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The Financial Times: Feeling Closer to 'Real' France

Michael J Woods pedals through the Dordogne

The dog dashed out of the farmyard like a charging lion, a great, grey, shaggy beast, fangs bared and determined to live up to the sign on the gate, "Chien mechant".
I yelled obscenities and lashed out with a flailing foot to add emphasis to my words before dropping two gears and standing on the pedals to accelerate. I was gaining nothing, however, when the farmer appeared, stomach stretching his blue dungarees, and bellowed something unrepeatable.

The cur retreated, tail drooping and I continued on my way unscathed. It was the only difficult moment in an otherwise beautiful day, the last in a week's cycling tour of the Dordogne with The Chain Gang, a British-based cycle touring company. Although this was the hilliest of the days, the route took us away from the rivers and their seaside resort feel and into the hills of the Périgord noir, where cars are few and visitors even scarcer.
This is small farm country where cottages of honey-coloured stone surrounded by tiny fields of maize and barley and with a goat or two, a few geese and half a dozen walnut trees, sit in valleys clothed with oak, hornbeam and sweet chestnuts.

We were bike fit by now and, although the hills were long, the grades were even and perfectly pedallable and the rewarding down-hills brought cooling breezes and the slight frisson that the next corner might just be too sharp to navigate safely at speed (it never was).

Stéphane Vanrechem, our guide, led us expertly on each day's ride of 30 miles or so, selecting quiet roads and tasty lunch stops and, at the end of every afternoon, a comfortable hotel with a menu to do justice to the region's rich gastronomy. He carried a repair outfit, a first aid kit and a sense of humour, which coped with almost every eventuality.

The bicycle is the perfect form of transport in this compact countryside. Being in the open air allowed me to hear the constant clatter of crickets, the occasional laugh of a green woodpecker and the pathetic mews of young buzzards begging their parents for food. I could travel slowly enough to spot a grass snake sunning itself in a roadside field, but covered enough ground to pedal comfortably from one historic site in this heritage-packed area, to another.

The history of the Hundred Years War is writ large in the Dordogne, where the river formed the boundary between the French and the English. We climbed the summit of the cliffs at Beynac, leaving the traffic scrum of the riverside road far below, to the château which Richard the Lionheart held for the last 10 years of his life and which, it is believed, was partly built by the English.

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