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Hidden Depths

The area around the Dordogne valley in southwestern France is a place where traditions endure and where it is easy for the visitor to feel they have stepped back in time

A lain is a man of many talents. One evening, in the salon at the Terrasse hotel in the village of Meyronne, he produces what looks like a small brass cylinder dangling from a chain.

‘Do you know what this is?’ he asks.

I reply in the negative.

‘It’s a pendulum,’ he says. ‘I use it to heal people.’

And he proceeds to demonstrate how he can use this unlikely looking object both to discover ailments and to cure them.

He holds the pendulum over my head and it rotates wildly. ‘You’ve a lot on your mind,’ he suggests, before using his hands in a sweeping gesture to brush away the negative energy that is occupying my thought processes.

I have to confess I don’t feel any different, but Alain repositions the pendulum and, lo and behold, it has stopped its crazy oscillations and hangs, quite limp, from his hand.

‘Et voilà,’ he smiles, ‘now you’ll sleep better tonight.’

The show has aroused a certain level of interest. Soon the salon has been transformed into a veritable healer’s triage unit. Alain copes well, although the effort of helping all those creaking knees and aching backs brings a few tears to his eyes and sends them rolling down his cheeks.

Would Alain have found such a receptive audience in another part of France? Who knows. Perhaps this area, with its enduring links between people and patrimonie, its wide spaces and quiet villages holds on to traditions and confidence in folk remedies in a way that has been lost elsewhere.

There is certainly a timeless, enduring quality about this tract of southwestern France. The Dordogne Valley cuts through the departments of Lot, Aquitaine and Corrèze, each of which has its own character yet also defines the concept of La France Profonde, deep France, where local customs endure and the regional takes precedence over the national.

Local knowledge has it that when actor Brad Pitt was looking for a rural hideaway his eye fell on this area – and one clifftop château in particular. Its owners, however, were less keen to sell than he was to buy and so the deal did not materialise.

Local knowledge has it that when actor Brad Pitt was looking for a rural hideaway his eye fell on this area

Touring this region is a revelation; almost traffic-free roads climb through thickly wooded hills and valleys, the river gorge appearing high and pale above the trees, its sides slipping sheer toward the clear waters of the Dordogne many metres below.

In fields by the roadside, dun-coloured cows eye passers-by with good-natured indifference, while geese and turkeys patrol wire enclosures, hopefully unaware of what lies in store for them – their fate sealed by signs at farm entrances offering foie gras and pâté de l’oie.

Such matters are occupying minds at Sarlat, where my visit coincides with the town’s annual Fête de la Gastronomie. Stalls selling local delicacies fill the main square, while a flock of 200 sheep are penned at one end, a reminder of the flocks that would have been herded from summer to winter pastures in times gone by.

Attracting much interest is a demonstration of how best to cook foie gras. Françoise Surot cuts off huge slices from a pale pink block of it before frying them in bubbling fat. A group of local people looks on with interest, partly in admiration of the technique, partly in the knowledge that chunks of the end product – served in combination with locally grown figs – are soon to be handed out.

Françoise’s English husband, David, taking time off from his day-job of building a wooden house for the couple, is in the role of sous-chef and waiter. ‘Ducks and geese are tremendously important to this region,’ he says. ‘And nothing’s wasted, they use every part of them.’

Walking through Sarlat’s medieval streets, it seems as if every second shop is selling either pâté de foie gras or another tempting delicacy

He indicates the nearby stalls. ‘You’ll have seen the sheep. They’re used to make another local delicacy – Brebis cheese. It’s got so much character – once you’ve had it you go off other cheeses. Then there are walnuts – they grow all over the region and are used in oils, apéritifs, cakes. There’s a walnut cake called craquelé Périgourdin that’s very good. A bit further south there are plums and plum liqueurs. Then there’s wine from Cahors.’

Not surprisingly – with all this tempting food and drink at his disposal – David is in no great rush to return to England.

Walking through Sarlat’s medieval streets, the town’s yellow sandstone houses emanating warmth in the afternoon sunshine, it seems as if every second shop is selling either foie gras or another tempting delicacy. In the Sainte-Marie market, the local specialities have a suitably impressive venue. The surviving chunk of a church destroyed during the French Revolution, the market is today most remarkable for its two huge doors, the work of architect Jean Nouvel. Cast from steel, these each weigh in at around seven tonnes and provide an unexpected contemporary twist to the turrets and gables of the town centre.

The road from Sarlat leads to villages that seem to attempt to excel each other in their sense of quiet, unchanging history.

At Martel, across the département border in Lot, the town’s skyline is still dominated by seven medieval towers. One of these adorns the Raymondie, the 16th-century town hall, whose rounded ground-floor arches would originally have accommodated shopkeepers. Visiting in the 1950s, the travel writer Freda White wrote of the place being so quiet that a hen could be found looking after a brood of ducklings in its doorway.

Nearby, the gothic church of St-Maur provides an interesting detour, partly because it was once part of the town’s defences, having a solidity to match, and also because of its brightly coloured wall-paintings, a reminder that medieval churches were a much more dramatic proposition than they often are today.

Villages attempt to excel each other in their sense of unchanging history

In days gone by, Martel was part of the territory of the Counts of Turenne, who enjoyed a level of autonomy from the kings of France. For centuries, though, their territories lay on a border that was regularly contested by England and France. Memories of those days endure down the centuries at villages such as Turenne itself, with its hill-top castle – today a private residence, Collonges-Le-Rouge, with its red sandstone towers, and Loubressac, whose hill-top position overlooks deeply wooded valleys and is a place where buzzards circle at eye level as you look out from what were once ramparts.

Similar vertiginous principles apply at nearby Rocamadour, where medieval shrines overhang the gorge of the River Alzou. In the Middle Ages this was one of the most important pilgrimage sites in Europe, a stop on the Route of St James to Santiago de Compostela, where St Amadour was said to have lived in a cave in the cliff.

Pilgrims still come and many votive candles bring a warm glow to the site’s chapels, while the sword of Roland – supposedly thrown into the rock by a hero of Charlemagne’s army – remains buried in the rock. It is remarkably well preserved for something that has been in place for so many centuries. But beliefs still surround it and – like my friend Alain’s pendulum, in a way – many people, both here in southwestern France and further afield, remain convinced it holds miraculous powers.

Words: DH

This article was originally published in Halcyon magazine in 2013

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