La Dordogne et la Cere
A nine day circuit through
'les plus beaux villages de France'
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The Dordogne is a very popular area for walking. It is rich in GR's: the GR 36 and 46 run in a north/south direction; the GR 6 goes from east to west; and various offshoots of these and a number of GR de Pays also criss-cross the region.

In 2001 we undertook a popular circuit on the GR 480, following the Dordogne and the Cère rivers upstream, passing through a host of very pretty villages, many with the designation
"un des
plus beaux villages de France"

There are forests, causses and spectacular limestone cliffs. On the northern stretch between Beaulieu-sur-Dordogne and Turenne the route takes you through pleasant farming land and orchards. Along the rivers the track alternates between the high ridges above limestone cliffs, from which there are superb views, and the river valleys themselves. Along these stretches there are some challenging hillclimbs.

This region has experienced many of the horrible excesses of French history, in particular the wars with the English that culminated in the 100 Years War, the Wars of Religion and the Albigensian Crusade.

Access is easy. Take the train from Paris to Brive and then change to a little local train which goes, eventually, to Aurillac - first stop Turenne Gare.
Le Château de Coutinard
The Hotel La Promenade, right at the station, looked like a good overnight option, but we were booked into a chambre d'hôte at the Château de Coutinard, a few kilometres away. Before setting off to find it, we had a beer in the garden of the hotel and admired the stamina of a group of Sunday diners, just starting to think about desert and another bottle of wine at 3.30 pm. They, in turn, drank to our stamina, or perhaps foolhardiness, setting off with a backpack when we should have been enjoying Sunday lunch.

The Château was a classic fairy tale castle in a huge domaine with lovely gardens and extensive forests. As a chambre d'hôte it was a bit weird. First, there was a bell attached to the side of the house and a notice which instructed guests not to ring it till 4.30. When we rang the bell at the appointed hour there was dead silence, and then lots of animated chattering before a head appeared at an upstairs window and a voice said "
J'arrive, j'arrive".

Inside, the château was full of old furniture and knick knacks with no sign of any other people except for an occasional creaking floor board. Our room, up a spiral staircase, on the third floor overlooked the valley beyond with a magnificent view for miles, taking in lots of other castles and farmhouses.

The château didn't do dinner but it was only a short stroll in the evening back to the hotel at the station and a splendid meal. The darkness on the way back to the château was lit up with a full moon rising to magnificently illuminate the valley. We were ready to go walking
The Walk
Day 1. Turenne to Martel - 15 km
Day 2. Martel to Carennac - 25 km
(13.5 km from Montvalent)
Day 3. Carennac to Autoire - 14km
Day 4 Autoire to Laval de Cère - 24 km
(12 km via Bretenoux and Biars sur Cère)
Day 5. Laval-de-Cère to Camps (17 km)
Day 6. Camps to Beaulieu-sur-Dordogne - 17 km
Day 7. Beaulieu-sur-Dordogne to Curemont - 12.5 km
Day 8. Curemonte to Collonges-la-Rouge - 13.5 km
Day 9. Collonges-la-Rouge to Turenne Gare - 8.3 km
Turenne to Martel
An easy walk through the Domaine du Château led up to Turenne and there was time to look around while waiting for the single shop in town to open. Turenne is prettily perched on the top of a steep hill, dominated by the ruins of an ancient château-fort. Its streets are narrow and many of the slate roofed houses date from the 15th century.

We made our purchases and then set off, armed with a
saucisson sec, a couple of cabécous, a bottle of wine and a frozen baguette. The baguette was frozen as the shop hadn't opened the day before and it was still too early for the morning's deliveries. It seemed likely that it would thaw before lunch.

The track followed stony paths and wound through forests, passing by farms and several little villages. Some of the pathways run between stone walls constructed over the centuries by the farmers of the stony landscape. At one stage the signs completely disappeared but instructions from a tractor driver and an ancient farmer saved the day. It was a clear, sunny day and we suffered a little as this was our first walk with a full pack for some time. At the end of the day there was a long descent and then a very steep climb up to Martel where the
Hotel le Quercy was very welcome with comfortable rooms and a good restaurant.
The main features of Martel are its seven stone towers which can be seen from some distance away, an imposing 19th century half timbered market (which looks older) and the house where "Young" Henry, first son of Eleanor of Acquitaine and England's Henry II, is said to have died after looting the treasures of Rocamadour.

