Three Weeks Under Canvas: The Tarn Gorge

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After our week in the Dordogne, we drove to the Tarn Gorge for another week’s camping, this time at Camping La Blaquiere. Even more so than at Camping Maisonneuve, we spent a great deal of our time on and around the campsite, particularly swimming in, or jumping into, the Tarn.

This is limestone country, like the area around the Dordogne, but very different scenery; the Tarn cuts deeply into the Cévennes and the steep sides of the gorge are girt with crags and huge towers.

This…

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…is the stretch of the river where we did most of our swimming. It was deep, crystal-clear, fast-flowing and absolutely full of a wide variety of fish: I took to wearing goggles whenever I swam, so that I could dive below the surface to observe them.

This…

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…is the only photo of the camping site I took. It shows the small cafe, where we ate twice, memorably watching a three-piece band segue from The Ram-Jam Band’s ‘Black Betty’ into the Eurythmics’ ‘Sweet Dreams’, an unusual combination.  As the light faded whilst we ate, I watched Alpine Swifts, which are larger than those we see at home, hurtling along beside the cliffs across the river.

I was endlessly fascinated by the way light changed with the time of day and the weather. This photo…

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…was taken relatively early in the morning. Just right of centre, you can see a rock formation poking above the horizon….

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The kids decided that it was a man and a woman. Later in the week we travelled past the campsite in a bus and I’m pretty sure that the driver pointed out the same rocks and said that one was Louis XIV, the ‘Sun King’. Presumably the other is one of his wives, or many mistresses.

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Later in the week we had several afternoons which brought dark clouds, rumbles of thunder and sometimes rain.

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Which really added to the drama of the views…

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This stretch of the river…

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…is just downstream from the campsite. It was favourite with the Dangerous Brothers because the rocks on which I was standing to take the photograph had several spots from which to leap into the river, some of them really quite high up. That’s two of the DBs talking on the far bank: DB Senior, our B, and ODB – Old Dangerous Brother, or Andy, who is an honorary member of the team. I think he was quite chuffed to have somebody with him who shared his appetite for reckless self-enganderment. I know our boys certainly enjoyed it. Little S climbed to the highest jumping point numerous times, but in the end, on our final day, it was B who actually jumped.

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The photographs were taken from the far side of…

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…’le champignon’, the mushroom rock, another landmark which the bus driver identified.

Morning walks for bread only went as far as the campsite reception; the villages up and down the valley from the campsite were both a little too far away for a morning croissant and baguette walk.

This is La Malène…

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Which was upriver.

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And which has a bridge over the Tarn, handy for taking photos…

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The village in the other direction was Les Vignes, where we did most of our grocery shopping. It was almost as picturesque as La Malène, but I don’t seem to have taken many photographs, preferring instead to concentrate on being fleeced by a consummate salesman who lured me in with a complimentary glass of peach wine and samples of his wares, before ruining me financially by selling me some of what was surely the World’s most expensive salami. It did taste good though.

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Three Weeks Under Canvas: The Tarn Gorge

Chateau de Castelnaud-la-Chapelle

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With the chateau dominating the view from the campsite, it was almost inevitable that we would want to look around it during our stay, especially since many of the party are big fans of castles. Also, we had to settle an argument between TJS and his Dad about whether or not they had ever toured the chateau before. (They had. TJS had already been backtracking on his original vehement denials of that fact.)

We walked from the campsite and then up the hill, avoiding the route signposted as steep and unsuitable for pushchairs – not that we had any pushchairs, but it was extremely hot and so we wanted to take the easiest possible route.

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The castle was superb, with the added bonus of fantastic views of the Dordogne valley.

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And also of the Céou valley where we were camped…

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Much as we enjoyed our outing, we sought every opportunity to find some shade and take a rest. C, as you can tell, was very absorbed in her book….

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Inside. I told TJS I would take a photograph of him and the armoured rider. He obliged by looking away from the camera…

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…several times!

