Dordogne Farmhouse, France, July 2014.
Natalie Garner, Far and Ride.
In July 2014, I went to visit our new partner ride – the Dordogne Farmhouse – in the beautiful Dordogne region of Southern France.
Arriving into Limoges on Monday, the weather was clear and cool. As my RyanAir flight touches down on the tarmac, the small, modern, glass fronted airport comes into view; a sense of quiet peace hangs over this whole area. Passing through the double doors which separate “luggage collection” with “arrivals”, I scan the room beyond. My first impressions of Gill, are of a lady who is down to earth and resilient and, as a nervous single traveller, I am relieved to find that she is very amiable and quite happy to talk to me about her business, and life in France – I feel I can begin to relax! Gill has collected me in her own car, so with the sun shining we begin the 55 minute drive to her farmhouse in the Perigord-Limousin Regional Natural Park. The countryside I witness, as we drive down the sleepy “main” roads of this region, is green, undulating and fertile. Arriving to the farmhouse, I am greeted by the boisterous characters – Lily and Rosie. The house itself is built of a yellow granite stone – most probably quarried from small mines somewhere on the property – off-set by beautiful mint-green shutters and doors as well as elegantly draped grape-vines and honeysuckle flowers. Inside, the house has a warm and homely feel, with tasteful decoration and a cosy kitchen-lounge. My room, “Aubére”, is clean and comfortable and features some glorious modern innovations; an electric power shower and large flat screen television, as well as some more character features such as wooden beams and bare stone wall behind the head board. Overall, my first impression is of an inviting and contemporary country cottage.
After a refreshing cup of tea in the gorgeous flowered courtyard, Gill takes me out to the yard to meet her team of cherished horses. We step through the house to the tack room, which displays Gill’s collection of leatherwork and saddlery including English and trail saddles as well as an adorable little driving harness for Polly the pony. The horses are all out in the field at the moment, as the weather is cool and the fly numbers low. The pastures are green and the horses a picture of good health and fantastic husbandry. Gill is a veritable fountain of knowledge – her parents were also equestrians and moved to the farmhouse in 1992 in order to compete in the popular French equestrian sport of TREC – now commonly contested in the UK and US. Prizes won by both Gill and her parents are displayed around the farmhouse for guests to enjoy, each carrying it’s own little story and history. Although Gill only has a small selection of 8 horses, she cares for them so very well and really takes the time to get to know each of their unique personalities.
Once the horses are all safely settled for the night, Gill heads back indoors to begin preparing dinner. I am left to explore the rest of the farmhouse and take this time to reflect on the stunning views afforded by its gorgeous hilltop location. The quiet peace combines perfectly with the gentle purring and swishing noises made by horses contentedly grazing in the fields. A little free time also allows me to indulge a little of my passion for photography, before a revitalising shower in my en-suite bathroom. Feeling a little more human, Gill invites me into the kitchen to enjoy a little pre-dinner beverage and an opportunity to ask any questions about my stay, the area, the food and beyond! Dinner comprises a gorgeous starter of garlic Bruschetta topped with sliced, fresh, beef tomato and soft, melted goats cheese. Followed graciously by delicious, homemade beef lasagne, baked in the oven to render it perfectly crisp. After this, we enjoy a platter of finely selected french cheeses, including a local brie, soft goat and a delightful sheep milk cheese, produced in the Basque region of Southern France. The meal is concluded with an exquisite bowl of raspberries, fresh from Gill’s garden, topped with indulgent crème fraîche. Our evening meal was accompanied by a selection of gorgeous, locally produced, Bergerac wines. Tonight, I selected the red, which was delightfully cleansing to the palate, with a light taste and subtle flavour. The owners of this particular winery are always keen to meet the people who drink and enjoy their wines and visits can always be arranged for those who are interested.