The Plantagenets had a significant role in the history of Acquitaine though few physical signs remain. Although designated as the future king "Young" Henry was not given any real power. Impatient and angry with his father, he set about to finding ways to make his own mark, ravishing the countryside, eventually sacking and looting the sacred shrine of Rocamadour. In this outrage he was wounded and carried as far as Martel where he died. Henry senior, though furious, was said to be heartbroken.
Le Château de Coutinard
The hilltop town of Turenne
Martel to Carennac
It is a great walk from Martel to Montvalent, descending through forests to the Dordogne and crossing the river just upstream from Gluges, then walking along the river before climbing up to Montvalent. As along much of its length, the river runs beneath steep limestone cliffs. Easing into the walk, we cheated a little and took a taxi to Montvalent.

On leaving Montvalent, you climb up into causse country, crossing over the railway line which winds around the
Cirque de Montvalent. The cirque was "discovered" during the construction of the railway in 1864 and became one of the touristic sites to be publicised by the railway company. Its photo along with those of other scenic destinations was displayed in the trains and on railway stations and pretty promotional postcards were produced.

As it was named the
Cirque de Montvalent, it is told that confused railway passengers would leave the train at Montvalent, where there was no accommodation or facilities, rather than Floirac which could accommodate tourists. Attempts to clarify the situation led to a battle as to whether it should be named the Cirque de Montvalent or Floirac. Montvalent clearly won the day.
The Causse de Martel, which extends across this area, is one of the great causses that are a characteristic landscape across the Massif Central. These are dry, arid limestone plateaux with stony soil that supports only stunted vegetation, typically oaks and maples, juniper (genévrier) bushes and wild herbs. The valleys are also rough and stony but here you will find vineyards, pastures and crops. Sheep, rather than cattle, graze in this tough country.

Floirac was just an easy walk along the ridges from Montvalent. Then after following the pathway through farmland and forests, occasionally passing deserted farms, we suddenly descend into Carennac.

The town remains absolutely hidden till you come down an incline and cross a picturesque arched stone bridge over a little stream and then, there you are, wow, in the first of "les plus beaux villages" that are a feature of this walk.
Carennac clusters around an old priory church, set back in an attractive stone courtyard which you enter through a fortified gateway. On one of the many routes to Compostella the abbey here was established by the mother abbey of Cluny to provide shelter and rest to pilgrims. The entrance to the church is unusual with stone columns supporting a well preserved carved doorway from the 12th century.
There are barely 300 permanent inhabitants and their pinkish red stone houses fit together under pitched roofs, often embellished with pretty wooden balconies. Some of the houses date from the 16th century.
Some walkers stay an additional night in Carennac so as to visit the Gouffre de Padirac but, as we had visited this fantastic place previously, we did not make the detour this time.
It is very busy here, even in Septembe but we managed to find a comfortable hotel room and ate in a simple restaurant on the river bank where the cassoulet was fabulous.
Carennac to Autoire
Our route for the day first followed a track through the woods and then ran along the ridge top. The town of Loubresac came at the right time for a thirst quenching beer so we diverted off the track to have a look around and take a rest in an open air café. This is another attractive stone town with narrow laneways between the tiled roofed houses and dazzling displays of potted red geraniums in doorways and along walls. From here there is a distant view of the imposing Castelnau Château commanding the high ground.
Continuing through shady woods the track suddenly emerged on the rim of the Cirque d'Autoire, a huge limestone amphitheatre with a cascade at its head dropping 30m into the valley below. The steep sides of the cirque are coloured red, yellow and orange and strata-ed in interesting shapes and rocky formations. The GR descends steeply along the western wall until you eventually reach the bottom and walk along the little stream and into the town of Autoire.