The castle had winding staircases, battlements, and quite a display of armour and armaments…

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I loved this sort of thing when I was a kid, and, well, in honesty, I still do.

TBH, J and I watched a sort of animated tableau telling the story of the siege of Castelnaud. We watched three times in fact, the first two with a commentary in french. It was clear that ‘les Anglaise’ were the villains of the piece and I assumed that they were the besiegers, but in fact, the third repeat and it’s english translation of the tale revealed that the castle at that time, 1442, was held by forces loyal to England. The castle was substantially rebuilt in 1214 by Simon de Montfort, who I associate with Leicester where I grew up, but, whilst he was Earl of Leicester, he also held lands in France and seems to have lived in France (it was his son, the VIth Simon de Montfort who had a greater role in English history).

We also watched a film about siege engines and there were a number of trebuchet on display on the ramparts.

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The chateau along the Dordogne here…

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…is Beynac, which will have to wait for or next visit before we look around it…

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It certainly looks promising.

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Dordogne panorama.

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I always like to find images of St. George. This carved example would have originally held a lance in those upraised arms, but now that his spear has gone missing it looks like George has thrown his hands up in surrender, or that he’s trying to lead the dragon in some sort of dance – YMCA perhaps?

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B was happy. C still wrapped up in her reading!

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J and TBH, in the stocks?

When we’ finished our tour of the castle we still had a wander back down through the village of Castelnaud-la-Chapelle to enjoy.

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We popped into the church…

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Well, most of us did…

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C was more intent on finishing her obviously very gripping book.

And, as ever, I was interested in the stained-glass windows. This…

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…is St. Denis, patron saint of France, apparently. How did I not know that until now? A third century martyr and Bishop of Paris. So he was actually French, unlike George, our own patron saint, the Village People fan, who was Greek.

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There seem to have been two St. Henry’s: one Holy Roman Emperor and latterly King of Germany and the other an english clergyman who became a bishop in Sweden. Perhaps the crown here is a clue and this is the first of them?

One final view…

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…this is the ridge of Les Jardins de Marqueyssac, where TBH and I had spent the previous day.

Another fabulous day in the Dordogne region, but it was almost time to move on…

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Les Jardins de Marqueyssac

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Whilst the rest of the party, including our own kids, were off swinging from trees and performing similar acts of derring-do, TBH and I were left with time on our hands. How delightful! As parents of three very active children, to have an entire day to ourselves was beyond a novelty, almost unprecedented in fact. We had threatened to have a lazy day at the camp-site, reading our books. I had made a good start on Hilary Mantel’s ‘A Place of Greater Safety’, her account of some of the key figures of the French Revolution. It’s a huge and magnificent book, so a day luxuriating in its company was very tempting, but in the end we decided that a day out together was too good an opportunity to miss. We flicked through some brochures and leaflets which J had picked up about various local attractions, but in the end settled on Les Jardins de Marqueyssac both because they looked attractive and because they were within walking distance.

Our walk took us across a bridge over the Dordogne…

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Where many parties of canoeists were enjoying the same sort of trip which we had undertaken just a couple of days before.

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Chateau de Castelnaud.

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Clouded Yellow butterfly.

That’s Marqueyssac…

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…at the top of the hill. It was a short but very hot and sticky climb up a road so minor that no traffic passed us at all. As we walked, we had both the views and some sun-warmed and very sweet blackberries in the hedgerows to reward us.

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Arriving at Marqueyssac, we discovered that picnics are forbidden in the grounds, but that picnic tables were provided on a terrace by the entrance which had a lovely view over the valley below.

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Once inside the gardens, we popped into a small building which housed a curious display of stuffed animals in which the creatures had been arranged into dioramas so that predator and prey were locked eternally in pursuit. Nearby, another building had a full skeleton and also another skull of an Allosaurus. The fossils were found in Arizona and bought at auction, at great expense, by the owner of the gardens. Allosaurus are from the Jurassic period and have mostly been found in the US, although the information boards seemed to be saying that there had also been recent findings in France.

