Day three began a little late as everyone slept in after the festivities of the night before. But we were aware that this was our last chance to see a bit more of the sights that the French countryside had to offer, and we quickly finished breakfast as soon as everyone woke up. The plan was to visit stalactite and stalagmite caves and then driving further to a village known for its wine and cheese.
Our first stop was the Grottes de la Cave, which was about 45 minutes away in the Lot countryside. It was closed for lunch when we reached and we had an hour to kill. After parking the car we went to the café opposite to have some coffee. Later, we walked around exploring the environs. The river Dordogne flowed quietly nearby and we went to its bank. I stood with my face turned to the sky, soaking in the sun and the solitude. It was a bit nippy despite the sunshine, since we were surrounded by mountains. But I didn’t care. Everything was just beautiful at that moment.
An hour passed and we walked back to the ticket office just in time to see two women opening its doors. We bought our tickets for a tour of the caves and another long wait ensued as the women issued tickets to other tourists. I guess finally they had a sizeable number for the tour and the door to the caves opened. Everyone piled into a little train, similar to the ones found in coal mines, which took us deep into the heart of the caves along with our tour guide.
We hopped off after 10 minutes and the guide began her introduction. Everything was in French again. Last year when I visited Paris and Rennes, I was struck by the lack of English everywhere including some of the most visited sites like the Notre Dame. All descriptive plaques were solely in French, and I wondered why France was turning its back on the millions who visited her and would go back shaking their heads perplexedly. Of course, I did read up on all the sites I visited but there is a joy in reading about it while there. Anyway, here at the caves we tried to piece together what she was trying to say. At some point the guide realized that we couldn’t understand her, and thereafter at every spot we stopped, she would offer us a couple of lines in the little English she knew. That was nice of her, I thought. The caves themselves were beautiful, though not as breathtaking as some of the caves I had seen in Vietnam. My favourite section was one where everything glowed due to some kind of UV activity. It looked as if we had reflectors on. My white sweater shone as bright as a torch and suddenly everyone had the whitest of teeth as they grinned.
We emerged from the caves about 45 minutes later and piled into the car. Our next stop was Rocamadour, a 12th century village now classified as a UNESCO World Heritage site. We drove down winding roads and at some bends I could see the towering castle of Rocamadour set into the cliff side with its walls dating back to the 13th or 14th century. It was gorgeous.
We parked the car near the entrance to the village marked by a centuries-old portal named the Fig Tree Gate, which opened up to a cobblestone street, the main artery of Rocamadour. I felt like I was on the sets of a medieval drama as we wended our way down the street, which was dotted by quaint shops and cafes. Set precariously along a cliff, Rocamadour is chiefly a pilgrim town, known for its chapels especially that of the Black Madonna. The highlight was the Chemine de Croix (Way of the Cross), a set of steps that led to the chapels and the castle. Legend has it that ardent pilgrims would climb all the steps on their knees uttering prayers and counting rosaries on the way. We, of course, chose to walk and along the zigzagging path, we stopped periodically to admire the view of the village below. Rooftops shimmering in the sun, I could see almost the entire village with its single busy street in the center. There were 14 miniature grottoes set into the walls around every bend in the steps. They were Stations of the Cross, images with prayers depicting Jesus Christ on the day of his crucifixion. Right at the top was the chateau, which we admired from outside as it’s not open to the public. It is now inhabited by the clergy who work in the various chapels of Rocamadour. After clicking pictures of the stunning views we wound our way back down to the street level.
We spent about 45 minutes on dinner at a small restaurant. I tried some walnut wine, apparently a local specialty, and found the taste to be very similar to sherry. It was delicious. Afterwards, we walked across to a small cheese shop that was just about to close. But its owner was extremely friendly and offered us a taste of some of the local cheese. She told me she had been to India and she loved it so much that she hopes to go again. We bought two small rounds of cheese and walked back to the car.
We reached our house in about an hour. It was already dark and I could feel the chill. I was looking forward to a quiet evening, my last in this beautiful place. In a little while, everyone gathered around in the drawing room and soon we had a fire going in the little fireplace. It took some time but the room was soon toasty. We turned the TV on to a music channel and opened up our remaining wine, along with some of the Rocamadour cheese. Slightly salty, hard, and creamy, the cheese was absolutely divine and it paired well with the wine.
After some time, my eyes began to droop, and I couldn’t keep awake any longer. I snuggled into my duvet and slept like a log.
The next day, we drove to the airport, stopping along the way at a massive Carrefour to pick up cheese. None of us had bought check-in baggage and we hoped that our cheese would survive the security check for the hand luggage. Mine was a close call with the lady almost throwing away one of the cheeses. Thankfully, another lady intervened and said very specifically that only soft cheeses like Camembert were not allowed. Phew. My predilection for hard cheeses had saved my purchases. Andrei was not so fortunate. Two of his cheeses went into the bin.
At Dublin airport, we bid adieu to each other, and soon I was home. But my mind was still filled with the prettiness that had surrounded me for the last three days. The French countryside is dazzlingly beautiful and yet elegant. Perhaps a little like French fashion. And I can’t wait to witness it again.