Autoire was once a holiday resort for the wealthy people from round about and there are many grand old mansions which now seem to be boarded up. The
Hotel de la Fontaine had sunny rooms overlooking the main street and a restaurant which provided a good meal though its attempt to provide an English language menu was a little over ambitious, offering such gems as "Fat Arm of Duck".
A narrow street in Turenne
Floirac in the Distance
Arriving in Carennac
Between Floirac and Carennac
The Church in Carennac
The tiled roofs of Loubresac
Autoire to Laval de Cère
From Autoire we planned a deviation from the more established walking routes. We wanted to go up the Cère from its junction with the Dordogne to see some of the Gorges of the Cère. This country is inaccessible by road and only the new GR 652 which goes all the way to Le Roquebrou and the trainline to Aurillac provide access. We decided to catch a train from Bretenoux to Laval de Cere, making for a very easy, but quite different day.

First was a pretty walk through farming country along the stream called la Bave and then a gradual climb to the base of the gigantic
Château de Castlenau. For days, there had been glimpses of the château, strategically perched at the junction of the Cère and the Dordogne but now its features became more and more clear. Massively fortified with red stone ramparts and towers, it is a continuing symbol of the strength of the barons of Castlenau who built and occupied it from the 11th century.

We looked around the château and its pretty little chapel and ate a melon, looking down at the urbanised landscape sprawling across the plain. Through the middle runs the River Cère.
Castlenau vs Turenne
There is an interesting historical snippet concerning the relationship between the barons of Castlenau and the counts of Toulouse to whom they gave their loyalty. The barons were outraged when, in 1184, Raymond of Toulouse did a deal that handed the suzerainty of Castlenau over to Turenne. Apparently this was an insult so, Castlenau began warring with Turenne and declared its loyalty to the King alone.

The king intervened on the part of his strong ally, Turenne, but imposed only a symbolic fielty on Castlenau - the annual presentation of an egg to Turenne. This was carried out each year with great ceremony. Legend has it that twelve young girls rode on a bullock drawn wagon to Turenne to present the symbolic egg each year. Sadly it seems the tradition no longer continues. It would be quite a tourist attraction.
Bretenoux is strategically located on one side of the Cère and on the other is its twin town of Biars-sur-Cère. Bretenau was built and protected by the barons in the castle above. Although the very centre of Bretenoux is a charming old bastide, only the grid layout and arcaded central square remain. Biars-sur-Cère, across the river, is a real working town with serious businesses and commerce.

Sitting on the castle ramparts, the prospect below fell well outside the
"plus beaux villages" category we had become used to. However, firm in the belief that you should see a country, "warts and all" we plunged down the hillside and negotiated a route through the urban landscape to find the centre of Bretenoux, its bastide and some lunch.

Following lunch in a Chinese cafe, we found the station and the train duly arrived, having passed through Turenne Gare half an hour earlier on its way from Brive to Aurillac. It deposited us in Laval-de-Cère 10 minutes later. This is a great little train trip and recommended to train buffs and anyone who likes to explore different options. After Laval it travels all the way up the gorges, through many tunnels but with an unsurpassed view of this rugged country.

Hotel des Chanterelles overlooked the Cère and the train line and provided one of those dinners which just "come". Soupe, salade, gigot d'agneau and tarte aux pommes - a hearty meal enjoyed also by some workers staying at the hotel while working on new construction at the nearby EDF site.
The Cère
The Cère is one of the unheralded Dordogne rivers. It rises just below le Lioran in the mountains of the Cantal, then flows West through rolling cattle grazing country towards Aurillac. Beyond Aurillac and before the gorges the river is constrained in a number of dams - part of the electricity generating works of Electricité de France (EDF). These works were carried out progressively since 1928, culminating in a major generating facility at Laval-sur-Cère. Below Laroquebrou the river runs unharnessed through quite wild gorges and down to the junction with the Dordogne. There is no road access through the gorges, only the railway, constructed to assist in transportation of heavy equipment for the construction of the electricity works.
Laval-de-Cère to Camps
Our adventures with the Cère continued next day with two very long climbs. First we crossed the river and climbed up behind the hydro-electricity establishment. Forest pathways climbed 300 m, nearly to the plateau, and then a track followed round the ridge line. There were big brown slugs by the pathway and scary looking mushrooms. We heard the sound of the train whistle as the morning service ran up the valley.

