The Dordogne River Valley: Paola’s Travels with the Queen of France
by Paola Malpezzi-Price
The Dordogne River Valley is part of the historical region of Aquitaine, which for centuries was vaster and richer than the territory held by the kings of France. As a student of medieval history, I am fascinated by the events that took place in this fertile area and the people who lived there. In particular, I am fascinated with the world of Eleonor of Aquitaine.
Eleonor of Aquitaine is one of my heroines and I feel her presence in the towns we visit on our Dordogne bicycle tour. For me, these tours bring her to life, intertwining French charm with British concreteness, much like Eleonor’s life did. Eleonor lived and became the heiress of Aquitaine in the early twelfth century; still in her teens she married Louis VII and for fifteen years was the Queen of France. Eleonor accompanied Louis on the Second Crusade but, because of her vivacious behavior and his obsessive jealousy, this adventure resulted in the beginning of their estrangement. This event, combined with the fact that she bore him two daughters and no sons, brought about the annulment of their marriage and her retaking possession of her vast domains in Western France. Bicycling through this valley, I experience the landscapes and many of the monuments she knew. In my imagination I relive her adventures and her culture. Two months after the annulment of her marriage to Louis VII, Eleonor married the grandson of Henry I of England. He was eleven years her junior, and two years later became King Henry II. Eleonor bore him five sons and three daughters, becoming the mother of a bi-cultural family. Thanks to her daughters’ marriages to kings and princes of different regions of Europe, Eleonor deserves to be called "the grandmother of Europe." Furthermore, thanks to her own and her daughters’ passion for poetry and courtly manners, she can also be considered the first patron of European literature.
Eleonor’s cultural activities did not prevent her from playing an active role in politics. Historians believe that she helped instigate her sons’ failed revolt against Henry II. Because of the help she gave her sons, Henry kept her semi-imprisoned until his death sixteen years later. On her release, she helped her sons rule the English kingdom and quell any revolt. At the age of 80, she personally crossed the Pyrenees to fetch her granddaughter, Blanche, from Castille to marry her to the son of the French king in order to secure a lasting peace between France and England. The fact that she made this journey at 80, in the face of the great hardships and constraints of travel in the Middle Ages, is staggering. Modern travel is so easy and comfortable. Eleonor died four years later at the monastery of Fontevrault (which we visit on our Loire tour) where she was considered a queen "who surpassed all the queens of the world."
The military mode of Eleonor’s times is still visible in the fortified castles and towns that we visit or see along our bicycle route, such as Beynac and Domme. The views from these sites are breathtaking and encompass the distances covered in a few days by any marching army. It gives me the sense of being on top of the world as I look down and across the Dordogne River that shimmers in the sun or moon lights. I imagine Eleonor taking in the sight of the small town of Domme was similar to mine.
Eleonor would have also appreciated the lovely arches, gables and towers of the buildings in the town of Sarlat, though they weren’t constructed until after her death in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries. Fortunately, in the 1960’s, many of these buildings were restored or rebuilt so today we can enjoy the intimate and densely crowded older parts of the town as they were originally. The colorful, lively, and aromatic Saturday market with all its wares, helps me also plunge into the medieval past.
The spiritual drive that pushed Eleonor and Louis to "take the cross" and go on a Crusade in an attempt to rescue the Holy Land is almost palpable if I remove the commercial and touristy envelope in and around the stony churches of Rocamadour. Presumably founded on the relics of a saintly hermit, Rocamadour became an obligatory stop on the pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostela in the early Middle Ages. It highlights the differences between the travelers of the Middle Ages who saw themselves as pilgrims traveling in order to save their souls and the modern traveler, who seeks to explore and experience a place. Our ride South of Rocamadour on the causse de Gramat makes me understand how the enchanting desolation of the place enticed ancient hermits and pilgrims and still now is alluring to bicycle riders.
Semi-abandoned villages and roads almost devoid of traffic enhance the pleasure of riding through this richly historic region. As I pass through, I hear the echo of Eleonor’s footsteps across linguistic, cultural, and geographic boundaries. I also think of the passages she took from one family to another…from daughter, wife, mother, widow and queen. I move closer to understanding her here on my bicycle in the Dordogne River Valley than in any book. If Eleonor were to live today, she would certainly join us in this modern adventure of cycling through her past and parts of her domain!