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Chateaus by canoe.

Chateaux by canoe

Medieval chateaux and limestone cliffs, pate de foie gras and local truffles, flourishing rural gardens and 15,000-year-old cave paintings: such attractions are making France's Dordogne Valley increasingly popular with both French and foreign tourists. Its quiet roads and rolling terrain draw many cyclists. But to tour at an even more relaxed pace, try canoeing.

It would be hard to find two rivers more appealing for canoe touring than the Dordogne and its tributary, the Vezere. Campgrounds and towns with small, inexpensive inns appear at close intervals along both rivers' banks; between are broad stretches of quiet farmland.

Canoes, tents, and other gear are available for rent by the day or week. And these waters hold few hazards, so little or no paddling experience is required.

Even if you speak no French, the regional tourist office in Perigueux can help you arrange a trip (and with the dollar weaker, a canoe-camping excursion may seem even more attractive). Tourism peaks in July and August; June and September are also warm but less crowded.

Guided or on your own

We spent five days on the Vezere and four days on the Dordogne in late May and early June. Despite some inclement weather, our trip was everything we had hoped it would be. Sightseeing along the Vezere was so appealing that some days we progressed less than a mile. Simple French helped, but most people in the Dordogne were helpful and welcoming (even when we inadvertently tracked mudprints over an innkeeper's rug).

For day trips, rent gear on the spot from any of several canoe liveries along either river (in July and August, reserve a day ahead). For multiday trips, call the Office Departemental de Tourisme de la Dordogne in Perigueux at 53-53-44-35, preferably a month or more in advance (it's easy to call from the U.S.; just remember the time difference). English-speaking staffers can explain prices and trip options and serve as intermediaries between you and outfitters. They also have river maps. Canoeists can simply rent gear and make their own overnight arrangements or have the outfitter prearrange lodging and meals and even a guide. For two people, rental of canoe, life jackets, and paddles (and transportation back to where you rented your canoe) costs about $25 a day (tents and waterproof containers extra), $129 a day for three meals and two-star hotel or bed-and-breakfast lodgings, and $100 for two days and one night for a guided campout trip (including some restaurant meals).

We went without a guide and without prearranged lodgings and enjoyed the open itinerary. Finding rooms in inns (usually less than $15) was no trouble, though such spontaneity would be impossible in July and August. Comfortable riverside campgrounds, called "campings," are plentiful. Some have pools, laundry facilities, and restaurants; even the most rustic have hot showers.

Intimate Vezere, wide Dordogne

Novice canoeists will feel more secure on the lazy Vezere's lower 35 miles. Trees enclose the muddy river in a leafy corridor that periodically opens onto a two-cafe village or small town. The Vezere valley is rich in Cro-Magnon archeological sites and caves filled with prehistoric paintings. Lascaux is closed to the public. Instead, visit Font de Gaume, about a mile from the river outside Les Eyzies: arrive early to be sure of getting in, as there's a limit on the number of visitors allowed each day. There was so much to see that we averaged only 6 miles a day.

Wider, swifter, and clearer, the Dordogne offers broader vistas but fewer accessible tourist attractions; here, we paddled about 10 miles a day. The first 26 miles below Argentat have a few obstacles and Class II rapids; the remaining 80 miles are flat and easy enough for beginners.

A few words of advice . . .

Some outfitters provide insurance with gear rental, but it's wise to carry your own insurance. We had no trouble with theft (a concern at campgrounds around the world), but we carried valuables with us on walks into town. At night, we pulled the canoes out of the water and left them in an unobtrusive spot; everything else, including life jackets and paddles, we carried to our inn or campsite.

There are few public rest rooms along either river. Plan to use those at campgrounds, inns, or cafes you're patronizing.

Even in summer, carry rain gear. You'll also want something besides shorts to wear at dinner or on walks into town. Take along a knife, bottle opener, small cutting board, and tarp for picnics.

Buy your camp stove in France (or get a Bleuet stove before leaving home); clean fuel for American stoves is hard to find in France. In addition to sleeping bags, consider bringing your own lightweight tent; the one we rented was canvas--heavy, and slow to dry after rain.

Photo: Willows line bank between tranquil Vezere River and 16th-century Chateau de Clerens in streamside hamlet of Saint-Leon

Photo: Dordogne area in south-central France is ideal for canoe travel

Photo: After breakfast at inn in 15th-century town of Carennac, Dordogne canoeists stroll in village to gather provisions for lunch

Photo: Campground is starting point for canoe trip down Dordogne. Plastic containers, provided by outfitter, keep gear dry
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Title Annotation:canoe traveling through France's Dordogne Valley
Date:Apr 1, 1988
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