It was a misty morning, but as the mist rose the town of Camps emerged on the other side of the river at about the same height as we were walking. So we would have to go down and back up again. After a while, unsurprisingly, the path plunged down the mountain in wide hairpin bends, known as lacets, and then meandered gently along the river. This was a quite magic half hour with the sun filtering through the trees and the river bubbling along beside the track.
Meanwhile the trainline ran along the other bank and after a while we reached a cleared area where the GR and the train crossed to the opposite sides of the river. Then there was a long climb, another 330m, up the hillside to Camps.

Camps is a small town with a church, a few stone houses, a shop, a lake and a smart modern hotel by the lake - unsurprisingly called
Hotel du Lac.
Camps to Beaulieu-sur-Dordogne
Just north of Camps the GR turns east into isolated gorge country along the Maronne River, adding another 3-4 days to the walk and with a pretty limited accommodation choice.

Our route to Beaulieu-sur-Dordogne was more direct, made easily with a taxi ride to Mercoeur, a tiny town with another pretty church. Then we took an improvised route, following a minor road for about 8 km through undulating, wooded country and arriving at la Chapelle-St-Geraud to rejoin the GR.
Heading west on the GR again and quietly walking through forests and farmland, we were startled by the arrival of a flotilla of 4x4 vehicles. Out got a party of hunters, dressed up in serious hunting gear with rifles under their arms, and flanked by their highly prized hunting dogs all wearing bells around their necks. Having no wish to add to the hunting accident statistics, we were a bit unsure about continuing. But the hunters had no objections to us passing though they encouraged us to be very quiet.

Apparently wild pigs, or
sangliers, had been getting into the corn crops and demolishing and eating the corn. With the corn fields surrounded by hunters and their dogs, vengeance was about to be brought. We tip-toed out of the way as quickly as possible and later heard some rifle fire, so maybe the local farmers were to be rewarded with a feast.
La Chasse
Walkers beware during the months from September to March. This is the season for La Chasse when hunters take to the fields and forests with their big guns and their hunting dogs.

Hunting is a rite of passage for French males over the age of 16. At this age, after instruction and testing, they can get a permit to participate in this highly regulated sport.

In spite of the regulations every season starts with at least one death as over- eager
chasseurs get in the way of each other in the excitement of the first sight of a target - often another hunter.

Seasons are also marked with violence between hunters when dogs are accidentally run over. Hunters are passionate about their dogs - rather silly animals with big floppy ears and no road sense. Sometimes you will walk past establishments where they are kennelled - apparently too valuable to be allowed to roam freely like most farm dogs. Bored silly, they bark furiously as you pass.

In areas popular with both walkers and hunters alternative routes are provided for walkers during the period of
la chasse. Out-of-season hunting can take place when animals such as sangliers are causing damage to crops

Nailed to trees alongside the track will be signs warning "
Chasse Interdit" and "Chasse Reservé".
Lunching on a grassy bank at the edge of a walnut grove, we hoped not to become a target for more trigger happy hunters whose blasts could be heard from time to time. From this vantage point there was an expansive view of the Dordogne once again and the town of Beaulieu. Many little hamlets and settlements spread out over the floodplain in what is a quite densely settled rural area. Walking through this countryside, first on tracks and then on little roads, we enjoyed the semi rural environment of colourful gardens full of bright pots of geraniums.

The GR followed the little roads which gradually got bigger and busier until they became a major road which crossed the river into Beaulieu-sur-Dordogne.
This is another real town with a busy shopping centre and attractive central square. It is also the seat of an old abbey whose tympanum is highly acclaimed, and has an interesting mediaeval centre surrounding the fine romanesque church of a former Benedictine monastry. The church has a beautiful carved tympanum.

Taking pot luck when booking hotels you are never sure of the outcome. This time the choice was a very grand-looking establishment, the
Hotel Turenne which was quite old and only slightly renovated, with spiral stone staircases, heavy wooden beams and rustic uneven wooden floors which creaked interestingly. Its young proprietors were apparently chefs of some renown and it was here that enjoyed a simple meal of local specialties which was absolutely delicious. It included a tomato sorbet that we have tried for years to replicate and the perennial favourite, confit de canard.
Beaulieu-sur-Dordogne to Curemont
Carrying on next day was a frustrating exercise trying to correlate an old topo guide with a reasonably up to date IGN map and disparate balisage. It made for a challenging day but eventually we found ourselves walking towards the village of Curemonte, which is strung out along a ridge and well worthy of its "plus beaux villages" designation.

