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Real rural retreat.

Byline: By Jeremy Gates

Jeremy gates discovers a remote bolthole in the Dordogne region of southern France

THE rough track from the main road, part gravel and sometimes mud, took us past crumbling barns, fields of strawberries and cabbages, beyond a farmyard where geese waddled happily into breakfast and finally - after a mile or so - to our home in the hills.

Deep in the Dordogne is a familiar term to describe the solitude in this sleepy, mainly agricultural corner of south-west France.

But until I stood on the sloping terrace of a large and weatherboarded house, its windows hidden by heavy pinewood shutters and the whole building covered in early morning mist, I hadn't realised how remote it's possible to be.

The journey to this rambling bolthole couldn't be easier. You can fly 'no frills' into nearby Bergerac, but we did it in style and comfort, by putting the car on the overnight French Motorail service operated by Rail Europe in Calais and sleeping soundly after eating the meal we carried on board.

Next morning, we got off as dawn broke in the regional city of Brive - for a 90-minute drive into the hills, the mist thickening as we climbed into clouds.

Our idyllic surroundings were just outside the one-horse village of Plazac, some 25 miles north-east of Bergerac. So many Brits have moved here the local paper refers sarcastically to Dordogneshire, and the nearest supermarket has a stall of 'British only' goods - including Marmite, Ginger Preserve and Bourbon biscuits.

All day Montignac hums with visitors and scholars to see the famous prehistoric wall paintings of the Lascaux caves. And there are platoons of what look like Cheshire-based accountants and dentists in Volvos and Saabs visiting estate agents - 'English spoken here'.

In the evenings, peace is restored. Restaurants open tented canopies down to the riverbank and would-be diners even enjoy their paperbacks with a quiet gin and tonic before moving on to dinner when they feel peckish.

Twice a week, the local market in Montignac offers a superb choice of locally-produced bread, cheeses, pates, fruits, vegetables and cakes. The mobile cheese counter, curiously enough, has reappeared on property programmes on British TV, while three fine bottles of locally-produced red wine are a steal at 14 Euros (about pounds 9.50).

The calm is broken only by the occasional motorcycle screeching over the bridge and out onto the hills. One day we strolled several miles along the river to the delightful village of St Leon-sur-Vezere, where the atmosphere in one of the finest Romanesque churches in Perigord is augmented by fine lighting and gentle background music.

If the sun shone, our holiday home, with its large private pool shimmering at the end of the garden, was too perfect to leave. When clouds gathered at the far end of the valley, wafted in from the west on Atlantic breezes over Bordeaux, we hit the road to explore villages which have tiny terraced houses squeezed like door stops directly underneath overhanging limestone cliffs.

The regional capital of Perigueux was once the city of Vesune, built by Romans and Gauls 2,000 years ago. Its remarkable antiquity is preserved with a 12th Century cathedral, with minarets and cupolas strangely reminiscent of the Montmartre quarter of Paris.

Parking, though, is a headache in the holiday season and we headed further north for lunch to Brantome, another historic town draped around both banks of a loop in the Dronne. Charlemagne founded the original abbey in 769, with the current version dated to 16th Century Benedictines.

It is linked by a cobbled, arched bridge to neat terraced houses, colourful gardens, cafes and bars on the opposite bank.

Lunch at the Logis de France hotel alongside the river was a jolly affair, because our host had good enough French to negotiate a good table and gently chide the waiters. Five superlative courses, with wine, came in at a little over pounds 24 per head.

For our last excursion, surely Rocamadour beckoned from 80 miles away; an ancient town, virtually nailed to the edge of a cliff and with streets of 12th and 15th Century buildings which have drawn countless pilgrims through the centuries.

But the sun was scorching, the pool shimmered and there was some splendid St Emilion and pate to polish off before we caught the train home. So we stayed in our bolthole for the day.

WE travelled with Inghams Just France, specialising in self-drive holidays to villages, cottages, farmhouses and chateaux in France.

Le Maison du Peintre, near Plazac, which sleeps eight and has a private pool, starts at pounds 672 per week, including Channel crossing. If two cars are involved, crossings for second car cost pounds 122.

Reservations: 020 8780 4480 or Brochures: 09070 500 500. French Motorail (08702 415 415 or offers return overnight fare Calais-Brive (car and two people) from pounds 510, starting May 21.
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Copyright 2004 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

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Title Annotation:Features
Publication:South Wales Echo (Cardiff, Wales)
Date:May 8, 2004
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