Normally I am the designated alarm-clock enforcer, making sure we don't hit snooze too many times before actually getting moving at a nice early hour. This morning, though, I was exhausted and could barely keep my eyes open when I told Tyler he would have take over. He consented and I promptly fell back asleep. When I woke up, he gave me the best present ever. He ushered me over to the shower block and proceeded to pack up camp for us. When I returned, clean, refreshed, and a little more awake, I was expecting to help wrap up while Tyler took his shower. Instead, he completed the task while encouraging me to have a seat and edit his journal entry from yesterday. Thanks honey! What a great morning!
When I was through, I took our breakfasty foods from the snack pannier and set up a nice little morning meal. We were chomping away when our goat friends came meandering down the hill to join us again, this time accompanied by their mother (or father?)! It was probably one of those things you're "Not Supposed to Do" (so as not to instill bad habits into the impressionable kids), but we couldn't resist feeding the goats some apple slices and laughing hysterically as they discovered our brioche (sweet egg bread). Their shameless take-over of our area was very endearing. We definitely need goats someday.
After our entertaining breakfast, we rode off in the direction of the Gouffre de Padirac, a huge cavern hundreds of meters below ground. We were unable to resist this touristy visit because according to the brochure, we would get to go on a boat ride along an underground river! The plan was to bike to the cave, do the tour, and then bike another 50 kilometers or so to our next campsite. As usual, the day did not go according to plan but was instead much better!
About 8 kilometers outside of Padriac, we were winded from biking up the slow, steady incline we'd been treated to all morning since leaving camp. We needed a break and some sustenance so we hopped off our bikes at a boulangerie for some bread and snacks. Tyler was in the middle of devouring his slice of apple tart when a man we had seen in the boulangerie stopped to chat. He was about to bike off with his loaf of bread when he saw our bikes and started asking questions. We told him about our trip, and before we knew it, we were invited to his house for a cup of coffee. We accepted his kind offer and followed our new friend, Robert on the short ride to his house as he waved to all of his friends in the village and exclaimed with a smile "I've brought tourists!"
As we neared his house, he began shouting for his wife, Chantal to come out and meet the travelers. As it turned out, Robert and Chantal were avid explorers and had visited more than 40 countries! We chatted about travel and life in general as we plunked sugar cubes into our coffee and enjoyed the novelty of sitting in proper chairs drinking out of real cups. Tyler had a great time, too, as Chantal spoke very good English and was happy to practice it with native speakers.
They explained to us that they were only in town for the weekend, staying at the family home in Alvignac, getting ready for a marriage tomorrow in Rocamadour where Robert would escort the bride around in his shiny red Triumph. When I asked about Rocamadour, Chantal said we simply had to see it. A village built in the side of a cliff with a cathedral and churches dedicated to the black virgin Mary—this pilgrimmage site was stunning. She quickly formed a plan that was very much to our liking—they would drive us to Rocamadour, take us out to lunch(!), leave us to explore the village on our own, and then come pick us up a couple of hours later. Unbelievably grateful for the hospitality of our new friends and excited to leave our bikes behind for a little while, we piled in the car and drove at unreal (to us) speeds down the long uphill we had toiled for a good hour climbing.
Arriving just outside Rocamadour, we all settled in at a table outside under the shade of large sycamore trees. Robert & Chantal obviously knew the owners and told them all about our trip while we perused the menu. Tyler chose the pizza and salad while I chose a dish of local specialties—a large piece of country bread topped with Rocamadour goat cheese and grilled, accompanied with a salad covered in walnuts, the trees of which are everywhere around here.
When our food arrived we ate slowly and felt very civilized. Normally we wolf everything down like animals; it felt strange to be in the company of "normal" society again (French society at that!). Tyler accidentally dropped his knife on the dusty patio ground and bent to pick it up with every intention of continuing to use it. Robert quickly fetched him a new one; Tyler and I caught eyes and shared a quick knowing smirk—our standards of "clean" have changed dramatically on this trip! We remembered: oh yeah, we're in civilization now, and normal people don't eat with knives covered in dirt and insects.
After Robert and Chantal had treated us to a delicious meal out, they sent us off with an English guidebook they'd kindly purchased for us to go explore Rocamadour. We headed down the winding path following the stations of the cross where, every twenty meters there was an altar and a representation of Jesus in various stages of his life (and death I suppose). At one point on our way, Tyler spotted a cave off the path, and we followed it deep into the rock for a good 50 yards before I called it quits and encouraged Tyler to keep going if he wanted to. He opted to join me and explore the town as the only light he had was the metering bulb on our camera.
After we made it through the stations of the cross, we toured chapels of the Basilica and then wound our way down the zillions of stone steps to the village of Rocamadour, precariously perched on the the face of a cliff. It really was as beautiful as Chantal had described: Old stone buildings clinging to the hillside, churches and chapels nestled in the rocks. It was pleasant to meander around the narrow streets, happy being tourists exploring without our bikes to think about.
