The Mane Attraction in Lot - Rocamadour, France

by Hidden Trails 08/27/2009

By Judy Armstrong

France-Southwest-Ride to Rocamadour

A golden tower of honeycomb stone, a lush meadow blushing with poppies, an arched bridge, lumpy hills, rushing river.  The train is moving slower as it approaches medieval Gourdon.  Now the window shows a pristine sky, swooping swallows, a steep-pitched barn roof.

Five hours after sliding away from Paris, the train stops.  I emerge into the warm air, the soft sun, the gentle ambience of the Lot.  Hans Vroom, a Dutchman who fell in love with, then moved to, this area seven years ago with his family, greets me by the station steps.  “We visited France by car and motorbike, spent a lot of time here,” he says.
“We loved the climate and the places of historic and tourist interest.  We also had horses, so we decided to combine our two passions, by taking guests to explore the Lot on horseback.”So, this is why I am here.  Travelling by human power is the ultimate in eco-friendly travel, but moving through wooded landscape on a grass-fuelled animal is surely as green as it gets.  And while travel for its own sake is a joy, having a focus makes it even better.
Recently, I was invited to visit Rocamadour, one of France’s most popular destinations for pilgrims and tourists.  The churches, the chapels and castles crammed onto a rock face looked beautiful, fascinating, unique – but I dislike arriving by car, staring at a ‘sight’, ticking the box and departing.

Countryside Saunter
Hans, through his North America representatives Hidden Trails, soon solved this sight-seeing dilemma.  One of the trail rides through the Lot has Rocamadour as its heart: we would saunter through the countryside to this holy shrine, pay our respects and ride away.  By travelling upon narrow wooded paths, through complex woodland, via a jigsaw of lanes, streams and meadows, we would also breath, smell and feel the Lot as a car-tourist never can.

The riding center, home to Hans, Hermina and their seven year old daughter Soleil, is a short drive from Gourdon, near the border of the Lot and Dordogne.  It is fresh off the page of a calendar, with a honey-colored stone farmhouse and gîtes, vivid with roses, crimson shutters and grape vines.  In the fields around the house, 18 horses graze; in the cobblestone yard, two Great Danes doze.
The gîtes are often occupied by families who don’t ride at all – the area is rich in interest, from cave paintings to châteaux.  But mostly, the center attracts people who want to combine gastronomy – this is the land of frois gras, walnuts, duck and truffles – with exploration on horseback.

“On a horse, you have time to absorb the landscape,” says Hans, pouring chilled rosé.  “Last week we were cantering along and in front of my nose, a deer crossed the track.  It looked, my horse looked, I looked, and everyone continued happily.  It was quite wonderful.”  Hermina joins us on the sun-warm terrace.  She is pretty and feels like everyone’s best friend within minutes of arriving.  Hans is hearty and happy, with a pencil-thin strip of a beard; he competes in endurance rides up to 55 miles long and is as fit as his horses.  Soleil is a wild, woodland creature: pale, fast-moving, with a wide smile.  I don’t have them to myself for long.  Soon Tom, a Norwegian celebrating his 50th birthday, arrives and we talk long into the night.  This is Tom’s first trip to France and he is already overwhelmed by the beauty and diversity.  Hans laughs.  “Our guests arrive from all over the world, and most of them come back.  A week in the Lot is never enough.  So think of this as an introduction, not a once-in-a-lifetime experience.”  Tom agrees with him.  Hans has matched him to Pegasos, a gentle grey giant who takes to Tom like a child to chocolate.  They quickly become inseparable and by the end of the week Tom, having reluctantly abandoned his plans top smuggle Pegasos home in his hand luggage, is planning a return visit.

One night, sitting on blue chairs in the shade of vines, he sighs, “I have a friend at work who, when I said I was coming to the Lot, described exactly this.  Exactly.  Golden stone, vines, flowers, peace, silence.  It’s perfect.”

For two days we ride from the center with Hans’ French friends and on our own.  We visit  the nearby village of Lantis with its 12th-century château; swim the horses in the local lake and gallop through meadows and orchid-rich woods.  Tom is in heaven: “Riding holidays make me feel alive.  It’s the contrast between sitting in an office tapping at a computer, and galloping through woodland.  It’s amazing.  I love it.”

On the Road
A major factor in this is Hans’ horsemanship.  Instructions, tack (the saddles are Stubbens!), horses and their care – it’s all of the highest quality, with Hans inspiring confidence in beginners and experts alike.

The night before departure, we are joined by Americans Liz and Stephen, in France for a fortnight.  “Some time ago I joined a horse-riding holiday in the Loire Valley, and I really wanted Stephen to experience something similar, to feel part of the history,” says Liz.  “Oh, we are happy to be here.  And to have sunshine! If you’d seen the rain in Paris…”

There is excitement in the morning as we prepare to leave.  Cooling gel pads are placed under the horses’ saddles for comfort in the heat and water bottles are filled.  Hermina will meet us with lunch, but we have a far distance to travel first.

