Dordogne Valley Road Trip
Three wasn’t a crowd when Carolyn Boyd and her sister took Ivy – an open-top sports car – for a spin through the Dordogne Valley
When my sister and I boarded the plane to Bergerac for a quick weekend away, we didn’t know there would be a third lady joining us, even less so that her presence would make such an impact in every place we visited. Her long, pale body and smooth features were certainly beautiful so, in hindsight, it stood to reason that she would be the most alluring member of our party.
We met her at Bergerac Airport, where Andy from CC Sports Cars introduced us: “She’s called Ivy,” he said. We stared in awe. Not only was Ivy beautiful, she was spotless. “Get in!” he called, beckoning me into the Morgan – a sister vehicle to another named Holly. As I sat in the stunning cream car, with walnut dash and steering wheel, I felt a stroke of fear come over me; we were here for a carefree Thelma-and-Louise-esque road trip, yet we had taken responsibility for Ivy, one of Andy’s most precious vehicles. It was terrifying, yet, at the same time, absolutely thrilling.
Our destination was the Château de la Treyne, a stunning, turreted castle hotel perched on the River Dordogne, and our plan was to spend two days pottering around the pretty villages nearby, soaking up the autumnal atmosphere as the trees turned golden. Not a bad plan, as it goes. The husbands, left behind on childcare duties, were as green as envy can be. Andy ran through the motions of how to put the top down, how to put the top up, how to take out the window panes and store them carefully in their bag. He gave us a few tips on how to manoeuvre such a long, low vehicle, which was almost exactly opposite in shape to the decrepit Toyota I usually drive, that is to say all out the front and hardly anything behind (there is surely a pun to be made there, but I’ll refrain).
After a quick spin up the road and back with Andy sitting next to me for tutelage, we were on our own. The road was wet from the rain that had been falling earlier that day and, as it was already mid-afternoon, we kept the roof up, hoping for roof-down weather the next day. It was a two-hour drive to the hotel, so we had to get a move on before we lost the light. Being so low, and with a tiny windscreen, I wasn’t keen to drive in darkness on day one, but it was an easy route following the River Dordogne to Sarlat and then on from there. Ivy’s engine purred as we drove away, through Bergerac’s suburbia and into the villages that line the river east.Oncoming motorists smiled as we passed them and Ivy did her best to impress. But then there was a hitch. Just 15 minutes into the journey, there was a roadblock – the road to Sarlat was closed. Pulling in for a moment, we checked the map and scouted out a route using smaller back roads that looped around through hamlets and forests. If I had been nervous about somehow damaging the car before, now I was petrified.
We headed north and, after stalling a few times at junctions, I started to get used to the low car and its beautiful mechanics. Morgans are the perfect vehicle for those who want the glamour of a classic car, without the hard work and upkeep of a vintage model. Ivy had been bought new in 2012 from the Morgan factory in Malvern, Worcestershire – albeit with left-hand drive for France – and under that sleek bonnet was a Ford 2.0L engine. This baby was born for driving, not for tinkering. We cruised along, winding this way and that. The rain came and went, and as we pottered through forests of yellow-leaved silver birch trees and small villages, wafts of wood-smoke filled the air.
As we neared Lacave and followed signs to the Château de la Treyne, the light was fading. We’d made it. Ivy was unblemished and we were ready for a stiff drink. The hotel’s owner, Stéphanie Gombert, welcomed us into the beautiful salon with a glass of champagne each. A roaring fire warmed our faces and Stéphanie booked our table for dinner. Being mid-October, the hotel had only recently stopped serving meals on its beautiful terrace overlooking the river, so we were due to eat in the beautiful dining room with walls bedecked with antique tapestries. The concierge showed us to our room, which was certainly befitting of a guest such as Ivy (shame she had to stay out in the cold). With a beautiful carved wooden ceiling and leaded windows that looked out over the river, the room just oozed history and we felt like princesses. A striking gold bath standing in the centre of the circular bathroom added to the wow factor, the bathroom itself being in the château’s tower. As darkness fell, we peered out of the window and a low mist hugged the river. It was good to be cosy inside, though I was already missing Ivy.
The next morning, it was as if we had stepped two months back in time – the sun was blazing by 9am and it was definitely roof-down weather. High fives all round. The plan was to pootle over to Rocamadour for a tour and lunch, and then take a loop around the villages of the Lot département. Ivy was ready, and so were we. Sadly the Grace Kelly-esque headscarves had to be replaced by peaked caps – on Andy’s instruction – given that there was no sun visor and the autumn sun was low in the sky. But it wasn’t long before we realised it didn’t matter how we looked – it was only Ivy who was going to turn heads.