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We hadn’t explore far, but felt the need for something cooling, so sat on another terrace with a great view, where customers were sprayed with a fine mist to cool them! TBH had a glace whilst I drank a glass of beer.

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The gardens were quite unlike any I’d visited before. Long and narrow, they sit atop a limestone ridge and are mostly woodland with paths bordered with neat boxwood hedges.

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Three different paths run the length of the garden and we did our best to contrive a route which took in all three as much as possible, without doing the entire length twice. At the far end of the garden from the entrance you are close to Roque Gageac…

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This photo…

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…gives a good view of the ridge which the garden occupies.

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During the entire walk we saw butterflies galore, but very few would pose for a photo. This Wall Brown being an exception…

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Roque Gageac again…

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….on the left you can see people on the belvedere from which I took the previous views.

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This little chapel…

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…was, annoyingly, locked-up and my attempts to take a photo through the slits in the door weren’t entirely successful…

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It was possible to take a short tour of part of the Chateau…

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But I found that oddly uninspiring without some context or understanding of what I was seeing.

One final view…

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…I think that’s the Chateau de Beynac on the right in the distance. This area seems particularly rich in castles and gardens and caves and other interesting places to visit. We’ll have to go back!

On the way back to the campsite, suffering from the heat, TBH decided to dive into one of the shops set-back from the road. It was in a large building divided into two – one half selling soap and the other half, full of mannequins, was supposedly a soap museum. One mannequin was shaving another. A female mannequin was washing clothes. There was a donkey, for reasons which weren’t clear to me. Photos weren’t allowed in this amazing place – it must be seen to be believed! You’ll have to go!

But prepare to be underwhelmed.

Les Jardins de Marqueyssac

Sarlat-la-Canéda

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This house is apparently the former home of Étienne de La Boétie (1530-1562) the great friend of Michel de Montaigne and an interesting character in his own right. I read an excellent biography of Montaigne last year (‘How to Live’ by Sarah Bakewell) and am very slowly working my way through Montaigne’s essays (Montaigne was the first author to describe his writings as ‘Essais’ or attempts) so I wish I’d know about the connection to Sarlat through his friend before we made our afternoon visit during our holiday. As it was, I took the photograph simply because I liked the look of the building.

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I took lots of other photos in Sarlat for exactly the same reason. The narrow car-free streets of the town and it’s magnificent old buildings were charming. We’d visited the newer parts of the town before, shopping for groceries, but Andy had visited the old part of the town before and was right to encourage the rest of us to drag ourselves away from the pool to explore.

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Once there, we spilt into two parties, a trawling around the shops group and a wandering the cobbled lanes and alleyways company. Obviously, I chose to go shopping.

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Many of the grander buildings had detailed information boards on the walls, but my schoolboy French, what little of it I remember, was clearly not up to the task, because all of the those buildings seem to have been hotels, which surely can’t be right?

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Timbered walls, turrets , archways, balconies and external stairways abounded – it was fascinating. We even stumbled on a small surviving section of the high city walls.

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According to Wikipedia, Sarlat owes the preservation of it medieval centre to the fact that ‘modern history has largely passed it by’, which, increasingly, seems to be also true of me.

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I’m not really supposed to eat ice-cream, but when Andy offered to buy me one, I let him twist my arm into accepting. It would have been rude not to. Anyway, I needed something cold because of the great heat, purely for medicinal purposes, obviously. Also, in France they reliably have pistachio flavour, my favourite, but not widely appreciated here in England.

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Some of the main shopping streets were busy, but the back-alleys were very quiet.

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Images of oies, canards and poulets were ubiquitous. Clearly they like their poultry in this area.

