1990-03-21: Sarlat, Rocamodour, Domme

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21 Mar, 1914, La Traverse

Check-out time was “mid-day”, so got up & out to walk a bit around Biarritz & have breakfast. Walked to beach & out to viewpoints on rocks; very nice views N & S, tho a bit hazy. Many stores, hotels, casino closed; some cleaning up for season. Found a nice Salon de The for petit dejeuner with view of ocean thru very large window. Bought postcards & WSJ at Maison de la Presse across st. from H.

After checkout, drove further S to St Jean de Luz. This seemed even better (to us) than Biarritz; less glitzy or something. In ten years it will probably be just the same. Climbed to a beachfront park with great views along coast. C got to play on swings, etc for a few minutes. Left for Bordeaux ~1230 on Autoroute.

The drive went through the Landes dept. Trees are planted on very precise grids and rows, apparently part of timber management. The land gives impression of woods at distance, but (at least near road) is nearly monoculture of tall, thin trees with no branches ~40 feet.

Shopped again at Carrefour Merignac. Drove into B. to check mail at AmEx (Oh, I had first bit of intestinal distress at Carrefoure mall; the ‘hommes’ room was closed for cleaning, but after a bit of confusion, the attendant convinced me to use ‘femmes’ room). Traffic in B at ~1630 was heavy, so S got out while I tried to drive to parking lot near H. Majestic. Of course, I missed the left turn & went past Eglise St Michel, several seedy back streets near the waterfront, across R. St. Catherine & who knows where else before finding my way back to the AmEx office. Found S at parking lot on verge of panic. After that, repeated drive from B to Cenac & gite.

Today had 3 objectives: Sarlat, Rocamodour & Domme. Also had to have oil changed in Peugeot to keep warranty in force. Got to Sarlat ~9:45 & left car at dealer. By showing the warranty booklet, they knew what to do. They put the car in the “Service Immediat” stall & promised it in 1 hour. We walked into Sarlat a little way (past a fencing school; Salle de Armes), then turned & went back. The car was ready, no problems; only paid for oil & filter. We then drove to medieval city of Sarlat, where there was a market in progress. Walked up & down the long, straight main st. & eventually bought a ‘chouet’ (spicy hamburger on a stick, with frites). The narrow twisty streets, old buildings, cathedral really give good impression of medieval appearance, despite a few cars, glass storefronts, elec. wires superimposed. Walking a narrow st between tall, stone bldgs you feel suddenly cool & then warm, depending on whether sun has shone on a spot yet.

The road from Sarlat to Rocamadour was under construction & required a ‘deviation’ which must have tripled the distance. The terrain was different from any seen so far. Evidently a plateau dissected by numerous valleys & canyons. The road was constantly winding, up & down; the very bottom of the valleys had green fields, often with sheep & a small stream, the fields only a couple hundred meters wide. The slopes were very dry, with a lot of exposed rock, either whole or broken, & vegetation almost like mesquite bushes, giving a nearly desert appearance. Near one of the ridges, came to 3 signs for Rocamadour: the cite, the chateau & the vallee. took the cite which turned out to be the middle way, and the best. The town’s one street is about 1/2 way up (or down) the cliff. The street is normally closed to cars, though store owners were preparing for season. Up from the street (201 steps) is the sanctuary. Up from there is the defensive chateau. Parts are closed til 1 April, but the parts we saw are worth the trip. It is an ancient site (Henry II of England made the pilgrimage there ~1172, penance for murder of Thomas a Becket). For leg-weary modern pilgrims, there is an ascenseur, which we disdained. At the top, came upon an old man playing a Celtic harp softly; very pretty sound. Even C said that made the climb worthwhile.

Departed Rocamadour by vallee, but essentially more up/down/right/left. The roads all day were nearly deserted (except a van full of gendarmes), which made the drive pretty easy.

Domme is a bastide, perched on hill near our gite. Mostly still closed up but impressive view. Church seemed pre-gothic to my eye. Simpler lines but pleasant proportions & design.

After Domme, went to La Roque Gageac (of which C got poster in Sarlat) to have steak/frite & crepes. The steak/frite was peppery, but C ate nearly all. She ate fraises/chantilly, but not the crepe.

Flashback: In Bordeaux, saw a shop window with busts of ordinary men, women, children. Called ‘Academie de Visuel Sculpture et Haute Technologie’. They advertised 15-second poses for sculptures! Wish I had gone back to get brochure or other info on technique.

