Nothing beats a wonderful French meal after a day’s cycling in the Dordogne. Here, you can absorb French culture without ever worrying about your waistline
We’d packed high-tech puncture repair liquid, padded cycling shorts and lots of bandages but forgotten the fire hydrant. Our eco-friendly, mouth-wateringly-titled ‘gastronomic cycling trip’ to the Dordogne region of France managed to derail within minutes, when a fire broke out in the Eurotunnel. Luckily, we’d booked with Headwater — a firm that specialises in tailor-made cycling, walking and canoeing breaks, across Europe and beyond — who made sure we weren’t stranded on the wrong side of the channel.
Bagging the last two seats on a flight to Bergerac, at two very un-Ryanair-type prices, our target carbon footprint took a hit but our spirits began to lift. We were soon delivered from a world of bustling airline waiting rooms, collapsed tour operators and channel infernos, into a land of wide blue skies, lush green hills and rustic stone cottages.
The Dordogne might not be the most adventurous destination in the world, but there’s a reason why Brits, from Henry V onwards, have colonised this part of France. Leaving the airport, the countryside had the air of a perfect holiday waiting to happen. Known fondly by local ex-pats as ‘Dordogne-shire’, fields of corn rose as high as an elephant's eye, walnut trees bowed in the heat and lazily tangled rows of grapes has us mentally munching on the landscape.
Having never been on a cycling holiday before, my partner and I intended to rely on Headwater’s itinerary, cycling maps and general advice, to see us through the following eight days. With the cycling due to start the next morning, we were lead by our rep to a busy restaurant in the heart of the medieval village of Souillac, 130 km south of Limoges. Soon we were coaxing tender pieces of roast duck off the bone, mixing them in a saffron and cepe mushroom sauce, and toasting our good fortune with a sensational bottle of Bergerac red. And after five courses, the need to burn off calories on our bikes became an imperative.
Although Headwater does supply bicycles to those who need them, we had brought our own. His, a lovingly nurtured and carefully maintained Specialized boy’s touring bike. Mine, a brand new carbon fibre Specialized racing bike weighing fractionally less than my handbag.
During the week that followed, we meandered down off-road paths that curled through woods and fields, passed through the medieval town of Sarlat, admired the prehistoric area of Les Ezyies and arrived at the riverside town of Montignac, before completing a grand circle of the region to arrive back where we started.
The terrain in this part of France is perfect for cycling. The rolling hills make the views magnificent and exercise-challenging, without becoming unmanageable. The trip works around the cyclist. Every second day our bags would be transported by Headwater to meet us at the next destination. And dinner in the evening was always an ample incentive to pedal harder.
The Dordogne is home to many wonderful ingredients. Each day we cycled past our next meal. From pan fried duck with olives to veal served with walnut butter, green vegetables and reduced port - all was sourced from local farms. Our evening meals ranged from the superb fully traditional menu at Logis de France La Vieille Auberge and Hostellerie de Meysset to joyful and imaginative cuisine from the chef at Hostellerie La Roseraie.
We also indulged in some serious après-cycle. The region is well known for its wine production. Bordeaux - 100 kilometres away - is the largest wine region in the world, producing over 500 million litres a year. Famed vineyards include Sauternes, Saint Emilion and Paullac. But the wines produced just inches from our cycling route were also terrific and much cheaper. We left with a newly acquired love of Bergerac red.
One thing we didn’t forsee - no thanks to the helpful, but largely unread, information pack sent to us by Headwater in good time for our trip - was the difficulty in taking wine home when you forget to bring an extra bag. So our advice would be to read the manual. The Headwater team is happy to transport as many bags as you like between your hotels but it’s up to the cyclist to bring them in the first place.