Hans leads our little cavalcade out of the hamlet, past red poppies and hay meadows, past Lantis and the château.  It’s like riding through an Impressionist painting.  Soon we are on new ground, in oak woods thick with orchids and honeysuckle.  Panache, my beautiful chocolate-colored horse, swings along sweetly, ears forward, enjoying the journey.  I check my watch, then realize it is irrelevant.  We’re on equine time now.

And so we ride to Rocamadour.  Flowering broom and wild roses create swathes of yellow, flashes of pink.  Most rivers have watermills – some converted, others derelict.  Across valleys we glimpse sturdy churches and everywhere are pigeonniers.  “Because it was once so poor, this is the only region in France where every peasant was allowed a pigeon tower,” explains Hans.  Many have been rebuilt or absorbed into houses, retaining their form, but not their function.  The pale stone reflects the light, making even dark corners feel sun-filled.

Gariottes, the beehive-like stone shelters for shepards, flank ancient paths; we ride sunken roads and duck under branches uncleared because few pass this way.  There are 900 miles of bridleways in the Lot, with another 1500 miles in the Dordogne.  With Hans, we’ll ride 150 miles this week, leaving plenty more trails to explore.

Nature’s Table
This first day, Hermina meets us at the lake Écoute s’il Pleut, near Gourdon.  She has set up a picnic table by the bank of yellow iris; from the opposite shore, two fisherman stare in bewilderment.  We take the horses into the lake to splash and drink, then cool down ourselves with a chilled beer.  Local tomme cheese, cured meat, home-made terrine, eggs from Herrmina’s hens – it’s a feast.

While each day, each lunch, each night stop is different, they follow a similar theme; mellow countryside, varied riding, isolated hamlets, friendly faces.  People are surprised to see us, happy to wish us bonne route, bonne courage.  Gates  are opened, traffic is stopped, horses are patted and photographed.

Accommodation is quirky.  Le Moulin de Planiol, a converted watermill run by a Belgian couple, has donkeys, a swimming pool and haute cuisine with fine local wine.  From La Gardelle, a sympathetic conversion of stables and barns near Rocamadour, we share a glorious dinner of duck with four French walkers, eating outside with a view over the valleys.  In the evening, cicadas chirp and in the morning hot air balloons waft overhead.  At Le Vieux Couvent, we are invited to a flower strewn banquet with a group of Canadian artists, and wander through a garden of herbs, pools and secret corners.

On route, as in the convent’s garden, flowers abound.  Our horses’ hooves swish through wild thyme and mint, wild iris fill streambeds.  We ride through woods of oak, chestnut and silver birch, up steep trails to walnut orchards, past beds ripe with strawberries.  We see thousands of butterflies, a handful of deer and, to my horror, a snake.  Hans is highly amused: I am more scared than Panache.

Physical highlights include the sculpted limestone gorge and silken stream of L’Ouysse; the scramble down the scree past sunken fountains, set to ease the thirst of pilgrims on their way to the sacred city; and the exhilarating climb up the steep cliffs of the Alzou canyon, opposite Rocamadour.  The fortified 14th-century watermill of Cougnaguet, the churches and distant châteaux, the sleepy villages and woodland cabins, the busy rivers and placid pools - they ease the Lot into our blood, hearts and minds.

Awe-inspiring Sights
Of course, we visit our destination, Rocamadour.  After a long day’s ride, we arrive in the late afternoon, when most of the tourists have gone home.  Just as the travel brochures say, it’s truly extraordinary.  We follow wide, stone stairs to the arched entrance, file silently through the soaring church and chapels, admire the Black Madonna and Child and listen, rapt, to Hans’ explanation of the sword in the rock.

We then read about the miracles on plentiful plaques, tiptoe over exquisite mosaic floors, smell the hot scent of the votive candles.  Hans asks Stephen: “Do you have anything like this in America?” Stephen says, “Is that a trick question?  And if we did, we’d probably turn it into a parking lot.  It’s hilarious, and it breaks the spell.  We buy ice-cream, laugh some more and return to the horses at La Gardelle.

We ride, we chat, we absorb the scenery.  And by the time we arrive, four days later, back at the riding center, we realize something important.  Rocamadour was the reason we came, but the star of this journey was not the churches on the rock.  It was the horses, the people and, of course, the Lot itself.

Predictably, the week is over too soon.  Tom is emotional as he pets Pegasos good-bye; I stroke Panache’s fine face and he stares back with deep black eyes.  “This is the best horse and the best riding I have ever experienced,” declares Tom, still watching his new friend in the field.  “Now I have to decide when to come back.”

The next morning, I share a final breakfast with Hermina.  “You should stay,” she says, “Stay and help us with the horses, explore more tracks, spend the summer here.” I look at her, and am twisted with the thought.  I should, Hermina, I should.

You can book this holiday with Hidden Trails -- Phone  1-888-9TRAILS or check the website at  Ride to Rocamador
Hidden Trails offer over 400 equestrian vacations worldwide.


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