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In fact, the region is renowned for it’s duck dishes and also for pâté de foie gras. Given the cruelty of the production methods of the latter, the ceramic and cuddly-toy geese seemed a little bit incongruous. Then again, we enjoyed our confit-du-canard and two kinds of duck ‘scratchings’ and maybe, if you’re going to eat meat, the unsqueamish french approach is the healthy one?

 

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Canoeing on the Dordogne.

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One given of our trip to France was that it would include some canoeing on the two rivers we would be staying close to. This is something Andy has done on his previous trips and promised to be a real highlight of the holiday. In the event, the whole trip was great and it’s quite difficult to choose a favourite part, but the canoeing certainly didn’t disappoint.

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Actually, this spot, featured in the first three photos, is a strong contender for favourite for me. This was the same day that Andy and I had walked, in clearing mist, to the bakery together, and, whilst we were there, we found a canoe hire place and booked four three-man boats. Later, we were all back in Castelnaud for a bus ride to our start point, near a village called Vitrac if I remember correctly. This shingle bank was the first of many places along the river where we stopped for a cooling swim and the warm honey-coloured rocks, the incredibly clear water and the numerous fish we saw made it very memorable. We watched a couple of fish which were really quite large. I think they were Barbel, although any opinion I give about fish must be taken with a huge pinch of salt. One of them was persistently shadowed by a much smaller, stripy fish – a perch perhaps? Although, why a perch would trail alongside a much bigger fish I don’t know.

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The river was quite fast flowing here and we found it best to swim downstream and then walk back up before heading back down again.

This…

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…is another one of our stops. The river was even more powerful here, but the main current was on the far bank, under towering limestone cliffs. On our side the water was heavily silted and very warm.

The Dordogne was generally very warm. When we stopped at Castlenaud Andy and I had a memorable demonstration of just how warm whilst the others went off into the village for ice-creams.

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We swam upstream to the mouth of the Céou. The water flowing into the Dordogne from the Céou felt positively icy and the Dordogne like bath-water by comparison. It was a strange experience, since you could swim through alternate pockets of warm and cold water.

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The mouth of the Céou is just about dead-centre of the panorama below.

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From Castelnaud we paddled on, to eventually stop between Beynac and Les Milandes. I think there was some talk of the whole route being 16km. Regardless of how far it was, I know that I was very weary that night on the campsite. Missing from my photographs and description is some of the spectacular scenery we canoed past: Beynac was stunning and Roque Gageac even more so, but I didn’t have my camera with me, relying on my phone which, most of the time, stayed safely inside the watertight plastic barrel which had been provided. Andy has a waterproof camera and has more and better photographs, so I’m looking forward to his post of this trip on his own blog.

Canoeing on the Dordogne.

To the Bakery and Back

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Each morning I walked into the village to buy the day’s bread, sometimes with Andy, but usually on my own. The bread was delicious, but I enjoyed the walk too. These photos are from those walks and also from other times when we had occasion to walk into Castelnaud-la-Chapelle. That first photo is looking back towards the campsite from a very misty morning, although the mist was rapidly clearing.

This is the same view…

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…on a relatively cloudy day and this…

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…is a panoramic view from a little further along the road, in more typical weather conditions.

The view in the other direction was very much dominated by the village and the Chateau towering above it, and often, in the mornings, montgolfières rising above that.

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Here’s part of the village…

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…when the mist had just about dissipated.

Not only were the views excellent, but the meadows along the route held lots of interest too.  These blue flowers dominated…

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I think that the flowers are Meadow Clary, a relative of Sage, which has a very limited distribution in Britain, but seems to be abundant in France. The insect is a Hummingbird Hawkmoth which is only seen as a migrant in Britain, although by coincidence I saw one today whilst out for a local wander. I also often saw Hummingbird Hawkmoths flying along a wall which bounded part of the road, seemingly investigating nooks and crevices, although I’m not sure why they would do that.

This…

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…is a Broad-bordered Bee Hawkmoth, which can, apparently, also be found in Britain, but not in our area and I’ve certainly never seen one before.

