MONTIGNAC, France — When travel writer Jonathan Raban moved from London to Seattle, he spoke of the newcomer's plight: "This world, in which he has no experience and no memory, is presented to him as a supernatural domain . . . The immigrant needs to grow a memory and grow it fast."
Visitor or immigrant, what better way to grow a memory fast than on a bicycle? My bottom and legs attested to the immediacy of the experience as I collapsed into our soft canopied bed at the 10th-Century Cha^teau de Roumegouse, near the famed cliff village of Rocamadour in southwest France.
I'd not soon forget the morning's two-mile, uphill ride from Carennac to the Gouffre de Padirac, a subterranean gallery of limestone formations. Hollowed by an underground river, this chasm of unearthly shapes and giant stalactites has inspired centuries of superstition. Fellow cyclists were surprised I didn't end up in the van with most of the other women in our group. But uphills were not my problem. It seemed I had another nemesis.
As I waited for my husband to finish his shower, a lavender scent from the oaken writing table stole through my half-doze. A few moments before we had been greeted at the tower entrance by our chatelaine. Chattering in French-laced English, she led us down the hallway hung with tapestries, flung open doors--to the dining room gleaming in silver and mahogany, to the balcony where we would soon have champagne cocktails--and guided us up the stone stairway to our bedroom with its coat-of-arms emblazoned on the door.
Later, I read the parchment on the writing table that began, "Once upon a time there was Roumegouse." This castle is still haunted, they say, by Resplendine de Rignac who died of a broken heart after she learned of the death of her betrothed in the Crusades.
It's all here, princesses pining away in towers, knights jousting under the battlements, and kings and queens playing deadly chess games with their domaines. But reality or fairy tale, I cared not at all as the evening continued over a feast of garlic soup, truffles in scrambled eggs, foie gras with endive, salmon in sorrel sauce, and a rose-crisped cre^pe filled with orange mousse.
Twelve years ago I wouldn't have dreamed I'd be cycling 25 to 40 miles a day. Twelve years ago I thought I'd never ride a bike again. Yet here we were, my husband, Norm, friend Sara, and our 10 companions on a nine-day biking trip in the Perigord-Quercy region, the heart of the Dordogne River Valley.
We'd succumbed to the lure dangled by Progressive Travels, a biking-walking company based in Seattle that promised to provide every amenity to soothe or stretch the body and mind: accommodations at chateaus and inns; all meals except for a few lunches; bikes, entrance fees and a thorough introduction to the lore of the land. Oh, not quite everything. You pay for the optional massage in Souillac and the hot air balloon ride over the valley. Our American guides--who ran the Beaune office of the company--were both fluent in French and intimate with the terrain.
Otherwise, how would we have known to stop at the studio-cottages of two local painters, Pascal Magis and Guy Weir, who are not listed in any guidebook? Or, more important, how would we have known where to find a strawberry tart at the next good patisserie along the road?
We started our adventure on a mild May morning in the town of Brive-la-Gaillarde, where we'd arrived by train from Paris. Sara and I were still licking Chabichou, the delicious regional goat cheese, from our fingers at the Saturday market when we spotted the van with its rooftop of bikes. Our guides, John Brooks and Kim Brown, could have been brother and sister--both blond, all smiles--as they rushed to pick up our bags, and we set off for the hour's drive to Beaulieu-sur-Dordogne, the tour's starting point.
At the Hotel Central Fournie in Beaulieu, we stood in the courtyard and, like children at Christmas, examined our new toys: 21-gear road bikes with seats and handlebars set to our previously stated requirements (Want a softer seat? Handlebars up instead of curled down?), helmets, water bottles, pumps and zippered handlebar bags with plastic on top for easy insertion of map and detailed route instruction for each day. John explained the gears and rules of the road. We were free to ride at any pace, stop at will, take side trips or jump in the van for a rest. The only requirement was to arrive at the day's destination by dinner time.
Our first bike excursion that afternoon, a three-hour, 30-mile round-trip to the pretty, turreted town of Argentat, took us along the Dordogne River, under bowers of plane trees that opened to walnut groves and fields of strawberries. Castles were everywhere--mirrored in the river, sprinkled in the hills--and every dwelling, from manor house to woodcutter's cottage, was hewn from golden limestone.