Perigord – Riding and local culture
The following morning, I descend the stairs to the little kitchen and am greeted at 8:30 am by a beautifully laid breakfast table. Fresh tea and coffee is served, as well as a selection of fruit juices. The normal offering of cereal and fresh fruit is accompanied by the far more French alternatives of fresh croissant and baguette; both of which Gill had ventured to the local boulangerie, in Miallet, to collect! In true French fashion, breakfast is a laid back affair, and a chance for me to interact with the other guests. At 9:00 am a young lady named Sophie arrives; having moved to France just over year ago with her young family, she now helps Gill by doing a little house work and preparation in the kitchen, whilst Gill is riding.
Throughout my stay, I am encouraged to get involved in all aspects of preparing the horses to be ridden. On this particular day, I am in the care of the handsome little chestnut arab – Naiche – even at 17 years old, his coat has a gorgeous gloss and his mane and tail is long and full. Mounting just outside the yard, we begin the ride by heading through the picturesque village of “Les Parcs” – where the farmhouse is based – and out past the rear of the Bison Farm. The countryside has so much variety; one moment you are strolling along rolling farmland, then taking a brisk trot through dense woodland or open common. We pass expansive stretches of wheat and corn, beautiful little ornamental lakes and cross through the local competition arena, even taking a quick look around the cross country jumps. The trail takes us through quaint and colourful villages, meeting animated locals eager to wave their “bonjour” and converse a while – life in this region seems to take on a wonderfully slow pace, nobody is rushed or stressed. Crossing fields and rivers, woodland and clearings, we enjoy a thrilling gallop up a gentle rise and across fields of waving, golden corn. At times we are required to dismount, in order to cross narrow bridges or tricky paths, Gill’s horses demonstrate they are fit and surefooted enough to cope with any terrain. Rounding the corner at the top of one of the numerous tracks, we allow the horses to stretch out a little more, before turning our ears for home some 3 hours later! Ensuring our horses are cleaned and comfortable, they receive a little treat of stale bread and a well deserved rest. Lunch, which has been wonderfully prepared by Sophie, consists of a delicious salad, topped with tomatoes and boiled eggs – laid by Gill’s own chickens – a gorgeous selection of local cheeses, including a particularly divine camembert wheel, various antipasti and wonderful baguette from Miallet. To finish, delicious yoghurt and fresh fruit, for dessert!
After lunch, Gill invites me to take a tour of the local area in order to experience some of the fantastic sights and activities which are on offer. Following a delightful cup of tea, we bundle into the car (including dogs) and head off to the breathtaking village of Saint Jean de Côle – classified as one of France’s most beautiful villages. Instantly, you will feel why this is the case; the village has an almost dream-like quality; even the sunshine feels so much brighter here! Sleepy and tranquil, the only visible signs of activity emanate from the quaint, traditional cafe in the central square, overlooked by the phenomenal Château de la Marthonie and church of St. Jean Baptiste. The village of Saint Jean de Côle still boasts much of its rich cultural and historical heritage which the local communities know how to exhibit. There are opportunities to attend choral and instrumental concerts at the church, guided tours of the village in both English and French, or just the ability to stroll a while along the picturesque narrow streets, lined by squat stone houses, adorned with matching pale blue shutter and brightly coloured flowers! On the return journey, we stop in at the Château de Puyguilhem, with its glorious black roofed turrets visible above the tree line. The Château is one of many historical landmarks which are spread throughout the area; including prehistoric caves, at Villars, which still carry the impressions of our planet’s first explorative steps into the world of art. A short walk down a gravel drive, with the sunshine on our backs, takes us to the grounds of this dramatic edifice. The château’s framing turrets appear to have been taken straight from a child’s story book, as it nestles quietly amongst the bright green foliage of this typical little valley above Villars. The stunning views from this prominent position reiterate why this area is considered so magical – you will get a sense of what it must have been like to sit at one of these mighty, embellished, windows and admire the countryside stretching out below you.
