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Getting in touch with the nature of Dordogne

Nature is good.  It looks beautiful on postcards, Nat Geo specials or Claude Monet’s backyard. But there sure is a lot of it in the French Perigord. We live there half the year on the Dordogne River.  Here, nature surrounds us. It also scares hell out of us.

There are birds of prey, airplane-size bees and a fire-breathing dragon. That last one could be an exaggeration since we’ve never seen it. So let’s just calm down and call it what it really is: a stegosaurus.

Any of these things could eat us. So I’ve learned a French phrase that explains life here: j’ai peur de tout. Translated, it means: take me back to the city, because at least muggers won’t feed you to their young.

When we say France, we think of Paris. Tourists and Parisians do, anyway. Wrought iron balconies and glittering opera houses gleam before us. But seven hours south, where the first house painters were cavemen, life’s different. And all kvetching aside, it’s glorious.

Steep hills are shrouded by woodlands so thick they call the area Perigord Noir. In French, noir means black. The woods may actually be green, but no one knows; you can’t see the forest through the trees. And as Julie Andrews might say, the woods are alive…just not with the sound of music.

We live in a clearing halfway up a wood-studded slope soaring over the river. Herons and hawks surround us. Best of all, there are cuckoo birds. Real, live cuckoo birds. When they sing, I check my watch, march like a Prussian and hum the Woody Woodpecker theme. Cuckoos have clocks, just not a song.

But about that dragon. He’s been to our house twice, each time an hour or so before daybreak. We know him by the sound of hooves crushing soft grass: think of the Montparnasse Tower on feet. His defining feature is an angry, rasping roar. It’s much like a four-pack-a-day Camel man stepping on a nail. I can hear him easily from my perch under the king-size bed.

Friends say our dragon is in reality, a wild boar. I’m relieved. I can’t imagine anything tame making that blood curdling scream. Friends also say he may not last the winter. That’s because of La Chasse – the hunt.

Four million Frenchmen have hunting licenses. All but a few were outside our bedroom window this morning shooting jack rabbits on the valley floor. These outdoors lovers enjoy nature, too. They just want to reduce the headcount a bit. My advice to them is: don’t shoot the boar. It’ll only make him angry.

Nature’s finest blessing to Perigord is the Dordogne River itself. This 500-km, dark green jewel snakes from Auvergne to Bordeaux. Five dams upstream regulate its calm but persistent flow. The stretch in our neighborhood runs from Vitrac to Beynac at a depth of one to 30 meters.

I’m no expert. But if I were, here’s what I’d conclude: The Dordogne is the clearest, cleanest, most beautiful river ever. It’s also damned cold.  I found this out the hard way.

We paddled canoes to a beach beneath Castelnaud, the imposing medieval castle pre-eminent in the Hundred Years War. I plunged into the Dordogne. I shivered and shouted a four-letter epithet whose dictionary definition is “boy, this is really cold.”

Watching from the riverbank were 30 young French school cherubs eating lunch with their teachers. “They heard you swear,” scolded my canoeing partner. “Doesn’t matter, I said. They’re French…they didn’t understand me.” I thought that right up to the point where we paddled away and they shouted “good-bye…have a nice day.”


Our other home is near San Francisco in a community that styles itself semi-rural. This means that they use earth tones in the living room. But there’s nothing semi about Perigord. It’s so rural here that chickens in the market display cases still have their heads on. They may or may not be dead. I’m not sticking around to find out.

This is what we see out our Perigord windows:

Verdant walnut orchards;

A 400-year-old village (if you don’t count the older troglodyte caves); and

A gentle bend in a shimmering river alive with trout, carp and the sunglasses I lost last week.

You think I’d give that up just because nature makes noise and gives me the jitters? In a pig’s eye.

Mike Zampa is a media relations consultant and former newspaper editor and columnist who, along with his wife, splits time between the Dordogne Valley and San Francisco Bay Area.

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