Thursday, May 24, 2018

Turn Left? Turn Right? in the Dordogne

Turn left? Turn right? - it doesn’t really matter if you aren’t in a hurry. Getting a bit off track out here in the middle of nowhere might even lead to something unexpected.

On a recent outing there was no messing about with the getting there. The destination was a sale of rare plants. Arriving on time was imperative because all the big buyers come early and buy quickly. There is nothing worse than arriving and seeing someone leaving, smugly carrying the one plant that would have been a great addition to our garden. I knew the route and pulled the car into a parking spot right to the minute of our desired arrival. The spot was close to the sales area so we could get in quick and it wasn’t going to be too far to lug out our plant purchases.

Later, exhausted by too much adrenaline, we called it quits. As Tom loaded up (or should I say stuffed) the car with our purchases I looked over the exit situation. We were parked on a one lane road. Crazy plant people parked tightly on both sides, crazy plant people staggering down the one lane behind their load of foliage, crazy plant people arriving late weaving down the lane. The only direction that looked fluid and easy was ahead, but where did ahead go?

Oh well, the goal of our adventure was over and there was no urgency to getting home - we’d take a wander through the countryside.

The original guess was that the lane ahead would lead right and then with a couple of turns we would get back to the main road. But, the lane kept heading more and more left and south away from home - an hour back up north. The countryside was steeper than up our way. There was no way to see what lay ahead. Right and left turn choices came on sharp angles, headed down steeply or up sharply. The side of the road fell off abruptly down the valley edge.

Out here there is no rhyme or reason to the direction the lanes might go. A GPS is useless. It will tell you to turn right into a creek or continue straight and drop you in a farmer’s manure pit - giving no alternative directions. At first I listened to the GPS heading off to the south even though I knew home was north. When we did indeed end up in a farmer’s manure pit I asked Tom to turn off the GPS. It’s a small corner of the world and we’d eventually come upon something recognizable and untangle ourselves. Eventually…..

Then suddenly -  “What the heck!”

I backed the car up just to be sure I wasn’t hallucinating. There in a gap in the trees floated the towers of a castle. A really big castle. Tourist brochures don’t mention a castle down in this neck of the woods. 
“Just look at the expanse of that roofline!   Let’s try and find it.”

Down a steep turn to the right. Another turn to the right. It seemed like I was heading above the mystery building and had somehow missed it’s hidden driveway. The road was getting narrower and wilder which seemed strange at the foot of a huge castle. Then coming over the crest of a ridge there were two discrete, simple pillars clearly marking what had to be the entrance.

There were “Private - No Entry” signs on the pillars. However this was too enticing to be resisted. I parked the car on the edge of the road facing down hill in case there was need to make a speedy get away. Thoughts of shotgun owners came into my American brain. The property had been recently mowed adding to the tension that someone might be around. Still curiosity was getting the better of me. Tom, not saying go - or don’t go, followed along

This baby was a monster!

The lane curved along to a carriage gate set into a mounded defensive wall. That gate was closed tight, the only decoration a stone lintel with a coat of arms looming solemnly over entry. Standing under the gate we could still just see the rooftop and towers. The funny thing was that there were earthen wings that one could walk up to the top of the wall. Clearly these had been added when defending the place had no longer been necessary.  Walking up to the top the entire face of the building expanded before us in all it’s splendour. Desolate, quiet, and enormous. An architectural feat that seems to have lost it’s purpose. Silently standing there like a sleeping giant, delicate pieces of it breaking apart from neglect and age. How astounding. 

All the usual questions came to mind: when was it built, who built it, what had made them so rich, who owns it now, why don’t they…….. what’s going to happen……

The feeling of awe was physical. We could feel the weight of the building, the weight of history, the weight of the burden of caring for such a place.

It’s hard to believe that there are so many castles in this area that they can be taken for granted. Hardly any are a part of the public domaine. They don’t get written up about in history books or put into storybooks.

The fact is there are records of 1200 castles in the Dordogne. The Dordogne has the highest concentration of  noble structures in all of France. Most of them are off the beaten track and tightly shuttered against curiosity.

Feeling awed and moved by what we couldn’t know we headed back to the car. Turns out just a few more lefts and rights got us back to the main road. The spell was broken. The past gave way to today. For now.