Down the Dordogne in a canoe

Down the Dordogne in a canoe

KAYAKING through the beautiful Dordogne valley in south-west France was a breathtaking experience - physically and visually.

Through my Bushnell binoculars, I soaked in the beauty of ancient villages amid karst terrain.

Once inhabited by Gauls, the Dordogne is named after the Dordogne River that runs through this area.

Before the boisterous summer crowds descend, spend a half-day or a full weekend kayaking or canoeing on any part of the river route from Argentat to Beynac.

Down the river

We were blessed with great weather. With few paddlers around, we had the tranquil river mainly to ourselves.

This region of Aquitaine in France, between the Loire Valley and the Pyrenees, is characterised by limestone cliffs, imposing castles such as Beynac and charming stone villages at Monpazier, Domme and La Roque Gageac.

Stories of the Hundred Years War, with the English on one side battling the French on the other, came to life as we surveyed the different chateaus on opposite banks of the river from our rented kayaks.

While you can go it alone, we hired our kayaks and a guide from Canoes Loisirs to point out key sights of our full-day kayak trip between Byrac and Vitrac.

Our English-speaking guide Tom shared historical facts about the region. As we chatted and got better acquainted, he let us in on the less touristy hangout spots enjoyed by the locals along the way.

The natural beauty was first class. Light danced on the sinuous Dordogne River, which was flanked by striking mediaeval chateaus.

An amorous pair of swans, startled by the sound of oars splashing, spread their snow-white wings and lifted off for more privacy.

We stopped midway a few times to watch birds, explore caves and admire from afar ancient houses tucked beneath the overhang of limestone cliffs. And, of course, to enjoy French cuisine and wine.

Our lunch break at Cenac was robust. We ordered entrecote steak, canard (duck) and la periourdine salade (Perigord salad which came with generous chucks of meat) at a riverside cafe called La Guinguette.

There, effervescent waitress Lulu rounded up our meal with desserts of crème brûlee and profi teroles.

Natural wonders

On days when the weather was just too chilly to hit the water, sightseeing on wheels was just as stunning.

We stayed at the quaint Domme village, in a warm and friendly family-owned hotel called Hotel de L'Esplanade. It offered unblocked vistas of the gorgeous Dordogne valley, as well as romantic sunrises and sunsets.

From our cosy hotel, up on a hilly area which overlooked the surrounding valley, we drove around to enjoy the verdant scenery.

Our guide had shared that the county of Perigord was originally home to four "tribes" and so, the Dordogne comprises four main areas.

The heart of Dordogne is its capital, Perigueux, in the "Perigord Blanc" (White Perigord) area, which is characterised by limestone plateaus and wide valleys.

The old quarter at Perigueux has been charmingly restored. It is home to one of the oldest cathedrals in France, the Cathedrale Saint Front, which was rebuilt in the 19th century.

Its Wednesday and Saturday foie gras and truffle markets are very lively.

The epicurean heart of Dordogne is an area known as "le Perigord Noir" (Black Perigord).

Gourmet delights include pate de foie gras, walnuts and truffles.

Black truffles are a speciality. As guests of Hotel de L'Esplanade, we were fortunate to be able to sample a delectable variety of truffle dishes at the end of spring and the cusp of summer at its very good restaurant.

West of the hilly Black Perigord area is "le Perigord Pourpre" (Purple Perigord), which are low-lying plains around the town of Bergerac known for its vineyards and wine.

There is also "Perigord Vert" (Green Perigord) - rustic farming areas rich in old-world charm. Both were areas popular with British expatriates.

On one of our sightseeing expeditions, we drove to the charming mediaeval town of Sarlatla-Caneda, in the Perigord Noir area, to shop.

Popping in and out of hole-in-the wall shops, we soon stocked up on regional produce, such as duck foie gras with Perigord truffle, as well as bottles of Montbazillac.

This is a sweet wine produced in the village of Montbazillac on the left bank of the Dordogne River near the town of Bergerac. The grape varieties Semillon, Sauvignon Blanc and Muscadelle are used for Montbazillac wines.

Prehistoric caves

One of the main draws for tourists are the region's prehistoric caves in the areas of Montignac, Les Eyzies and Lascaux, a Unesco World Heritage Site.

These caves were once inhabited by prehistoric people who settled in the Dordogne Valley. We were eager to see the prehistoric cave paintings and engravings in the Perigord region still open to the public, at Font-de-Gaume near Les Eyzies.

The 120m-long grotto cavity was discovered in 1901 and classified as a historical monument. The most popular artwork there is arguably a frieze of five bison painted in black brown and red, which was discovered in the 1960s.

Unfortunately, fewer than 200 people are allowed in daily. So if you are really keen to see this, reserve your spot in advance.

Alternatively, queue early in the morning because - according to staff manning the ticketing office located at the foot of the Grotto - only about 50 people are allowed in via the queue on the day itself.

GUIDELINES

- We flew from Singapore to Paris on Singapore Airlines. We took the TGV train from Paris to Bordeaux, where we rented a car to explore the region prior to driving to Dordogne.

- Try Hotel de l'Esplanade (2 Rue Pontcarral, 24250 Domme), which has 15 rooms, a good restaurant offering French cuisine with a touch of Japanese, and panoramic views of the Dordogne River and valley from the restaurant and terrace. Online reservations: esplanade.domme@wanadoo.fr

- Sarlat-la-Caneda: Visit the Sarlat Market or sightsee in the old town quarters.

- La Guinguette, a riverside cafe, has a wonderful stop-over lunch. Address: Lieu Dit Le Couderc 24250 Cenac. Visit www.foiegras-perigord.com for details on foie gras.

- You can rent single or double canoes or kayaks from different operators. I chose Canoes Loisirs, which is open daily from 9am to 7pm.

The full-day fee with guide for two persons is €300 (S$464). The staff were professional, friendly and fluent in English. They ferried us to and from our hotel, supplied us with the essential equipment (such as life jackets) and prepared some snacks too.

There are different canoeing route options. E-mail contact@canoesloisirs.com for details.

Go to sgtravellers.com for more stories.

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