Nosing Around Bergerac

Good news, bad news. Bad news: Sometimes a port-of-call has to be suffered because the value lies beyond. Good news: Sometimes the shore excursion brings you to a destination so delightful you'd like the day never to end as happens in Uniworld's excursion to Bergerac on its Bordeaux cruise.

Good news, bad news. Bad news: Sometimes a port-of-call has to be suffered because the value lies beyond. Examples would be some of the spots outside the port in Vietnam (if you don’t buy the shore excursion, you’re stuck in an industrial port). Good news: Sometimes the shore excursion brings you to a destination so delightful you’d like the day never to end as happens in Uniworld’s excursion to Bergerac on its Bordeaux cruise.

Driving in Aquitaine. Arriving Bergerac. A town with a river history.

The Dordogne River on which Bergerac sits has navigation safety issues for river boats though we were on it for a week on a barge about 25 years ago. We are therefore going to be taken in one of Uniworld’s marvelous coaches northeast into the heart of Aquitaine to Dordogne, to this “land of 1000 castles” and this town of 30,000 lucky souls, Bergerac.

OK. What’s special about Bergerac? First we need to tweak our own geography. We’re in southwest France in Aquitaine, one of those 27 separate regions all carrying their own history and culture because France came together from separate parts gradually with some historians taking the Battle of Bouvines in 1214 as its beginning.

Bergerac is a contented town where locals fish their river and tourists, mostly Europeans, walk past colorful half-timbered homes on streets that are kept amazingly clean and easy to negotiate.

Of Aquitaine’s 5 parts, we are driving into the area in its northeast corner the Dordogne, named after its river. And if that’s not confusing enough, the Dordogne has 4 distinct sections, all designated with a color. Let’s not go there other than to say our interest is in the area called the Purple Périgord, purple because of its vineyards — and now we get at last to Bergerac, its principal town. Today is going to be fascinating. A French market town that grew around a castle in the late 1000s AD and has survived as a Middle Ages destination almost unchanged for 5 centuries.

The town’s survival could almost be guaranteed, even on a continent ravaged by wars for a millennium, because it had a raison être -- if you will, cough, pardon our French. It had a castle to defend it, farmers’ fields to feed it, a soil that became known as a superb terroir for winemakers and a river as a link to the rest of the land, down which they could send their wines to market and which, once bridged, could be used as a source for tolls and taxes. As if, “Let the good times roll!”

Says our Uniworld guide, “This place was defined by a war that started with a wedding! When the king of England, Henry II, married Eleanor of Aquitaine, a French princess in 1152, he was given her lands as a dowry and became king of part of France as well as England. Subsequent English monarchs sought to extend their French holdings. This area of France, Aquitaine, became English and many of the butter-colored limestone buildings you see are former English holiday homes. Half of the wine created here was exported to England then around 1412 when Joan of Arc started hearing voices that said ‘Yes, we can,’ the exports stopped.”

The so-called 100 Years War lasted longer. It did not end till 1453.

Flood Scale near river. National Tobacco Museum (insert) Middle Ages pipes.

A flood scale historical plaque at the end of the Rue du Port shows the different heights reached before dams were placed on the river to prevent them in future. The flood of 1783 destroyed the bridge and 2 centuries before that even the castle was damaged. It’s a short walk to the tobacco museum in its beautiful 1604 Peyrarede House where “3000 years of history are shown.”

A cloister built in 1630 has become “the heart of the House of Bergerac Wines.”

A short block away, down fascinating narrow streets with over-hanging timbered eaves the Recollets Cloister opens up as a peaceful shaded scene. We recall Martin Luther “set the religious world aflame in 1517 to ignite the Reformation,” and we read a plaque that says this cloister was built in 1630 to revive the Catholic faith in Bergerac. Its Franciscan monks were evicted after the French Revolution and it now contains several art galleries.

The name Bergerac rings a bell and our Uniworld guide explains the details. Mais oui! Cyrano de Bergerac! There was such a person. He was born in 1619 and died aged 36. His background remains confusing as 2 French historians claim different truths. He was either the son of a local lord who became a writer and satirist then joined the military. Or he was the descendant of a Mediterranean fisherman who was born in Paris and had bitter arguments with his gay lover, a fellow writer to whom he later sent death threats. This is confusing because although Cyrano did live and wrote what were essentially “early science fiction” he was also written about by contemporary fiction writers who exaggerated both the size of his big nose and his adventures.

In 1897 a French poet Edmond Rostand wrote a play based on Cyrano’s life. It became a movie in English in 1950 with Jose Ferrer, one in 1988 with Steve Martin and then in 1990 one with Gerard Depardieu. It has been rewritten as a novel and once as a ballet and 4 times as an opera. Cyrano’s connection with Bergerac is tenuous but it has helped tourism and made the town more fun for visitors.

The Uniworld shore excursion is the ideal format: a guided tour then enough free time to retrace our steps without the guide. There’s a lot to see and we’re hungry as visitors probably are in any French market town at midday.

Yes, we know. American small towns and even cities are embracing the farm-to-table concept and encouraging local farmers to create town markets but nothing smells as good as Village France at midday. Bergerac understands and proves that. Surprisingly the prices for meals are quite reasonable unusual in the land of the Euro.

Now we walk around beautiful Bergerac; it’s gorgeous, much prettier than the towns along the Douro we visited a week ago. The architecture, the gardens and greenery, the sense of what? joviality the villagers show as they chat to each other makes a lie of the saying: ”The French don’t enjoy people — they don’t even enjoy the French!”

We wander up streets savoring the, er, ambiance wondering why the French reputedly resent English words creeping into their language when we use and enjoy so many words of theirs — apparently more than 20% of words in the English language are of French origin. Garage, for example, avant garde, rendezvous, apres-ski, bon appetite, carte blanche. The list is endless. We would say why so many? But the answer might be c’est la vie.

A shop selling puppets knows what would retail well in Bergerac. Cyrano stands wistfully in a neat 2005 statue but he’s gazing up at a church steeple not Roxanne’s window. And in adjacent Mirpe Square an older stone statue has stood since 1977.

Old is better. Mirpe was the name of the old lady who owned the inn at this location a long time ago. The square was completely restored in the 1970s and now offers a delightful B & B with 2 bedrooms, Le Colombier de Cyrano & Roxanne. We never recommend an accommodation if we have not personally tried it but this might be the exception. Room rates were 70 Euros to 83 Euros.

Betty Reed, the innkeeper of Le Colombier (it means the dovehouse), comes to the door when we knock but she cannot let us in to look around as both bedrooms are in use. Understood. But she does agree to sit outside for a photograph at Roxanne’s table -- which does seem to have aroused Roxanne’s curiosity.

The river dominates the landscaping and truly makes it easy for visitors to regain their bearings. If you walk downhill you will ultimately come to the river.

Around Bergerac.

A walk around authentic Bergerac reveals homes more than 500 years old -- and very little that is a tourist trap though you can skip the train. And if you lie back languidly in the town square, listen to the street musician and sip your coffee slowly you may discover the secret of serenity. It is: Slow down!

The Andersons, who live in San Diego, are the resident travel & cruise columnists for Physician's Money Digest. Nancy is a former nursing educator, Eric a retired MD. The one-time president of the NH Academy of Family Physicians, Eric is the only physician in the Society of American Travel Writers. He has written five books, the last called The Man Who Cried Orange: Stories from a Doctor's Life.