Kayaking France’s most romantic river

There wasn’t a lot going on in Beynac on that damp Tuesday morning in September. Cats prowled along the sides of the honeyed-stone houses, blackbird silhouettes appeared and disappeared as the mist hung about the steep roofs. The villagers were waiting in their cosy homes for the dankness to lift before they ventured forth.

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We gazed at the forlorn black water of one of the world’s most picturesque rivers and lamented that we had picked the worst day to kayak along it. We sipped petrol-station café au lait and munched croissants as we boarded our kayak operator’s minibus for the transfer to the launch point, about 15 kilometres upstream.

Rugged up, life-jacketed and apprehensive, we pushed off and felt the chill of the morning out on the water. Before we had paddled 20 strokes, however, there was a hint of warmth on our backs and a shimmer on the surface. We heard the cry of a bird of prey high above us, and with it came a shaft of sunlight.

Romantic villages protected by limestone cliffs – ©Copyright Matthew Brace

The mist over the river was slowly pulled back like a theatre curtain. It revealed a sight that made us gasp: the magnificent Dordogne, spread out before us. It had never looked more inviting and, as the mist had kept other kayakers in their warm beds, it was all ours.

After an hour on the river, the sky was as blue as France’s tricolour flag and we were shedding our woollies. Our small four-kayak fleet – my wife, me and two good friends – are usually pretty chatty but that morning we were silent. It felt rude to interrupt this bucolic scene with banter. Instead we drifted on the gentlest of currents, smiling to ourselves and drinking in the beauty of the autumn-fiery birches and the occasional blue spark of a darting kingfisher.

We were all experienced kayakers with form on long Asian sea-treks, battling Wellington Harbour winds and riding icy rapids in North Wales – but this was different. This was the definition of slow travel. We fought our instinct to paddle, so we could prolong the experience. At times, our paddles became almost redundant, useful only for occasional steering. Somehow, the less we did the more we connected with the river. We watched its eddies, listened to its burble and absorbed its serenity.

Kayakers’ unique view of Beynac with the Chateau de Beynac towering above on the cliffs – ©Copyright Matthew Brace

One long, left-hand arc of the river hugged a 200-metre cliff of lightly tanned limestone, pockmarked with intriguing but unreachable caves. Then it kinked into a right-hand bend that tucked underneath a lower and more wooded chalk-white cliff on the southern bank.

I split from the group temporarily to explore a secret side channel overhung by weeping willows. The water slowed even further there and pirouetted my kayak in a leisurely 360-degree turn. We then reconvened mid-stream, bumping our kayaks gently together and deciding a spot of early lunch might be in order. We had all day to float after all, and enough baguettes, ham, cheese and wine on board to last us for several more.

However, after we had separated once again, I found my waterborne sandwich lunch and splash of St Emilion made me do something I have never before done in a kayak: I fell asleep. Only for a minute but it was enough to amuse the team. Their laughter woke me and I found I was drifting backwards down the Dordogne and heading for a pillar holding up the stone bridge near Cénac.

Château de la Malartrie – ©Copyright Matthew Brace

By mid-afternoon we were at home on our sun-drenched river and as reluctant to leave it as we had been to join it in the cold mist that morning. Another slow left-hand arc brought into view the stunning Château de la Malartrie. The château overlooks one of the most beautiful villages of France, La Roque Gageac. So picturesque in fact that it is one of a handful in the exclusive Les Plus Beaux Villages de France association – “the most beautiful villages of France”.

A kilometre downstream another vast castle came into view high on the clifftop; the fortified medieval Château de Castelnaud. This castle is where the river turns north and leads to, for us at least, journey’s end. As we approached Beynac it was a village transformed. It was bathed in sunlight, people thronged the river banks, and all house, shop and restaurant doors and windows were flung open.

Towering above the town were the famous limestone cliffs on top of which – free from its misty cloak – perched the imposing Château de Beynac. We lingered, playing with the current, spinning round, exploring waterside bushes – anything but come ashore and end this amazing day.

Slow travel down the Dordogne ©Copyright Matthew Brace

Need to know

Singapore Airlines has flights from all major Australian cities to Singapore with connections to Paris. If you want a slightly more romantic start to your European trip without breaking the bank, try Singapore Airlines’ excellent Premium Economy cabin. From Paris, catch a domestic flight to Bordeaux or, if you have time, take the TGV train. At Bordeaux’s Mérignac airport, I recommend renting a car from the helpful, English-speaking Hertz team.

Le Mas et Le Mazet
Tel: +33 (0) 6 8585 2868

There are numerous operators in the area. Google first but if you are staying at Le Mas, the guys can recommend one or two trusted crews. Be specific when asking for a kayak or you’ll end up with a canoe.

For more information:
Visit the official Dordogne Tourism site.

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