21 Mar, 2116, La Traverse

While driving today, it occurred to me that this trip is one of discovery. Every day, many times, we discover, for ourselves, things that are clearly explained to people who speak French. I think this is part of what makes ordinary things, like just food shopping & driving around, interesting; I wouldn’t ordinarily choose to do these things at home. It is fun to attempt deciphering French store signs, billboards & place names, for the sense of discovery. In some ways it is like solving a puzzle or deciphering a code. An example was the tour of Fond-de-Gaume cave. To the French people on the tour with us, it was mostly like a lecture; for us it was mostly someone using a pointer to things to look at in one point, and to look for in the next. Of course, the tour was organized so everyone got some sense of discovery: as when the guide had us all file into a gallery facing a dark wall & then flipped on the light switch & everyone at once, with no prompting, went “Ooh!” at the sight of a parade of bison about 8 feet off the floor. The more mundane bits of discovery we get everyday are just as interesting in their way, if less exciting & mysterious.


21 Mar, 1914, La Traverse

Of course we dipped our fingers or toes in the Atlantic; now we have done so from both sides. Biarritz was very quiet early in the morning out of season. Susan found a shop where she bought some Basque linen, to have something from Pyrenees. The Wall Street Journal was the first paper I bought in France. I expected to miss knowing what the news was, but as it turned out this didn’t bother me (I don’t usually pay very close attention anyway); but I did like to occasionally get something in English to read.

From St Jean de Luz we could see into Spanish Pyrenees, but we didn’t have sufficient reason to drive there.

Along the autoroute, we stopped at a rest stop to eat. Got terrific steak and frites, along with fruit cup. This experience changed our attitude towards rest-stop eating places, which had been very negative for no good reason.

We approached getting the car serviced with trepidation, unsure if we would be able to communicate what we wanted. But our fears were unfounded, since the warranty book had coupons for specific services, and procedures were clearly spelled out (apparently). When paying, we had to wait behind a man who was having some problem with his bill. After he stepped away from the window, I stepped up; then he came back and said ‘excuse mois’, and had some kind of exchange with the clerk. This was the only time I heard that phrase in France; everywhere else it was ‘pardon’.

In Rocamadour, the path up the cliff from the sanctuary to the chateau winds back and forth past a series of stations depicting the life of Jesus. As we neared the top, we could faint music, and we all stopped talking as we walked up. As we rose above the level of the ground we saw the old man sitting on a shady bench with a Celtic harp, playing a slow, soft melody that might have been from the Middle Ages. The overall impression was magical and I was glad that Chrissy enjoyed it.

Surprise! I already commented on the ‘Academie’; I didn’t remember that this entry was in the journal.

21 Mar, 2116, La Traverse

While reminiscing about our trip during the transcription of my journal, I had forgotten all about this entry, and the sense it describes. The discovery, shared between all of us, really was an everyday occurrence. And we never solved all of the puzzles. For instance, many stores (and billboards) have the word “meubles” on them. Our dictionary was vague on this word, something like furnishings. But we never went into one of these stores to actually see what it was selling. From the outside, they appeared far more generalized than furniture. Part of the fun was noticing the store type by its name, usually while driving somewhere, and trying to recognize some category through its windows, also anticipating that someday this small mystery would be cleared up; but it never was. (1991-06-11)

The Fond-de-Gaume was terrifically interesting, even though I soon tired of the strain of trying to understand the guide’s word. But her emphasis in using her pointer (a flashlight with an arrow-shaped beam) and her tone of voice was a fairly usable mode of communication, readily interpretable. Whether my interpretation was accurate or not I can’t say for sure; but I did construct a coherent interpretation that I found satisfying. I think that is about as much as one can expect from any single mode of communication. (1991-06-12)


Checked out and headed for a nice place by the ocean. Walked along and came to a playground. I stayed there while M & D went to look at cliffs. Then we walked along the beach (stones) and went to car. Rode home through Bordeaux. Went shopping in Bordeaux. Got home safe. Next morning the oil needed to be changed. Left car and went to walk around. Saw a bring spring festival. It was all over! Tourist Office bought poster of creperie. Went to a historic town and climbed 201 steps ([???]) I got a little good dog. We went to Domme next. It is beautiful! Went to creperie. Went home.

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