The 5th in my series of posts about my favourite day on each of our tours. Our Dordogne tour is where this idea started. Talking to one of our guides, Pete, I asked how the week was going, and how the group was getting on. He said “It’s Tuesday in the Dordogne. We visit the mill, Rocamadour and the Gouffre de Padirac, and end up in Loubressac. So everything’s perfect”.
He’s not wrong. On this day we visit two Michelin-rated sites, a 3*** (Michelin’s top rating -’Worth a journey in itself’) and a 2** (‘Worth a detour’). Michelin don’t give these ratings away – the whole of Devon & Cornwall boasts just two 3*** sites.The Fortified Mill of Cougnaguet.
We start the day in the tiny village of Calès, and kick-off with a beautiful 4Km downhill to the bridge across the mighty River Ouyse. We follow this stream for about 2 Km to the fortified mill at Cougnaguet.
This place is fascinating. Construction finished in the 14th Century, so it’s more than 700 years old! It’s a flour mill, originally built by Cistercian monks. Flour was a valuable food source, and well-stocked flour mills were targets for ‘brigands’. So the mill became fortified, and they incorporated an ingenious method of defence.
The mill lies beneath a cliff. A dam was built to provide water for the mill turbines. This created a lake that stretches almost a mile upstream, which protected the mill from attack across the river. By paving the bed of the river upstream the monks created a smooth river bed. In the event of attack, all the turbines were opened, and the flagstones enabled the lake to drain incredibly rapidly, sweeping the attackers away. That’s the theory, and the guy tells the story with a straight face.This mill is particularly special because turbine-driven mills are so rare. They were rapidly superceded by the water wheel, because turbine-driven mills require very thick walls and strong buildings. So basically turbines were a bad idea, and they were overtaken by waterwheels. So there ain’t many turbines around. But this mill still operated commercially until 1959, and it’s still operational toay.
We get to see how the river drives the 1.5 ton mill stones, varies the grade of the flour, sieves the bran from the flour, and even automatically sorts the flour into different grades from fine to coarse. We make flour in a 700-year old mill. Fantastic.
Usually we then retire upstairs, above the turbine room, to enjoy a glass of home-made eau de vie, from the plums that grow around the mill. It’s quite a place. It’s worth seeing how everything works, and it’s all explained on this page of their website.
Of course, even better is to join us on a tour!
After we leave the mill, we have a long old slog, 8 Km, uphill to Rocamadour. This is an amazing place. It’s origins are disputed, although there’s no dispute that it was a sanctuary, part of the abbey in Tulle. Beyond that there is a legend of the founder, St Amadour (remember the biblical tax collector, Zacheus? Him. And it was his wife, Veronica, who wiped Jesus’ face as he carried his cross to Calvary). He is supposed to have carved a black madonna now on display in the church of Notre Dame in the centre of this small town. Alternatively, it could be named for St Amator, one time Bishop of Auxerre. And there’s a sword buried in the cliff face close to the church.
You can forget all that, it’s just a spectacular place. It’s built into the side of the gorge overlooking the river Alzou. We can cycle down into Rocamadour, or we can take a funicular railway from the top down into the town – to be honest, that’s what we usually we do.
During the Hundred Years War, in the 14th and 15th Century, the French King visited Rocamadour in order to promote it as a pilgrimage site. The idea was to get more of his subjects to visit, making it harder for English troops to occupy. Rocamadour has been a popular tourist destination ever since, and never more so than now. It’s always rammed, entirely devoted to tourism, but it is a spectacular place, rated as 3*** attraction by Michelin (‘Worth a journey in itself’).
The Gouffre de Padirac
From Rocamadour we have a 15 Km ride to the incredible cave system at Padirac. We’ve spent the last day cycling across the limestone ‘causses’, very porous and soluble in water. So the region is littered with undergrond streams, sink holes and cave systems. The grandest of them all is Padirac. Visible on the surface is a giant sink hole, more than 100 feet across and 200 feet deep. From the bottom of this sink hole we descend a further 100 feet by staircase to an underground river, where we enjoy a boat ride and a guided tour of the most amazing galleries of stalctites and stalagmites.
It’s the most visited underground facility in France. That won’t surprise anyone who’s visited – there are sometimes long queues. But it is unforgettably brilliant.
It’s a remote village, and at its centre is the Hotel Lou Cantou owned by Hubert and Marie-Claude, good friends of The Chain Gang now for 20 years. At night there are spectacular views across to the castle of St Céré, and we often see sheep driven through the village in the early morning. One of my favourite places anywhere.