By Steven V. Roberts
Special to The Washington Post
Sunday, March 13, 2011; F01
The church bells ring pure and clear, every half-hour, day and night. They are the beating heart of the village of St. Jean de Cole, in the Dordogne region of southern France. But when Jim and Mary Oppel bought a house here, right near the church, they worried that the bells would keep their guests awake. Would the town fathers, they asked, consider silencing the bells between midnight and morning, in the interests of promoting tourism?
"Mais non!" came the swift reply.
"The older residents in the village attach enormous significance to having them ring 24 hours," explains Jim. "That apparently confirms the continuity of life, so to have them not ring during the night would suggest death. Very French, this!"
Not to worry. My wife and I rented the Oppels' house, Maison Rose, last August and quickly learned the rituals and routines of village life.
When you stay in hotels and move frequently, your days are full of getting lost and growing frazzled, waking up in strange beds and walking down strange streets. When you take a house for a week, ease replaces anxiety. You come to recognize the turnoffs and the traffic signs, the shop windows and the cafe waiters. And you welcome the sound of the bells.
Jim and Mary, both natives of Kentucky, moved to the Dordogne in 1994 and bought Maison Rose six years later. The original foundations date to the 11th or 12th century, about the time when a huge abbey was built across the square. The house was "modernized" 500 years later, and during the 20th century it served as the village school. After its last owner, a woman with a hundred cats, died in the early 1960s, it stayed vacant for decades.
So rebuilding was a huge job. The house lacked modern heating, wiring and plumbing. The ground floor had been used solely as a stockroom - for wine, food, even animals. Today, Maison Rose has every convenience (including a dishwasher with a cranky French personality), but what we really loved were the rich textures and the native materials, the colored tile and porous stone, the woven mats and weathered woods. A coffee table fashioned from an old door, bound in iron, graces the living room. Thick open beams march across the kitchen ceiling. Just out the back door, a pergola shades the garden, and a small fountain provides a soothing soundtrack for a simple supper of local bread, cheese and wine, shared at a wrought-iron table after a tiring day of touring.
St. Jean has often been called one of the most beautiful villages in France, and its tile roofs were once judged the finest in the country. There are special events - a May flower show in the square, summer concerts in the church - but what's really special is the everyday look and feel of the place. The humpbacked bridge over the River Cole. Half-hidden lanes and half-timbered houses. Flowers climbing over walls and spilling over pots. An iron door knocker. A lace curtain. Sun on stone. Shadow on water. When you encounter outsiders strolling through the square, you'll say to yourself (as we did): "We're not tourists. We live here."
Many visitors to Maison Rose like to see the countryside by bike (the house provides four of them) or canoe (easy to rent on the region's many rivers). Since my wife, Cokie, and I had other priorities - lunch and culture, in that order - we took a series of day trips to surrounding towns.
French roads are well built and well marked, making driving easy. Grand houses, now abandoned, are scattered across the hillsides, tombstones marking the Dordogne's feudal past. But the humble signs of modern life are even more beautiful: gray limestone barns, tawny hay bales, field after field of bright yellow sunflowers. If you do not like sunflowers, you are hopeless.
We spent a day with Christine Desdemaines-Hugon, one of the world's leading experts on Paleolithic art, which flourished in the valley of the Vezere River about 14,000 years ago. The famous caves at Lascaux are closed to the public, but five other sites are open, and we started our tour at Cap Blanc, which is not a cave at all but an open-air shelter nestled into a cliff face.
Christine (who got us in before the official opening time) explained that Cro-Magnon people didn't live in caves, which are too small and stuffy, and that the Cap Blanc site was actually a dwelling place. It is decorated with a stunning bas-relief frieze, 40 feet long, carved into the rock and featuring 14 animals, mainly bison and horses. The artists - working, of course, with the most primitive of tools - managed to produce realistic, overlapping images.
"How brilliant these Paleolithic artists were," Christine writes in her book, "Stepping-Stones," "inventing ways of representing perspective that were not explored again until the Renaissance, not even by the Greeks and Romans." The small museum shows that artists were not the only ingenious Cro-Magnons. Hunters embedded sharp flint chips in their spear points, maximizing the damage inflicted on their targets.
Christine's tour includes two caves, Font de Gaume and Combarelles, that were used as what she termed "cultural sanctuaries" and decorated with countless sketches and carvings. Many are hard to see (a bear carving was recently discovered), but our intrepid guide instructed us to bend at the right angles while she pointed her flashlight in the right places. And there they were: geometric designs, headless bodies, two reindeer licking each other and, in one notable case, realistic sex organs etched into the ancient walls. I was particularly struck by how the artists incorporated the natural curve of the rock to enhance the realism of their images.