Two hours later, Chantal came to pick us up and drive us back to their house. On the way, traffic was stopped for a shepherd and his flock of sheep! As we were driving, Chantal explained some of what makes this area special—the unique black-eyed sheep, Rocamadour cheese, stony ground from which rock walls and homes are built, walnut trees, etc. Arriving back at their house, we thanked them for everything (seriously, thank you so much you guys!) before packing up to go.
It was very sunny and hot when we biked out of Robert and Chantal's driveway at four in the afternoon. We continued on to the Gouffre de Padirac, tired from an already full day. When we saw a campsite just before our destination, we decided to stop and set up. While checking in I realized that the last entry to the cavern was in 15 minutes! We quickly biked to the caves, locking them outside under the watchful eye of a friendly employee before buying tickets and beginning our descent down into the belly of the cool earth.
Three elevators and a few flights of stairs later, and we were 103 meters underground following narrow, drippy, dimly-lit hallways of the cavern leading us to the boat dock. Already we were amazed at the immensity of the natural space underground. The walls around us curved and undulated in organic patterns created by drops of water that have been changing the formations at a rate of one centimeter every century for hundreds of millions of years.
We made our way to the boat dock and were excited to find out that ours was the very last of the day—we would have a quiet, personalized tour without the other 250 some people that would normally be visiting along with us. Climbing into the very front of the gondola-like boat, we were grateful for the peace and quiet so we could more fully appreciate the splendor that surrounded us.
Smoothly our guide rowed us along the underground river, a tributary of the Dordogne, explaining to us some of the chasm's history. Tyler and I sat in awe, wondering what it would have felt like to discover such an incredible natural place. Tyler sneakily took pictures (not allowed) of the marvelously beautiful formations in our otherworldly chasm, and we both enjoyed cool, dark relief from the intensity of the sun.
On our trip we saw huge stalagmites reminiscent of sea creatures, pipe organs, and various plants and animals. By one of the man-made lanterns we saw some tiny ferns growing—their seeds had fallen into the river of rain and had washed up there and thrived in the artificial light. When finally our tour was over and we rose on elevators from the bowels of the earth, it felt like we had been in a dream or some other world. High above the rock formations we had seen, the sun was still blasting over the carpark where we had locked our bikes. Having had a full day of adventures, we rode home, tired, hungry and ready for dinner.
On the way back to our campsite I spotted what looked to me like a communal wood-fired bread oven I had always heard about. It looked like it was even in use and the scent of smoke filled the air. Arriving at our campsite, Tyler pumped up the air mattresses and I set up our tent, leaving our ground sheet out to dry. Eager to go see the bread oven, I grabbed the camera went to take pictures of it.
There were embers still smoking in oven the oven when I arrived. I snapped a few photos and started walking back home when I saw a man and his wife talking in their yard just behind the oven. I asked the man if it was his oven, and he kindly stopped to talk to me about village bread-making. The oven had been restored about 10 years ago, and every year they had a village bread festival in which four or five people would knead a huge mound of dough all together, pulling up the edges of the massive dough circle and folding them over into the center. All morning long they would work, and in the afternoon they would bake the bread in giant, crusty loaves.
The very kind man, named Pierre, also told me all about his travels in the US, and was eager for me to meet his American neighbor. By this time I was getting a little antsy, as Tyler just thought I was going to take a couple of pictures and then return. Just a quick visit with Cecile, and then I would run home. Cecile was a 94 year old woman from Sacramento, California, who moved to France ten years ago to live in the countryside and restore an old house to make it a gite, or guest-house. Cecile was thrilled to speak English with another American. I felt a little guilty rushing our visit to get home.
I was just wrapping it up with Cecile when Tyler came running by. Pierre's wife saw him and pointed him in our direction as I waved my arms and shouted over so he would see us. Though I had said I was going to the bread oven we passed he apparently hadn't been as aware of it as I. While I was off he had partially set up camp himself as unbeknownst to me in the shelter of the oven, great storm clouds had rolled in. Having no idea where I was he was worried to death until the campsite owner, seeing his confusion wandering around camp, pointed him down the road where I had walked.
Alone and unable to communicate with anyone, it was an incredibly frustrating experience for him. Relieved to have found me, he rushed back to finish making camp so that our things wouldn't get soaked. I tried to enjoy the fact that Pierre put a bunch of wood on the embers just so that I could take pictures of them going up in flame. It was hard to be interested as I felt badly knowing that Tyler had been so upset and concerned.
Finally, after what seemed like forever, the bunch of wood took flame and I took the pictures I now cared nothing about. I quickly thanked him for his kindness, and ran all the way home just as it started to pour. With the camera stuffed under my shirt to protect it, I arrived at camp out of breath and exhausted. We made dinner, safe and sound, relieved to be done with our action-packed day.