After we had pulled into the car park opposite Rocamadour’s tourist office, another car passed by and then screeched to a halt; the driver then pulled in beside us without saying a word. As we wound up the roof and put it back into place, in order to leave the car secure, the driver hopped out of his car and simply stared. At Ivy. We were quite incidental, so much so that even as we walked away to meet our tour guide, the man just carried on staring for five minutes before driving off again. My sister and I looked at each other and giggled. Who knew the French would be so enamoured with a British sports car? And how much more excited would they have been to drive it? Thankfully, that privilege was all ours.
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After lunch in Rocamadour, we continued out into the Causses du Quercy regional park. As the sun shone down on our heads and the temperature rose to 25°C, we followed the roads lined with grey stone walls, neat green fields on either side. The road led us under golden cliffs and dipped down into valleys wooded with walnut groves, and we admired the Virginia creepers that had turned russet red against golden stone houses. The roads were almost empty and so too were the villages; at Autoire, a Plus Beau Village, it seemed everyone was having a siesta as we wandered through. At Carennac, another Plus Beau Village, the low sun cast long shadows on the narrow, cobbled streets and we spent some time in the peace and tranquillity of the beautiful 11th-century Église Saint-Pierre and its cloisters.
The bridge out of the village provided the perfect backdrop for a photo or two of Ivy set against the red Virginia creepers, while the lack of traffic and tourists meant we had all the time in the world. As we neared Rocamadour on the return journey, we stopped to admire the cliff-side village as the evening light cast a dusky glow, and a hot air balloon prepared for lift-off in the valley below. With my sister at the wheel (as nervous as I had been at first), it turned out the open roof was perfect for photos and as we passed Lacave’s Château de Belcastel perched high above on a rocky promontory, I couldn’t stop snapping. On arriving back at the Château de la Treyne, the evening was still warm and the outdoor pool beckoned. It seemed absurd, though, even to be considering it in the middle of October. We quizzed the concierge about our foolish idea. “We turned the heating off yesterday,” he told us, encouragingly. “It should still be quite warm.” With another 90 minutes until dinner, it seemed a risk worth taking. And indeed it was. With not another visitor in sight, the pool was our own and it was heaven. After several lengths in the invigorating water, we shivered our way back to the hotel for a shower feeling like accomplished daredevils.
The next morning, the Indian summer showed no sign of abating, and a white mist had descended on the beautiful rose garden at the front of the hotel – the sight could not have been more fairy tale. We bid fond farewells to Stéphanie and her team, and drove off across the bridge, which offers the best view of the château. Having done our homework this time on road closures, we established that the only detour we needed to make was towards Bergerac, and that we could follow the River Dordogne up to that point. With the classic villages of La Roque-Gageac and Beynac-et-Cazenac on the route and the sky a perfect blue, it would be a glorious run back to the airport to reunite Ivy with Andy.
Though the height of tourist season had passed, market day in Sarlat made for a busy town, which brought a return of the adrenalin from the start of our journey. As we neared a roundabout, the traffic was slow, but a friendly wave came from the driver of another classic sports car. We waved back, grinning from ear-to-ear, embracing the camaraderie of the open-tops. We also turned heads among the pedestrians, while a motorhome driver looked at us slack-jawed, as if to suggest we weren’t worthy of such a chariot.
Our route took us on towards the river and we dropped down from Sarlat to La Roque-Gageac. Parking under the trees at the far end of the village, we sauntered along the road admiring the traditional gabare sailing boats gliding up and down the river. We took a seat on the terrace of the Belle Étoile, under a vine-covered pergola. Surrounded by French families enjoying a weekend lunch, we felt in good hands. A delicious meal followed and it was with a heavy heart that we ordered coffee – our trip was nearly at an end.
Our final stop wasn’t far, and as we neared Beynac-et-Cazenac, I was grateful again for Ivy’s open-top roof. With Alex at the wheel, I could lean back and admire the striking château above us, as the road wound its way underneath. We parked Ivy at the boat station at the bottom of the village and prepared to hike up the steep path to the castle.
The view from the top was sensational. Under a crisp blue sky, punctuated by a few faint wisps of cloud, we looked over the river and the rolling countryside beyond. With hardly anyone around, it was hard to believe that this place would be heaving in peak summer. After a quick Orangina in a café, we made the descent down the cobbled street and arrived back at the car park where we found that a small audience had gathered around Ivy. The four men were looking in admiration at the Morgan and as we neared the car their faces were pictures of astonishment as these two women got in and drove it away.
Following the river, the road wove its way through the countryside but as we approached, the dual carriageway really opened up. With almost no other traffic around I could, for the first time, really put my foot down and see Ivy just fly. With the wind in our hair, and the sun on our faces, it was absolutely exhilarating. For our final ride, we couldn’t have wished for a better run. While Thelma and Louise would have been proud of our sassiness, when it comes to girls’ road trips, I would take Ivy, any day.
To hire a Morgan for two days costs €340 per day (€295 for three or more days), with €35 for an extra driver with CC Sports Cars. The firm has a variety of other cars for hire, including a Citroën 2CV, MGB and Ford Mustang.
Tel: (Fr) 5 63 94 58 31