Camping in the Dordogne

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We were walking around the medieval fortified town of Belvès when the difference between camping and a more civilised way of life was made clear in its entirety. Belvès is big enough to sustain some kind of night life, and there were several packed restaurants and bars, as well as darkened shop displays indicating a lively commerce in the day.

But it was evening, the sun just setting, and just enough light to take some photos with my phone, noisy as they were. There was the old covered marketplace with its old pillory post, complete with collar and chain; there was the obligatory shop selling knives and perhaps guns, with it’s sharpening wheel outside; there was the jazz festival stage area with its panoramic view above the old cliff dwellings called “Troglodite Houses”.

Elisabeth and I have a regular discussion in these places. Would we want to buy a house here if we won the lottery? My wife hates the idea of isolation, so most parts of the Dordogne feel too remote to her. She’d be okay in a bigger town like Sarlat. I, on the other hand, don’t like the feel of Sarlat. Sure it has that medieval look, narrow cobbled streets, and a lively night life; but it’s relentless, too, in offering you a narrow choice of foie gras, sweet Bordeaux, knives, and art: too much fucking art. Every third shop sells the cruel but delicious pâté, every street has a knife seller, and on every corner there’s yet another gallery offering overpriced art.

These art galleries scream of the kind of person who wants to live in a beautiful place but has no employment prospects. Myself, in other words, so I resent and despise the artists as only one of their own can. Yeah, and I can’t even draw or paint, but the only difference between you and me is the trust fund that allowed you to buy a shop and turn it into your own personal ego trip. I could set up on the corner with a typewriter and write bad descriptions of tourists for money, perhaps, or I could put on whiteface and become one of the crappy street performers that infest Sarlat’s public squares and make sitting down for a coffee a risky business.

So, it’s a no to Sarlat for me, but Belvès? Yeah, there was a slight smell of jazz about the place, but I could live with that (preferable to clowns breathing fire and riding unicycles). It doesn’t have the touristy sheen of a Gordes, but it does seem more like a place you might live, as opposed to send postcards from. It didn’t make a good impression as we approached, precisely because it is a place that people live: there are homes that look like social housing on the outskirts, and a hint of the kind of urban sprawl that Sarlat has outside its medieval walls.

So we’re walking up one of the narrow streets and suddenly there’s the sound of softly played music (dinner party vocal jazz) and conversation. We’re away from the busy restaurants and cafés, this is just a side street. There is a family (three generations, looks like) sitting on their front porch eating their evening meal and talking. It’s a town house: no garden, not enough room for a terrasse, but they have enough space for a 6-seater plastic table, and privacy afforded by hanging baskets. There’s a little bit of light, and music, and food, and conversation, and it feels like home.

I’m there. Or at least I would be, if I could afford to buy the house for sale just metres away: a two-storey house with a paved front terrasse, room for a table and chairs, and neighbours across the street who play tasteful music through their night windows. I looked this place up on the Internet: just €155000, for seven rooms, including three bedrooms, and a no doubt astonishingly expensive electric heating system.

So we got back in the car and got back to the campsite for the 10 o’clock curfew. Because 10 o’clock curfews are a fact of campsite life. You can arrive later, but you’re supposed to leave your car outisde. Once, we had to climb over a 2-metre fence. Sure, we could sit outside the tent (and do), but playing even tasteful music is not really the done thing, and there’s little sense of privacy (even the paradoxical privacy of eating on a public street) when your every midnight fart can be heard across the campsite.

This is one of the quietest and cleanest sites I’ve ever been on, but there is still too much about camping that I hate. My major objection is to the whole business of toilets, showers, and oblutions. There’s something uniquely horrible about brushing your teeth or shaving while badly behaved Dutch children run screaming about the place, kick at the doors and demand attention from their laid-back parents. This is before I get to my own personal problems with public toilets, which I may have mentioned before. To mitigate this, I adopt the habits of a recluse, rising ridiculously early (before seven) and visiting the shower block before anyone else is up. But when you do have to use the toilet while others are around, it’s just so horrible to see and hear other people (why do people grunt so much?) and to have people waiting outside the door for you to finish shitting. As if that’s ever going to happen.

Sitting outside and eating an evening meal in a pleasant garden or terrasse is one thing; listening to babies scream while you eat is another. I’m beyond questioning why people would take a young baby (or toddler triplets!) camping. That babies just cannot travel light doesn’t seem to bother people. But the thing is that babies are regular, and if seven o clock is crying time, well that baby is going to cry every evening at seven.

Then there are our friends in the insect world. I’m convinced that everything bites these days. It’s the only explanation for the massive welt that appeared on my neck after a day on the river. Sure, a mosquito could have done it. But it’s big enough for a dragonfly to have been the culprit. This morning, I swear, a grasshopper was attacking my leg – and then attacked my finger when I went to flick it off. I’m okay for a couple of days, but then the bites start appearing, and by the end of the week I’m covered in them and miserably itching everywhere. Last year, some of the bites were still bothering me in September. I’m what you might call susceptible.

