Tonight we find ourselves camping on the banks of the Dordogne, just a short walk from the old town centre of Bergerac, famed not only for its wine, but for the fictitious character Cyrano de Bergerac. His story is a tragic one of unrequited love. He wrote beautiful poems to the woman he truly loved, sent to her on behalf of someone else, convinced that she could never love him for himself. He suffered an inferiority complex, convinced he was ugly because of his oversized nose. A couple of statues to him are to be found around the town. Bergerac is a very pretty, quaint little town with paved streets of half-timbered houses with brick infill.
Over the past few days we have been rather pre-occupied. Before leaving Cahors we drove along beside the river Lot to discover Pont Valentré, the beautiful mediaeval bridge with its perfect reflection mirrored in the still waters. This view, rather than anything to be seen in the town is what makes Cahors special and justifies a visit. Nearby can be found the Fontaine des Charteux. The waters flow from a resurgence in the cliff face and have been used since Roman times to supply the town.
Our route continued down beside the twisting river Lot passing through the little town of Albas where we drove up through the vines for a hilltop picnic offering a wonderful vista down onto the river.
In Albi Ian had discovered another manhole cover for his collection, cast at the foundry at Fumel. By chance our onward route took us through the town, quite pleasant in itself, but it was not the pretty château Ian sought, but the very ugly foundry, still just about active, straggling along beside the river.
We had been invited to visit our friends Yves and Cathérine, whom we first met in Sri Lanka four years ago at Neil and Jeev's wedding. Since then we have already visited them at their house in Bordeaux, but now we had arranged to meet at the family château near Villeneuve-sur-Lot to spend a couple of days together while they showed us around the local area. They arrived from Bordeaux shortly before us and immediately set about throwing open all the doors and windows of the château to warm it up. Outside the day had been really hot and sticky, but inside the thick stone walls it was very chilly.
The château has been continuously in Cathérine 's family since 1802 when her ancestors purchased it after the Revolution. Napoléon apparently sold off the property of the French nobles who either did not return from abroad, or where the entire line had been guillotined. In recent years the property has been used as a holiday home and is inhabited only during the summer months as it would be quite impossible to heat it during the winter. There are 15 bedrooms in various states of repair as well as a huge area in the roof and a circular tower filled with generations of jumble. This includes Cathérine's grandmother's pram, children's toys, old bicycles and a cornucopia of other objects. The roof beams are made from entire tree trunks and at the top of the tower are the remains of the pigeon loft, a source of fresh meat in earlier centuries.
Although in Cathérine's family only since the Revolution, the castle dates mainly from the 17th century, while the base of the tower has existed since Mediaeval times. Maybe the property was purchased already furnished as some of the contents seem much older than the 200 years it has been in the family.
Yves and Cathérine showed us around, starting with the grounds. Much of the land has been sold but the lawns and a small woodland remain. In the 19th century a private zoo had been established in the garden. The owner brought back animals from his travels and let them roam freely around the grounds. He also planted a few bamboo shoots to add atmosphere. Today it has overtaken the woodland and forms a total jungle through which a narrow path has been hacked by the present family.
We were given a couple of rooms on the ground floor which included a four-poster bed! It was like spending the night in a museum where we were at liberty to use all the exhibits! Rugs, fabrics, furniture, paintings, prints, books and ornaments were all original. There were bronzes, oil paintings and chandeliers. The tall windows had heavy shutters and the wide wooden floorboards were covered with ancient, faded rugs. We also had a modern bathroom, but other bedrooms had beautiful china jugs and bowls on marble wash stands. For Ian though, the best room was the library. Many of the books were as old as the house with bindings that were sometimes in a sorry state of repair. There were long runs of Paris Match filled with old black and white photos. The lighting made it impossible to see clearly what was there and it is doubtful whether anyone actually knows. It is just what has accumulated since the property has been occupied.
In the huge old kitchen there is a large stone fireplace with a couple of fire irons to support whole logs. If there is a need to be at the château in the winter it is here that people gather. The rooms have fire places but there is no central heating. Cathérine set about preparing supper while Yves opened a bottle of Champagne to celebrate us all being together again. Between us we set the table in the garden near the bamboo jungle beneath tiny lights strung through the trees. Meanwhile the owls were hooting, unseen somewhere in the gathering darkness.
As we started supper there were rumbles of thunder and the garden was lit by a couple of lightening flashes. A few minutes later, our meal continued around the kitchen table as the rain poured down.
Despite our rather surreal surroundings we slept well and after a leisurely breakfast next day we all drove into Villeneuve for a guided tour of the town. This is the area of Bastide towns, set up over a period of 150 years during the 13-14th centuries. In principle they are similar, being built on a grid system surrounding a central square where the market was held and business carried out. Just off from this can be found the church, and the streets lead away from the square at right-angles, crossed by small streets. Frequently they are built on hilltops or are protected by strong walls or the bend of a river. Perhaps 500 such towns were built in South West France over a 150 year period of perpetual fighting between France and England. At that time England owned much of the land including Aquitaine.
Villeneuve lies on the Lot. We found it a very pleasant place. Today of course it has spread out across the plain but the basic mediaeval town lies at its centre. The church though, is early 20th century and built in red brick, a traditional building material of the area as seen in Toulouse and Albi. Further west, towards Bordeaux, brick gives way to stone.
After lunch Yves decided we should visit the château-fort at Bonaguil, started in the 13th century and completed in the 15th. It stands on a rocky promontory surrounded by woodland. We had an excellent guide who spoke very clearly so our French vocabulary is now enriched with several terms for mediaeval weaponry and architecture! We climbed towers, descended into dungeons, crawled along underground water courses, squeezed between walls and peered over high battlements.
Returning home we decided to drive up to the pretty bastide village of Pujols, which overlooks the plain of Villeneuve, to watch the sunset. As we parked we recognised it, having passed here briefly in March 2005. Now though, it was much warmer and the streets where colourful with tubs of flowers. Cathérine told us her daughter had been married in the church there.
Back home we ate supper outside, uninterrupted this time by the rain. It was a warm, still evening and we lingered, chatting, long after we had finished supper. In the lounge, amidst the furnishings of a long gone era, watched over by the portraits of unknown ancestors and faded photos of great grandparents, we watched some of Yves masterly produced videos of recent family reunions. Several times a year the members of the large family come together to celebrate different events, to put on plays and operettas, or just to meet together for a weekend of fun. Yves job is to record it all for future generations of the family!
Today Cathérine had to be back in Bordeaux for an appointment by early evening. After breakfast we drove together to Monflanquin, a classic example of a mediaeval bastide town with a museum explaining the history of such towns. It once belonged to the English and seems to have reverted back to its original owners to judge from the dominant language heard in the streets today! It is a typical bastide of timber-framed houses with the central square surrounded by colonnades. To one side stands the stone house of England's Black Prince. By this time however, all we had seen and read seemed to be merging into each other and such towns were beginning to seem exactly the same.
Next we drove to Penne. This is another mediaeval town built on a hilltop but not a bastide for once. We picnicked, admired the view, visited the imposing but rather ugly 20th century church at the summit and after wandering slowly down, exploring the little streets along the way, we stopped for much needed coffees and beers before returning to the house to collect our belongings and go our separate ways. We have spent a magical couple of days and have been greatly spoilt by our hosts. Merci infiniment Yves et Cathérine.