Add a delicious lunch at a cliff-side restaurant, run by three generations of a family (plus a friendly yellow Lab) and patronized by the squadrons of prehistorians who work in the area, and you have just about a perfect day.
Most trips in the area do not require a guide, however. One day, we visited Aubeterre , a mountain village almost two hours away that features a 12th-century church carved out of a limestone cliff. Dozens of tombs, also hewn out of the rock, gave the church a spooky feel.
Outdoors, a stroll through the village provided vivid views of the valley below and led us to the workplace and showroom of Brigid Larcher, a potter who draws heavily on traditional designs. We bought a few shallow dishes that we use as wine coasters or hors d'oeuvre holders. Another day we drove a half-hour to the village of Bourdeilles, crouching at the base of a castle that might have been drawn by a Disney artist. Actually it was built in the 13th century. An adjoining palace was erected 300 years later by an ambitious social climber named Jacquette de Montbron, who was hoping to attract a visit from Catherine de Medici. The queen never came, but it is possible today to climb the castle's 115-foot octagonal tower. The whole setting - a verdant countryside, once populated by poor peasants and dominated by a single fortress and a single family - explains the French Revolution better than any history text.
There are many options for renting canoes, and the places just outside Brantome, the nearest town of any size, are visible from the road and easily accessible. The River Dronne runs right through Brantome and provides its nickname, the Venice of the Perigord. Paddling around town is a popular pastime, but be prepared to get stuck at the weirs, old stone barriers once used to control fish and the current. Tourists strolling the banks like to laugh at the struggling boaters, but it's all in good fun.
Brantome is also a fine walking city, and in village shops we found small pottery items that made good presents (hand-painted tiles, duck-shaped salt and pepper shakers, demitasse cups that resemble flowerpots). More-ambitious and more-expensive canoe trips are available on other rivers. The Lisle runs right past the Bourdeilles castle and many old chateaux. The Dordogne is known for its natural beauty.
Cycling is also a big sport here, and Jim Oppel describes the four Trek bikes housed at Maison Rose as "very user-friendly." They come equipped with pouches for carrying groceries or picnic materials (one favorite picnic destination: the ruins of an 11th-century Cistercian abbey at nearby Boschaud). Try the back roads or join a rails-to-trails path just outside St. Jean that stretches nearly 10 miles in either direction.
We wanted to try a few of the top restaurants in the region and decided that lunch was a better bet than dinner. Less expensive, and after a full, wine-filled meal, I'd rather drive home in the daylight. On a rainy morning we set out for Perigueux, the capital of the Dordogne, timing our visit to coincide with market day.
Signs sprouting along the roadside advertised foie gras, the regional specialty. The market sprawled through several squares and streets of the old town, where we bought some aromatic olives and red peppers (they smelled up the car for days); gnarled tomatoes bred for taste, not shape; tiny raspberries; a softball-sized melon. We added a whole-wheat baguette when the market was closing and the prices dropping. Then we walked a block to L'Essentiel, a tiny place run by chef Eric Vidal and his wife, Magali. Only eight tables but one well-deserved Michelin star. I never knew that lamb could be so succulent.
If you have only one fancy meal, go to Moulin du Roc (also bearing a star) in the nearby village of Champagnac-de-Belair. The moulin, or mill, was built on the River Dronne in 1690. We were ushered to a table on a shady terrace overlooking the water, where cocktails of kir and cassis immediately appeared.
Yes, the food was memorable: stuffed pigeon in mustard sauce, salmon with a touch of citrus, a blancmange for dessert that reminded me of a lunch, years ago, in the hills above Nice. The prudent patrons were going to squeeze every drop of creme brulee out of their bowls, and since then, the click, click, click of spoons has always been for us the sound of a French Sunday.
But what really stays with me is the setting of Moulin du Roc. The river was an impressionist painting that kept moving. A breeze would stir a branch. A cloud would splinter a sunbeam. A fish would chase a fly. We watched, transfixed, as a tribe of small trout lazily flicked their fins, keeping their noses pointed into the current as their lunch (bugs, with no mustard sauce) drifted right into their mouths.
Before leaving, we walked through the old mill (it is also a hotel with 13 rooms), past a display of worn grinding stones and over a small footbridge spanning the stream. We paused at the top and gazed down at the water. The calm, and the quiet, stopped time for a moment. We could almost hear the bells of St. Jean.
Roberts teaches writing and politics at George Washington University. His latest book, written with his wife, is "Our Haggadah."