So I don’t sleep well, cannot get on with a sleeping bag, don’t enjoy mealtimes, can’t stand the toilet/shower experience, get bitten to buggery, and do not relish living out of a suitcase. Then there is the problem of modern gadgetry. We’ve had electricity at all the campsites we’ve been to over the past 5 years – that is standard by now. We also had a fridge this time, because we realised our electric coolbox’s ability to cool to 15 degrees below ambient was useless for the South. In addition, we’ve got two iPhones, two Mophie Juicepaks, an ipod touch, an iPad, a Nintendo DS, three rechargeable lamps, a camera, and a Kindle – many of which need to be recharged daily. We have a 4-way and several adapters, but that leaves the problem of what to do with all these gadgets while we go out for the day. Most of them end up coming with us, locked in the car, which means you can’t leave them on charge.

But, I hear you say, shouldn’t you leave all that technology at home and rough it for the week? Maybe, but I thought this was supposed to be a holiday, not a prison. I’m not going on retreat, I just want to catch up on all the reading I’m unable to do when I’m at work because I’m too tired and fall asleep after two paragraphs. So that’s the Kindle, which is essential for reading outdoors in bright sunshine – because the iPad is useless outdoors during the day. Then in the evening, you need the iPad because the kindle doesn’t have a backlight and is awkward and annoying to use with a light. And because my iPad contract is useless in Europe (70p per MB!), I need my phone for 3G access. Unlike a lot of people, I don’t want to get away from Twitter and Flipbook and podcasts – on holiday is when I can best enjoy them. I’m not a person who gets hundreds – or even tens – of emails, so I don’t need to go offline.

Which leaves us with, why are we here and what do we do for a week in the Dordogne? Familiar to many British people, the Dordogne is a beautiful corner of a beautiful country. We know why: wasn’t bombed to smithereens in two world wars, and is a relatively poor region, so has retained much of its ancient medieval character. I was going to say the Dordogne is like a part of Britain with a better climate, but Elisabeth disagrees. It’s green, leafy, rural, with rolling hills and small farms cultivating everything from the vine to the sunflower, and producing massive amounts of foie gras and saucisson, made with meat from the pig, the lamb, the wild boar, the cow, and the donkey. It’s a gastronomic apocalypse for certain animals, and a region best avoided by sensitive vegetarians.

So there are castles and steep, walled villages, hidden gardens, stone bridges, fields of sunflowers, vineyards, markets, and sunshine. Not as arid as the far South, the Dordogne has a benign climate: it gets hot, but never so hot that you don’t know where to put yourself. And, to quote a film, a river runs through it. More than one river, actually, but the main river (after which the region is named) is a slow, wide, shallow, meandering waterway that never seems to be far away. It’s compulsory, while here, to park your car by the river somewhere and be driven a few km upstream, and to find your way back to where you parked on the river, by canoe or kayak. Hundreds and hundreds of these boats, steered by amateurs, can be seen on the river every day. It looks like tremendous fun. Take a picnic and make a day of it. Stop on the bank somewhere, eat some lunch, or visit one of the many conveniently placed snack bars. Nothing I say will stop you from doing this, so it’s almost not worth saying that it’s a painful, tiring, wet, and slow way to punish yourself. What did you do to deserve this? Even my youngest, who has been nagging to do this again for three years, was fed up and exhausted before we’d even gotten halfway. Do it by all means, take the photos so you can look back on the day when you’ve forgotten how horrible it was, but – whatever you do – don’t be tempted by a 28 or 32 km (or longer!) trip. They say you can do 5 km in an hour, but that means you’ll be on the river under the hot sun for 6+ hours, not including stops, and your shoulders and hips will be screaming for relief for five of those six hours. No, take my word: 12-14 km is plenty for this particular experience. The river stops being interesting after that, anyway. After that, it’s just you and the river, and the trees, and the sun, and the insects.

Three years ago, we visited all the local castles, went down a cave in a gondola, saw the annoying street artists in Sarlat, and took a short torture boating trip on the river. This time, we saw a reproduction of cro-magnon cave paintings at Lascaux II, spent too long on the river, wandered a few villages, visited Sarlat again, and took a trip to Bergerac. We ate at a night market (you’ll find one every night, if you want), and had a few cheapish, indifferent, restaurant meals. A few years ago, the four of us could eat two courses with drinks for €50, but now the same thing is costing closer to €70. I’m not a big fan of French cooking (hide the horrible meat under a rich sauce), and it hurts to think what I could cook myself for the same spend. But you can’t really do much on a one-burner Primus on a campsite.

I’m trying to persuade Elisabeth that we don’t want to do this again, but the family is split in two. Me and my fellow introvert daughter just want to rent a place and have a comfortable bed and a private bathroom. My wife enjoys life outdoors, and my more extrovert daughter absolutely thrives on a campsite, making instant friends and swimming in the lake and pool till near dark.

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