Monday, September 19, 2011

Glorious Caves 17 Sept 2011

It rained during the night, our first bit of bad weather for more than a week. We got up early and did our best to pack and clean, although I didn't try too hard with the cleaning as I assumed we had to pay a cleaning fee. Still, Luke beavered away and made the boat relatively presentable.

We chatted with the Babou marine lady, I signed off on the engine hours and bikes but thankfully we weren't charged for anything else. I mentioned that I'd only done a simple cleaning job but she didn't care. In reality we probably left it cleaner than when we arrived, Luke was sweeping up dog hairs.

Major fuck up when I was paying. I gave her the Mastercard and signed off on it but she didn't hand the card back to me. I wasn't paying attention, said my au revoirs and off we went. Did not notice it until the lady rang at 5pm to say she had the card. Cue lots of panicked worry about what to do - cancel the card, courier it or drive back to Cahors for it? The courier wasn't possible and cancelling the card would be a nightmare for planning so tomorrow Luke will drive back.

We were lucky that Oufaa from Manoir Malatrie did the talking for us and organised it all, we were very grateful. And I think we can trust the Babou Marine lady, it was her fault for not handing back the card and she was good to ring us. She'll drive in to the office tomorrow especially to give the card back.

So... while we were still oblivious to this card-related disaster, we drove out of Cahors and made our way to Gouffre de Padirac, which involved a fair bit of squiggling on small country roads. Monseiur GPS helpfully got us lost a few more times but we got there in the end.

The Gouffre is a major tourist attraction with large carparks and numerous shops but thankfully it wasn't too busy when we got there at 11.30. You buy your tickets and make your own way down into the massive hole in the ground via a plethora of steps - or a lift if you're lazy. Just being in the bottom of the hole is impressive and you can get down there for free. You peer up at the bright sky and the sweeping plunge down, the green moss and ferns at the bottom and the dripping, dark, sculpted walls and you feel very small.
This sign didn't inspire confidence

The massive stairway into the hole

Squinting into the sun, view down into the hole.

We then descended down further into the cave proper, following a long tunnel deeper into the earth along concrete paths and guiderails. In places it looks a little like the queue for a roller coaster, with incoming tourists funnelled down one lane and outgoing tourists on the other. The walls are impressively lit and the roof seems very high up.

Finally we reached the underground river where a bevy of little aluminium gondoliers (seats 8) waited.They finally take your ticket there and put you on the boat. Luke and I were up front on the way in and I think the boat ride was perhaps the best part. It was all very calm and restful, with our fellow passengers hushed as we made our way, stroke by stroke, deeper into the earth. The water was aquamarine and quite cold, 12 degrees, though the air was not much warmer. Our boat guide would occasionally say something about the cave but it was all in French. Luke and I both felt we were being rowed along a magical river with French poetry being quoted to us, the trickle of water and gentle splash of the oars adding to the experience.

We also expected to be attacked by orcs at any moment, this being one of the deep places of the earth, but thankfully that didn't occur. The balrog also didn't make an appearance.
I didn't take this pic. And it doesn't give an idea of just how huge the cave is.

As we went deeper stalagmites and stalagtites started to appear and the rift in the rock became deeper. At last we docked and were mustered into small groups for our guided tour, all in French, of course. One of the other guides had helpfully asked me what language I spoke and then handed me a pamphlet in Dutch, so we had no real way of knowing the details of what we saw but it didn't matter. The glorious cave spoke for itself.

The river leads to a huge underground opening that must be 20 stories high, adorned all the way up with flowing limestone formations in spikes and curtains above your head. We had to climb steps to appreciate some of the segmented pools and mushroom-like rocks but I think it was the sheer size of the cavern that impressed me. The whole thing was majestic and beautiful and awe inspiring.

Our tour guide was quite the comedian and I think he enjoyed making jokes at the expense of we stupid non-French speaking tourists. Luke decided he was just telling knock-knock jokes.

We made our way back up the river (in the back of the boat this time, our female guide reciting poetry again) and smiled for the tourist camera. Yes, we bought a photo for E8.50. Might as well. I was smiling and waving in it, better than our fellow passengers who all look like stunned mullets.

It was time for lunch so we opted for the official cafe but it took about 45 minutes to get our salad and chips which was rather frustrating. The chef was yelling things in the kitchen and I guess we should be glad he wasn't going completely crazy and throwing knives. Lucky I didn't tell him about the dirty fork.

We didn't visit Insectopia but took photos for Paul
It took a long time to get to Manoir de la Malartrie at Le Roque Gageac thanks to the endlessly winding French roads, most of which don't let you travel faster than 60 - although we encountered our fair share of speed maniacs who enjoyed overtaking in dangerous places. We have decided these people are "Le Jerques".

The Manoir is a lovely place and the most expensive hotel room I've booked on the trip. It is an 120 year old building on the river converted into a B&B, high on the charm factor but also very well looked after. I got a bargain and we are in the 2 bedroom suite which is simply huge, although we could have had the room with the private terrace. I opted for the suite due to the twin beds and lovely shower which we needed after a long week on the boat.
Manoir de la Malartrie, La Roque Gageac

Main room of the suite

Twin room

The giant shower

The pool. Note: no pool fence. It's France.

Tonight we ventured into La Roque for dinner and saw a large conglomeration of emergency vehicles parked with their lights flashing. Luke and I were walking along the road-river wall, mainly to avoid the traffic, when we realised what the emergency was. Someone had been walking along the wall and fallen off, maybe 5 or 6 metres vertical drop onto the rocky river bank below. There were a lot of ambos, doctors and concerned people gathered around, someone holding a drip.

We stopped walking on the wall.

The emergency people were there a long time. There was a SMUR vehichle which is a French system where they bring a doctor to the scene to treat a patient rather than rush them to a hospital. Given the size of the fall, we figured the victim may have had spinal injuries.

There are no footpaths in La Roque Gageac. Pedestrians are forced to walk on the road which is incredibly busy. The doors of the hotels and restaurants step straight out onto the road, their menu signs are hard to read without being killed. Today driving through it was rather nerve wracking, trying not to run over the hoards of people wandering about. We have decided they need to erect a pedestrian boardwalk along the riverbank just to improve safety. I mean, the French don't really care about safety and normally we like that but in this case I think it's all just a bit too mad to be left as-is.

Our evening meal wasn't that great. We had wanted to dine at the snazzy Belle Etoile restaurant but it was full so we opted for the pub brasserie. Fairly average fare, Luke had a 4 course meal that started out with Turin Blanchi - a huge tureen full of white soup made from stock, egg whites and old bread. Very strange but quite tasty. I had langoustine canneloni with bisque sauce... sounded great except for some reason it was wrapped in a cheesy omelete. WTF.

In the town park there was the 25th annviersary dinner of some local association, they were all singing along with traditional French songs, very cheerful.

So now, bedtime in this lovely wide bed that has a quilt rather than an itchy blanket that a dog had probably slept on. Tomorrow Luke will drive back to Cahors for the credit card and I'll do the washing at the caravan park. Not a perfect day but here's hoping it's not complicated.

17th Sept - Happy Birthday Dad.

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