One of the things I loved about our visit to France was the profusion of butterflies, although they weren’t always cooperative in posing for photos.

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This Scarce Swallowtail was kind however, and moved a little closer after I took that first photo…

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Wild Carrot flowers were also very common in the meadows and where the flowerheads had curled in on themselves and gone to seed there was a very good chance that you could see Striped Shield Bugs…

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…they were hard to miss!

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Spider’s webs, on the other hand, only became obvious when the mist washed them with silver droplets.

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The wall alongside the road was home, appropriately enough, to Wall Lizards.

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These two are my favourites from the many photos I took.

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The area around the wall also seemed to be the territory of some small orange butterflies which eluded my camera at first, but then turned out to be Gatekeepers which we see at home.

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I think that this first one is on a Hemp Agrimony flower and that this one…

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…is on Horse Mint.

The road crossed a bridge over the Céou which was a good place for spotting fish and also more Beautiful Demoiselles…

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Male.

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Female.

Right at the end of our stay, we came down to the bridge because some of the party wanted to emulate some swimmers we had seen by leaping from a high branch into the water.

In the event, only E managed it, not because of the height of the jump, but because of the difficulty of climbing the tree – there was a crude ladder of planks nailed to the tree-trunk, but one of the rungs was missing. Here’s E just before she jumped…

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The rest of us had to content ourselves with jumping from the bridge itself or from a small wall beside it…

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Which, frankly, was quite high enough for me.

To the Bakery and Back

Cliffs and Caves above the Céou

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The Dordogne region, at least the area we visited, is characterised by low, wooded hills (only just creeping above 200m above sea level) cut by steep-sided valleys, often with limestone cliffs and edges. The slopes above Maisonneuve were topped with cliffs and Andy had been told by his Dutch neighbours (based on our limited survey, all European campsites seem to be mostly populated by the Dutch) that a path led from the campsite up to the base of those cliffs and that there were caves to explore in the cliffs. Indeed, we could see one large cave opening high in the cliffs above.

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Looking down the valley to Castelnaud-la-Chapelle and its Chateau.

It was a steep, sweaty (for me anyway) climb up through the trees, but well worth it when it brought us to the honeycombed, honey-coloured rocks.

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There were small caves immediately…

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Irresistible to the DBs…

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Of course, when you climb up to a cave you then have to get back down again; B found getting down from this one much more difficult than getting up had been and I found myself guiding his feet down into suitable footholds.

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There were long lines of ants spreading across the cliffs.

Turning along the base of the cliffs we soon came across a larger cave…

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…with several entrances…

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…and evidence of former occupation…

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I think it’s fair to say that there’s a long history of cave occupation in the area – the famous Lascaux caves with their paintings are in the Dordogne after all.

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Of course the DBs found a tight little passage to crawl through…

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I preferred to be outside watching a lizard expertly negotiating the rock walls…

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I think that this is a Common Wall Lizard, rather than the Common Lizards we see at home, but I’m not confident about that at all.

We continued along the base of the cliffs, coming across more cave openings, this one…

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…being the largest.

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The path continued…

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…but we were feeling ready for a swim, so turned back.

Our young friend E though had other ideas, she wanted to follow the path in the other direction up to the top of the crags to see the view. Her mum J…

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…and TBH and I decided to join us. Others may have too, but the message didn’t get to all of the party. The climb was mercifully short…

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And the views, when we got to them, were well worth the modest effort…

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The Céou Valley

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Camping Maisonneuve.

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There were a couple of Hummingbird Hawkmoths flying around near the top of the cliffs, which excited me greatly since they are rare visitors to Britain. I didn’t manage to photograph them this time, but would have many more opportunities.

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Céou Valley Panorama.

Castelnaud and its Chateau didn’t exactly dominate the view…

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…but they certainly stood out…

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…especially the Chateau…

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Finally, back down through the woods for a well-earned swim.

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Cliffs and Caves above the Céou