With a history going back to the 11th century when Raymond de Curemonte went off to the first crusade the town still has the remains of two partially restored châteaux, a romanesque church, ancient fortifications and a maze of old houses. In the midst of all this was Mme Reynal's
chambre d'hôte with a modern little bedroom overlooking one of the original streets.

The three rooms of the
chambre d'hôte operated in conjunction with an excellent restaurant where Sunday lunch was still in full swing as we arrived, in mid afternoon, to the very great interest of all the diners. Madame proposed dinner at a conveniently appointed hour which would allow her to carry out her own affairs in the village.

Curemonte was well worthy of a couple of hours exploration after which Madame served us a five course dinner of all the local dishes, possibly left over from lunch. She was very excited about the exploits of her 16 year old son who, today, had gone on his first
chasse and had shot a pheasant. We tried to show some appreciation of his skills.
Curemonte to Collonges-la-Rouge
Another fine day emerged out of a foggy morning and we zoomed along through the fields with all maps corresponding until we reached the hamlet of Branceilles. Here a commune worker who was killing weeds along the roadside redirected us - he said that he knew all the tracks in the commune and this was definitely not the route to Collonges.

Against our better judgement, we followed his advice but became even more doubtful when this route was marked with a big cross - GR language for "not this way". After a while it became obvious that this was an old route with all the balisage painted out - so for the first time ever, we took the unorthodox approach of searching for and following the painted-out signs. After a while the real signs mysteriously reappeared and, after lunch in a walnut orchard it was an easy, leafy walk to Collonges-la-Rouge.
Built of an uncharacteristic red stone, Collonges is probably the plus beaux of all the "plus beaux villages" and is incredibly photogenic. It is also a tourist mecca full of gift shops, cafes and restaurants, most only open during the day. One of the more unusual of these was a goose museum, which traded on the celebrity of this Dordogne specialty and where you could watch geese being fed and not be chased by them. You could also buy goose products to eat and a range of other souvenirs in the likeness of geese. Despite its weight and fragility, a rather attractive plate, featuring an embossed goose's head, found its way into one of our packs.

Collonges was established as an administrative centre for the viscounty of Turenne. It is full of castles built by the ruling nobles each one of whom had found it necessary to make his castle more gorgeous than those of his neighbours. In reality the town is an open air museum and a bit of a hoot but you can't stop taking photos.

We had elected to spend our last night here and, despite the commercialism of the town and its rather stuffy hotel, enjoyed an OK dinner and a pleasant room with a view back over the valley that the GR had crossed to reach the town.
Collonges-la-Rouge to Turenne Gare
The last day, we spun out with a relaxed departure from Collonges and a gorgeous downhill walk along leafy pathways, till we reached the pretty little village of Ligneyrac. We arrived again at the Château de Coutinard and it was just a short distance along the road to the hotel and station. We had completed a circuit of about 123 km and marked the occasion with a truffle omelette and a pichet of rosé.
Specialties of the region
Wines to drink are
" Bergerac and Côtes de Bergerac (red,white,rosé)
" Pécharmant (red)
" Monbazillac (dessert wine)

There is also a delicious liqueur called
quinquinoix. Distilled from walnuts and served with ice it is an excellent aperitif.

This is the land of the black truffle although it has to be said that few walkers will partake of a diet of truffles. More accessible is
confit de canard which appears on menus so often as to become tiresome. Foie gras is also always there and always good.

Cabécou de Rocamadour comes in all degrees of ripeness and is the perfect size for picnic lunches. Walnut trees grow throughout the region, so walnuts appear in many dishes and walnut oil is a feature in salads.
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The Cirque d'Autoire and Autoire in the distance
Château de Castlenau
Château de Castlenau and randonneur
Another randonneur along the Cere
Poisonous mushrooms in the forest
A sanglier in the forest
(© GerardM from Wikimedia Commons)
Distant view of Curemont
The red stones of Collonges-la-Rouge
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