The Vézère, in the meanders of prehistory

Hind legs bent, the cow seems to fly above the horse race. The five horses gallop towards the light. Several hundred animals – 915 to be exact – dance on the limestone walls. More than twenty thousand years ago, women and men ventured into the depths of caves to deposit these works of art that move me today.

On a time scale, I’m so small. The Lascaux cave, or rather its facsimile “Lascaux IV”, in Montignac (Dordogne), is the starting point of my exploration of the Vézère valley, whose route I will follow until the confluence of Limeuil, making a parallel .

On the road, the Vézère plays hide and seek. I see her between two poplars, follow her for a moment, and again, she disappears. I find her in Les Eyzies-de-Tayac. From the walkway, it seems to me to be frozen by the long trails of aquatic buttercups. The white flowers surrounded by rose cover it with their delicate vegetable pearls.

Walking down the steep slope, I realize that this immobility is just an illusion. I watch the fish roam in the gentle waves while, farther on, a few lone fishermen, poles planted in the midst of the wave, patiently watch them.

A prehistoric engraving

Despite the proximity of the river, fish are absent from prehistoric paintings. Did our ancestors not know how to fish for pike, zander, carp, cockroach and other eels that inhabit it today? “Of course it is,” Jean-Jacques Clayet-Merle, director of the National Museum of Prehistory in Les Eyzies, assures me. They used hooks and trap systems. The fishing phenomenon was underestimated by research, but we are gradually discovering that it was important. »

Shortly after Les Eyzies, Laurent, the museum’s archaeologist, takes me to the Val d’enfer, where a tributary of the Vézère flows. In 1912, Jean Marsan, a peasant from the region who, ten years earlier, had bought this shelter excavated in the rock, lay down for a brief nap and discovered, on the ceiling, a prehistoric engraving measuring more than one meter: a salmon .

“Today, there are very few left on the Vézère”, laments Philippe Colomy, dragging a canoe on the wave. The day is barely over and we are the first to embark on the river that seems to belong to us.

The day before, I walked to the coast of Jor to offer a breathtaking view of the river. From above, I could make out the bed and its meanders following the tree line, but despite all my efforts, my eyes could not make out the water at the heart of this abundance of vegetation. Except in the villages he crosses, and on the few bridges that cross him, he refuses.

After two days of ground tracking, on foot or by car, I understand that to really get to know it, you have to take a risk. It is Philippe Colomy who takes me there. For twenty-three years, this former canoeing champion has been renting boats – rowing or rowing, engines have no place in these preserved waters – from Saint-Léon-sur-Vézère. He loves the Vézère, wilder and more hidden than its older sister, the Dordogne. Every spring, with about 300 volunteers, he even organizes a major cleaning of the shores of this jewel.

plants and minerals

In the first row are ash and oaks, then poplars and weeping willows. At the water’s edge, saponaria flowers grow and charming black ferns bloom on the rocks.

“This exuberance is explained by the sludge that comes down from the source, in Corrèze, says Philippe Colomy. They are also the ones who give it its intense and changeable color. In autumn, when the places are deserted, you can see deer drinking and deer crossing. This is wonderful. »

Other landscapes await us among the remains of unfinished locks – the arrival of the railroad at the beginning of the 20th century made the modernization works of this waterway obsolete. Strange patterns dance on the jutting rocks. Its magnetic circle is the reflection of water on limestone that draws attention and hypnotizes the mind to indescribable imaginations.

Other headlands catch my attention from the boat: they are the castles that, gradually, since the Middle Ages, replaced the viewpoints drilled into the rock.

About twenty, dispersed between Limeuil and La Roque-Saint-Christophe, in a stretch of 26 kilometres, made it possible in eight minutes to warn the inhabitants of the arrival of the Vikings who, in their longships, took more than forty-eight hours to travel the same distance.

panoramic garden

Among the castles overlooking the river, only that of Losse is open to the public. I drive to this magnificent Renaissance building, presented by Jacqueline van der Schueren. At 82, although she is no longer the owner of the site, she still runs it with passion.

“It’s an important part of my life,” she says. In the 1970s, with her husband, she fell in love with the region and this ruined castle. They will devote some of their energy and their fortune to bringing you back to life. When her husband died in 1992, Jacqueline started a vegetable garden in the fallow land, which is now overturned. “Cypresses, boxwoods, roses, each element has a purpose and evokes the past of these places,” she explains, before leading me to a beveled balustrade, as if suspended over the void. The architects who imagined this advance understood everything, she looks at her. A few steps and I understand: the Vézère in all its splendor unfolds at my feet.

The next day, 20 miles away, vertigo seized me again from the castle of Limeuil. My guide is called Gabriel Lafon. His parents and grandparents already lived in this steep village, having received the label of “the most beautiful villages in France”.

At 75, he drags himself along the steep alleys. The village has changed a lot. Small cattle farms gave way to large corn farms. In the village with second homes closed for part of the year, Gabriel and his wife Josseline are among the last permanent inhabitants. Only one thing remains, “the beauty of the landscape”, he assures me. It takes me to the best view of the confluence.

Here you can find the Vézère, in its ocher color, and the Dordogne, with its green elegance. Upstairs, disappointment: the Dordogne seems to occupy the entire space and, once again, the discreet Vézère hides behind a green curtain. Modest? Or simply jealous of your beautiful secrets…

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