SIORAC-EN-PERIGORD, France — One cannot, goes the caveat of regional biographer laureate Freda White, judge countries by their capitals.
So may terminal jet lag (to say nothing of woe) betide the traveler who sees New York as all the United States has to offer and considers London the sole merriment of merrie olde England or remembers Paris as toute la boutique.
By all means visit these masterpiece metropolises. Especially Paris. But then bow out and away, instructs White, "as a courtier bows himself out of the presence of an old, indifferent queen. He will then straighten his back and go away and look at ordinary places and talk to ordinary people."
And ordinary France, for centuries, has been snoozing peacefully among three southwestern rivers that dawdle through a placid region of quiet villages where keeping busy means doing nothing in particular except deciding what might not get done demain , tomorrow.
The French escape their cities to vacation alongside these rivers, the Lot, Dordogne and Tarn. Non-European tourists remain rarities because they're still exploring Paris, Deauville, Cannes, Biarritz and other stops packaged by Catatonic Tours. And with Paris (more than 300 miles northeast) the closest non-stop arrival point by air from the United States, this area remains secluded to all but travelers by car and train--and cyclists armed with a definite destination and a working knowledge of celestial navigation.
Advises a local hotel flyer aimed at incoming Europeans: "The nearest airport is Bordeaux, 100 miles . . . main line trains from Paris stop at Le Buisson, 5 miles."
Geographically, we're east of coastal Bordeaux (as in wine) and south of Limoges (as in porcelain) and north of the Pyrenees (as in: "Bienvenido a Espana ... pasaporte, por favor" ).
On the far right is mountainous Languedoc and the Cevennes, the hard-stone heights of the Central Massif cupping limestone plateaus that sprawl into the widening valleys of the Aquitaine Basin to the far left.
Wriggling this width are the three rivers and their tributaries; a network forming a region that as an expression of national personality and native origins is to France what a meld of New England, the Midwest and Upstate New York would be to the United States.
Few European areas are richer in history . . . Neanderthal and Cro-Magnon man bivouacked here, Richard the Lion-Hearted was killed here, the Hundred Years' War (1337-1453) ended here, and French resistance to occupation during World War II by Nazi Germany and the Vichy government began here.
Few French regions have such a visible past . . . troglodyte cliff dwellings, grottoes and painted caves; more 12th-Century castles than Encino has condos; and, tragically, too many roadside crosses and marble markers in passionate and quite unforgiving commemoration of local partisans executed by the Gestapo.
This corner of France, its hidden hamlets, its riverside villages with some cut into cliffs and clinging there, may also comprise a rare and hallowed holdout against the multiple malignancies of modern commerce . . . with no apparent encroachment to date by Hilton or Hertz, McDonald's or Colonel Sanders.
It gets better.
The climate is temperate and reliable. In a classic of zero growth, tiny, mossy communities (such as Monpazier) have not expanded beyond their original fortified walls since the 12th Century. The Who's Who of the area includes David, son of the late British Field Marshall Montgomery, who owns a summer home, and Scott, son of Charles Lindbergh, who operates a simian research center at St. Chamassy.
And until her death in 1975, legendary Folies Bergere star and St. Louis-born singer Josephine Baker owned the 15th-Century Chateau des Milandes near Castelnaud--home for her large foster family of international orphans.
Local industries are cottage, traditional, yet a huge contribution to the international religion of French food. Oak and hazel trees yield one pricey underground fungus . . . truffles. Dank woods of chestnuts and oaks produce another . . . cepes, a brown, spongy, quite delicious mushroom.
(As an aside, the Perigord region is world headquarters of the delicate black truffle. Last year, locally, they sold for $90 a pound. In a New York speciality shop the going price was $30. Per ounce.)
Fields of broadleaf tobacco bushes feed the French habit for harsh, black, bronchial Gauloise cigarettes.
Grain for the Geese
Great stands of corn tell of another regional passion. They provide the rich grain forced into fat geese whose bloated livers (still with us?) become the original, genuine, world-class goose liver pate. Attention, mes eleves, my students. Beware of pate (pate) de (of) foie (liver) gras (fat) imitations formed from other poultry livers. Examine the label for vital mentions of oie (goose) liver as the essential ingredient composing the unadulterated pate that (with a sliver of truffle for oomph) is the pride of Perigord.