always been glad we didn’t just rush down the main roads….but there are many places that I would have liked to visit for longer…another time…but the time rarely came.

  3. I’d have to look at a map to remember which places I’ve been to on your list, but lots of them do ring bells. Most recently via railways stations on the overland trip to and from the UK.

  4. I would come across the names in the news or on T.V. occasionally and it was always a pleasure to remember that route.
    No by passes so you were able to see the centres.

  5. We still get lost in Rouen. I’m not sure we have been through the same way twice yet. Went via Chartres last time. Like crossing Kansas when you leave the Loire and head across the plains

  6. We relied on our good friend “Tim”, the GPS narrator, to get us through Rouen every time. (otherwise much cursing and time wasting).

    I enjoyed following your route, the town names still romantic even though I know all too well the reality and hard work of trying to find even a decent coffee in Confolens…Chabanais…Rochechouart…Nontron and on and on! Still, nice memories of the beautiful scenery and structures.

    • We didn’t just take flasks to avoid stopping…we all knew the problems of personal refuelling in the wilds of France…
      Great landscapes…pity about the infrastructure…

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