Tonight’s delectable dinner is enjoyed in the wonderful company of my fellow guests – as the clean, crisp local white wine flows, the conversation follows suit. We enjoy a refreshing aperitif of the legendary local Pineau – a sweet spirit which folk lore states was created by the accidental mixing of grape musk and cognac, before being allowed to ferment. Our starter of halved Cantaloupe melon is both fresh and delicious and compliments Gill’s delightful shoulders of “pink” veal, topped with a parmesan and white wine sauce, served with a side of fresh seasonal vegetables and crispy roasted potatoes (all locally sourced). The inevitable platter of delicious French cheeses, served with fresh local baguette, tides us over until Sophie’s freshly prepared apple and raspberry crumble has formed a gorgeous crisp topping in the oven!
Miallet – wildlife and requiescence
On this, the final day of my stay, we are fortunate to have the sun shinning over us again. The fine weather offers the perfect opportunity to reflect on the adventure I have had the opportunity to experience. Following another hearty breakfast, we begin the day by brushing and saddling our horses – today my ride is the gorgeous, bright-bay, Tam-Tam, Gill’s; the small and sturdy Loustic. As we depart from Gill’s wonderful little farmhouse, she points out a dewy-eyed doe, surveying us from a distance of less than 50m, before it leaps for the cover of frilled green ferns. Our trail takes us South of the village of Miallet and into the Wildlife reserve which surrounds its stunning reservoir (or Barrage). Tam-Tam and Loustic have no trouble navigating the little woodland tracks, making up a large proportion of our trek. Popping out of the woods, on occasion, to enjoy some slightly faster riding across flat, far-reaching agricultural land; we emerge, finally, at the base of a steep wooded hill. Traversing the main road and slipping through a barrier, we ride onto a broad gravelled path edged in sublimely scented pine trees. Rounding the corner, we are confronted by a monumental cliff formed of straight, regular steps – this would be the dam – covered in grass and wildflowers. The horses climb to the top of the track and upon reaching the summit, we catch our fast glimpse of the vast expanse of water beyond! At 77 hectares (equivalent to 5,000,000 m3 of water!) the barrage is one of the largest bodies of water in France and boasts an astounding array of water fowl and wildlife. The surface has a mirror like quality which is framed on all sides by the wonderful dark outlines of the green pines. A lone Grebe alights upon the watery expanse and creates a single dark spot against the twinkling surface.
Arriving back at the farmhouse, the horses are tended to before we enjoy another delicious continental lunch. I find I have some time to myself this afternoon and decide to practice my – decidedly lousy – French speaking skills by taking a visit to the Bison farm in Les Parcs. The farm is a pride of the area, rearing high quality free-ranging bison herds for the production of their pelts and meat – amongst a considerable variety of other bison-based products. The owner of the farm actually speaks very good English – I discover – and is more than happy to translate his spoken tour for me, as we set off across the fields to come face-to-face with these prehistoric creatures. To round off my afternoon, an adventurous walk to the village of Miallet (not for the faint hearted) allows me the opportunity to visit a few of the local amenities; a wonderful, modern delicatessen, the famous boulangerie, glorious central church and marvellously decorated main square, not to mention the abundance of brightly coloured hollyhocks, growing wild along the streets and footpaths! That evening, Gill and I enjoy some locally sourced fillet steak, fresh french fries, and seasonal vegetables, accompanied by the wonderful, local, red wine I so admired on my first night. The meal is finished off with Gill’s signature melting chocolate pudding, served with delightful Créme fraîche and more of those freshly picked, garden raspberries. Delicious!
As I awake for my early morning start, I reflect on my time at the farmhouse – I was so very sad to be leaving this wonderful place. The weather has taken on a slightly gloomier feel this morning, almost in reflection of my parting sorrows. Descending the wooden stairs to the kitchen for one last time, I find that breakfast has been laid out for me – even at 7 in the morning, Gill is organised and attentive. However, I am glad I had the opportunity to meet Gill and her happy team; I enjoyed such a wondrously relaxing experience in this quiet little corner of France!
Read more about this ride here: Dordogne Farmhouse, France.