A Celebratory Ride in France

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Castles, Caves, Vineyards, Forests, Medieval Villages and Foie Gras…

Since we started Equitours some 35 years ago I have had the wonderful good fortune to do over a hundred rides around the world. My latest ride, the Castles and Caves of Malbec, was a delight, especially since it was my 85th birthday ride. If you enjoy good horses, good food, great wine, lovely countryside rich in history and friendly companions this would be hard to beat. There were eight of us on the trip, mostly old friends and one splendid new addition; Teri, the international vet who takes care of everything from tigers to elephants. Actually it seems to me that for someone who likes this sort of thing I have about the best job imaginable. One of our riders asked me at lunch how I had been clever enough to manage to have a life style like this and I was considering a suitable answer when Teri, the irrepressible vet, popped up with, “Pure, dumb luck!” which set everyone laughing uproariously and has to be fairly close to the truth.

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Bayard and Teri riding down a country lane.

Another plus on this trip was that Michel’s organization was impeccable; things happened on time, the accommodations and picnic places were well chosen. The van always awaited us with food and drink when we arrived. The lodgings were in charming, picturesque inns or B & Bs. The well trained horses never put a foot wrong and were always saddled and ready for us to mount. The pacing of the ride was good though the back country roads and trails we took were often too rocky for speed, but every day we had chances for several fast canters where the terrain was suitable.

The first two days we rode through the rolling hills of vineyard country in the Bergerac area and grape vines stretched in every direction as far as you could see. They seemed to be growing little else in the area which has been famous for its wine for thousands of years. We made stops at several old castles where the grapes were turned into wine and the cellars contained hundreds of huge oaken barrels full of aging liquid. They lined up rows of glasses with wine in various stages and with a variety of different grape blends and described the intricate process. Most of us were unable to absorb all the finer points of production, but one thing did become clear to all of us: there is a lot to know about producing a good wine for sale on a very competitive market. I wonder if modern technology has really improved the wine that much over what they produced a few centuries ago using more primitive techniques like peasant girls in bare feet trampling out the vintage.

As we continued on our hundred mile journey the landscape began to change and instead of vineyards we were winding on narrow trails through oak forests where the hills were steeper and there was no human habitation for miles. Now we were in truffle country where sniffer dogs are used to find these precious fungi (fetching $100 an ounce or so) deep below the surface. I fear my palate is not refined enough to fully appreciate truffles (especially at that price), but this is also famous paté de foie gras country and I did very much appreciate that along with many other delicious local dishes like the maigret de canard.

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Our group at the dinner table tasting more of the region’s delicious specialties and drinking some Malbec wine.

We stopped for picnic lunches every day around noon and Béatrice would unfailingly meet us with the van. She would have the table prepared with bread baked that morning, many kinds of cold cuts, lovely cheese and mouth-watering pastries for dessert. We picnicked in small villages or beside rivers and took a short rest before heading on to discover new places. In the evening of our fourth day of riding we came upon the village of Saint-Cirq-Lapopie built on the side of a steep hillside above the Lot River. Our first view of the place was breathtaking. I have seen many lovely towns and villages in my day, but this town is on the top of my list for its picturesque, fairy-tale beauty and indeed it has been voted by the French as their favorite town. I can certainly see why.

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Saint-Cirq Lapopie perched on the cliffs above the Lot River.

We spent two nights here and I was sorry to leave. We stayed in a lovely inn and ate fabulous dinners. After the first night we departed early in the morning for the Chateau de Cénevières where we had lunch and then made a loop to return to Saint-Cirq-Lapopie by another route.

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Riding out of the gate of the Château of Cénevières.

We were able to ride into the courtyard of this exquisitely maintained, 11th century castle as did the knights of old and we were given a fascinating tour of the castle by its owner who had restored many of the rooms so that visitors could see how people lived in ancient times. The tour also turned out to be a history course because the castle was the center of frequent wars like the Hundred Years War and religious wars which caused bloody upheavals to sweep the area again and again, making the castle’s high walls a matter of survival.

The last day of this ride in France gave us some nice canters along the Lot River and then the trail narrowed and took us through what amounted to a tunnel open on the river side. The ceiling was so low that we had to dismount and lead our horses for several hundred yards until we came to a bridge across the river which allowed us to cross and head up the other side. We traversed narrow trails through oak forests until we arrived at the caves of Pech-Merl somewhat like the more famous Lascaux. We had a guided tour of the huge cave with images of horses and other animals sketched on the walls dating back some 25,000 years. It made medieval villages seem almost modern as I reflected on the very ancient history of mankind in Europe.

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Riding along the Lot River below the cliffs on the way to Pech-Merle Cave.

After the caves we were off again through deserted forest trails with no sign of life until we suddenly came out of the woods to the edge of a seemingly almost sheer limestone escarpment at the bottom of which was the Célé river and the picture perfect village of Souillac with the red roofs of buildings set among the trees. The sides of the valley were so steep that at first glance it was hard to see how a horse could find its way down, but Michel knew a zigzagging trail which descended safely though at a sharp angle. It seemed to me that Souillac, though a tiny village, was just as picturesque as Saint-Cirq-Lapopie and it was a fitting destination for our last night with a superb dinner and many toasts all around. It was with great regret that I said goodbye to my companions and returned to Bergerac next day for my flight to London and home. I couldn’t feel very sad at leaving because I was returning to our beloved Wyoming ranch where spring had melted the snow, the grass was growing fast and wildflowers were beginning to bloom. Nevertheless I will long feel a certain feeling of nostalgia for this idyllic area.

Ride Review by Bayard Fox                                                                                        Photography: Claude Poulet

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