Down with the dragonflies on the Dordogne
Conor Power and family paddle through one of the most scenic areas of France
Dordogne river near Beynac et Cazenac
The village of La Roque Gageac. Photograph: Andrew Bain
Marqueyssac garden on the Dordogne is the place for the best views over the valley
The Dordogne river cuts a serpentine trail through some of the lushest, greenest, most undulating and bewitching lands in France. Woodlands cover huge tracts of the region and the higher points of the Dordogne valley are dotted with mediaeval châteaux; each with its own chapter to tell on the centuries-old history of conflict with the English.
Paddling down the river is one of the best ways to see what the region has to offer and so we book ourselves some kayaks. The day before, from a panoramic viewpoint in the spectacular raised gardens of Marqueyssac, we had seen dozens upon dozens of colourful tourists’ kayaks floating far below us in the river. They looked less like an Olympic event and more like a giant plastic duck race but they all seemed to be having fun.
Our starting point was at “Canoës Loisirs” in Vitrac – a tiny settlement of 1,000 people but a towering metropolis in river-kayaking terms. Already, by 10am, the crowds had started to gather at the sizeable riverside base. We were five in total – three teenage boys and two adults. Each had their own kayak, except for me and my youngest son, who took a two-seater, with me in the “driving” seat behind – a good position for taking photos, giving orders to paddle, and so on.
“You end your run just after the fifth bridge on the left,” our guide told us, before pushing us off into the lazy-flowing river. We had opted for the 16km run. This one was to take between two and three hours, promising to take us past verdant bank and towering cliff, through colourful river flora, past dramatic châteaux and with birds of prey circling above our heads.
Almost as soon as our kayaks made contact with the surface of the water, we were suddenly amidst thousands of dancing blue dragonflies that flitted playfully in front of our vessels and landed on the paddles as soon as we paused.
Ducks, moor hens and otters seemed to share the same space as humans quite comfortably, with all of us going about our business unperturbed by one another’s presence. The River Dordogne has a uniquely clean quality that has recently earned it a Unesco “Man and the Biosphere Reserve” title. It helps that it doesn’t flow through any major towns on its 470km course.
Very soon, the first of the many châteaux en route came into view. Perched high above the river, they were built as bastions of defence. All bear the scars of history: mediaeval architecture of brown or cream sandstone; evidence of war damage, of repair, of extension during long periods of peace; further damage and some more modern-day, time-induced decay.
Even on this relatively short run, the châteaux are so numerous that they appear every five minutes or so, but by far the most eye-catching sight is the village of La Roque-Gageac.
Officially one of the 100 Most Beautiful Villages in France, it appears at the end of a straight run of the meandering Dordogne like a fairytale vision. With its ochre houses and troglodyte fort set into the towering sandstone cliffs, the south-facing village enjoys its own Mediterranean-like microclimate.
We pulled in to eat a prepacked lunch carried in our watertight barrel, sitting on the grass by the gravel banks and marvelling at the enormous birds of prey that hovered and swooped on the high ground at the opposite side of the river.
Although it was a bit tiring, you can take welcome breaks here and there where there are little beaches for safe swimming. Some are located at campsites along the river, of which there are many. There are also several riverside cafes en route if you’ve remembered to bring money along (which we hadn’t).
We continued our journey through the heartland. The last château of jaw-dropping significance was the Château de Beynac, before we went around the last sweep of the river to the left and pulled in, as instructed, to the destination point. Kayaks and gear were returned and packed into trailers for transportation back to the base, while we got on the bus that would bring us, and several other kayak tourists, back to Vitrac.
Arm and neck muscles were aching all over, but it was the happy sort of ache you get after doing something satisfying. A quick straw poll among our little group of adults and teenagers gave the whole experience a unanimous thumbs-up.