In France's Dordogne, a rental house offers ease of exploration

By Steven V. Roberts
Special to The Washington Post
Saturday, March 12, 2011; 7:43 PM

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.

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