After one of the wettest winters for fifty years (so the Depeche said the other day) opportunities to step outside, let alone picnic have been non existent. But with the spring slowly beginning and some glorious sunny spells now and then the time had come to put our best foot forward. Plus I was tired of riding the exercise bike with the same view and the horse had started to ignore my apples when I ventured up to his field between the showers.
Through Instagram I had become aware of a new nature reserve at Argentat, a town with a pretty riverside, and, apparently, gravel pits which had recently opened as a biodiversity site. We were still under the autumn lockdown when I first looked it up online and estimated it was just within our new permitted 20km exercise zone.. but that weather!
But a Monday in early February dawned bright and sunny and not too cold so I suggested an afternoon ride along the Dordogne to check it out. The family cyclist does this particular route often but we were in the car. The road is limited to 50km and cyclists have preference. The countryside looked pretty and the sun glinted off the river. We twisted through a couple of hamlets and tried to spot a campsite we’d used back in the 80s. More by luck than judgement we found the reserve. A very neat carpark and lots of smart signs directing us around it. We were surprised to see families there it being a Monday afternoon and a school day. Schools closed due to positive covid cases? We noticed everyone had masks so we put ours on despite being outside. I checked with a family walking in the opposite direction and they said masks had to be worn in Argentat. So be it.
The reserve looked raw still and very bare. It was still February after all. The sun was being overtaken by high white cloud and it felt cold. We walked across the boardwalk that is featured on the website and looked for wildfowl. The commune hopes the place will become a stop on bird migrations but the number of people plus two small girls on noisy bicycles would seem to militate against that hope!
We carried on around the largest expanse of water and, rather than recross it, followed a path next to the Dordogne. The river was in full spate and I hoped no one would get too close. An accident waiting to happen? The path seemed to be leading us out of the reserve and finally, after passing a hide busy with walkers, it dumped us at the boggy end of a gravel pit close to the main road. We realised we had two options, walk back the way we had come or walk back up the main road to the car park. It was walk up the road to the car! Curiousity satisfied we drove home under gloomier skies. We still didn’t find that campsite but I did spot a beautiful arched window in a broken down building. So a photo opportunity at least!
‘i’m only chauffeur’s birthday arrives in late February and ever since we moved here in 2004 we have spent it in mountains in different parts of France stomping about on raquettes. A couple of years ago we decided the time had come to give in to our age and creaking knees and opt for walking in boots instead. Last year we went up to La Bourboule, its closeness making it a favourite, and we found everywhere green. It was a novelty walking on ski de fond pistes we had never explored in snowier times. This year its appeal palled as all bars and restaurants are closed due to doom virus and a 6pm curfew would curtail any after-ski fun.
Happily, the weather of the birthday week looked good and himself said his birthday promised the best of the sunshine. We even made up a picnic in hopes of eating it in a sunny spot. I had found a walk up on the Causse only half an hour away by car and entitled the ‘tour of the dolmens’. The Lot has a multitude of these neolithic remains despite the looting of their stones over the centuries.
Driving to the start at Les Feux I was surprised by how many trees had burst into blossom suddenly. The car park had only one other car and the start of the walk was very well signposted. This was looking hopeful.
What followed was a lovely walk through an abandoned village, past dolmens in fields, beautiful blossom my app identified as Cornelian cherry, curious cows and calves, indifferent sheep, honking geese and always between or near drystone walls. We puffed up the hills of the first half, gazed across the Causse to the far off Segala and Limargue and rejoiced in the descent through fields full of birdsong and the first flush of wild flowers.
The only picnic table we saw near the start of the path had a family well ensconced as we came back past it towards the end of the ‘sentier des dolmens’. Tant pis, we picked one of the many big stones decorating the carpark, spread our picnic and relaxed in the perfect tranquility of the Causse.
Having made a start on the walk and picnic days out, I watched the weather forecast closely and googled earthed to find something interesting but not too challenging after the winter somnambulance. I found what looked like a gem just an hour away from home and in a direction we hadn’t explored last year.
A little village called Vaillac, complete with a chateau, had a walk that looked like the outline of a butterfly on its fiche. Closer investigation showed that halfway through the walk we would come back to the centre ville thus giving us a chance to give in gracefully if feeling a bit puffed! The closeness of the contour lines suggested climbing would be involved. Sadly the chateau is privately owned and doesn’t open for visits.
A goodish day was picked and the road we took is the one that takes us to the motorway, many happy adventures have started at that junction! This time we drove under the A20 and just a little further on down narrow lanes under a blue sky.
I glimpsed a huge chateau on a hillside and suddenly we were in the village of Vaillac. And a very pretty village too. It had looked good on Google earth but that was a summer picture so I was a bit anxious it would look gloomy in early March. I needn’t have worried, it was picture postcard.
I wandered down from the vast church to find the little stream that I believed was the start of the walk. Sure enough, there was the familiar yellow balise clearly indicating we cross over the foot bridge.
Boots on, water in backpacks and two sticks each (remember those contour lines) and we were off.
Leaving the village we turned up a grassy track past a large pigeonnier….
and then climbed…and climbed.. and climbed! Around 90 metres I calculated. Views of the chateau opened up and early on there was a bench handily placed for catching your breath.
On the ridge we turned left on a wide track and walked for quite a time between wire fences topped with barbed wire. Protection for whatever was in the fields or repelling marauding sanglier and deer? We could see other deep valleys on our right side away from Vaillac…more googling for another time?
Eventually we turned left again, just past some donkeys, and began to drop down into the valley…
Although easier to be walking down, the last part of the path became quite difficult as it was very steep with a lot of loose stones, lethal if it had been a bit damp!
Back in the village we decided we had walked enough for that day and found the picnic table I had identified online and had a very pleasant lunch. The few cars that passed were quite expensive models and I came to the conclusion this was quite a well heeled village, given how beautifully restored the houses seemed to be.
We noted where the second half of the path left the village and will go back and walk the rest of it….when we’re a bit more match fit!