Chateau de Commarque — from prehistory to (almost!) present ­­­­


Picnic area below the chateau.

­This is a special place, and well worth the 10 — 15 minute walk in from the carpark. The track down through shady woods is not difficult and the rewards are many. You are delivered into to a pretty green valley with a stream, meadows and picnic tables and on one side, the towering ruins Chateau de Commarque.

Your entry fee comes with a booklet for your self-guided tour. You start with the troglodyte caves, well-presented to give a snapshot of what life was like.


Troglodyte living area in caves at the base of the cliffs, with work benches and sleeping areas and carved into the rock.

Then you begin the climb past the remains of church and a grand house to the castle and tower. The authenticity of what is on offer is palpable, it gets through to you, giving you a real feel for the layers of history and life through the ages, and an appreciation of the painstaking restoration that is taking place here.

There are lots of steps and stairs, but you can take your time — two hours should be enough to see it all, although you could easily spend the best part of a day here.


View across the valley from an upper floor of the chateau. The wonder of this place stayed with us for days.


Take a picnic lunch with you, or buy a sandwich from the cafe at the foot of the castle (please note, though, so as to preserve the integrity of the stream, there are no toilet facilities down here, they are in the carpark at the top of the track).


Our local vendange


One glorious, sunny day in late September this year we took part in our local vendange. Joining neighbours and friends with secateurs and buckets in hand, we harvested the grapes from properties around our local district. About 20 of us – men, women and children – spent a long morning filling buckets with ripe grapes and dumping them into vats on the backboard of a tractor. Some of the grapes were planted in long rows, just like a real vineyard, but many (like ours at La Vieille Grange) had grown over trellises and along fences to provide summer shade in front of houses and barns.

The sturdy vines grew exceptionally well during the year, thanks to abundant rain in early spring followed by a hot summer with occasional downpours accompanying storms. The grapes were fully ripe weeks ahead of their normal harvest date.

This pitching in by local farmers, most of whom had over generations planted a few rows of grapevines on their properties, is a well-established tradition in the area and many of the farms have a stone-built cuve into which the crushed grapes were poured to start fermentation. Most of the grapes we picked were of an obscure local red variety, similar to merlot or tannat, but with a few white grapes thrown in because they were there. The wine is therefore a ‘blend’ of local varieties.

Once picked, our grapes joined the others to be taken to the underground cellar of a friend to be crushed and cleaned of any leaves, spiders’ webs and other contaminants before the magic of fermentation and winemaking took place in the following weeks.

But the celebration of this joyous occasion (and in truth, the real reason for the event) was the delicious vendange special lunch where the pickers were invited to sit at a long table, eating plates of local produce including duck parmentier, local cheeses and, of course, few glasses of local red. The meal started with a glass of just-picked grape juice, the raw material of the winemaking process – and it tasted particularly good. We can’t wait to taste it when it turns into wine – the real fruit of our labours!


The true heroes of the day were not the pickers, but the providers of the splendid lunch – for providing not only food and drink but the opportunity to gossip, laugh and get to know our neighbours, make new friends and look forward to next year’s wine tasting.

La Vieille Grange came with a few locally barrels which for many years were used to store wine made from grapes grown there and fermented in our own stone cuve. But they were in poor shape for storing wine these days and have been pressed into service as useful surfaces in the BBQ area we now refer to as our ‘barrel room’.



Summer colour

In Spring the flowers put on a fine show

A clump of hydrangeas at the entrance gate (planted decades ago by our old friend, the previous owner Henriette) rewards us each summer with a splendid display of deep pink blooms.

Hortensias in vase

Guests are welcome to pick flowers and herbs from the garden. We usually have tomatoes growing, as well.

Progress, but little by little

New shuttersThere was progress on the Spanish restoration last year that saw shutters installed and painted pale green, a new colour for us. The roof with its 200 year old tuiles plat was completed almost two years ago but only last year were we able to close the window openings and tidy up the surrounds to the house. Makes you think it could be a house again. And, of course, there is still a bit of crepi to finish. We plan to do it this year!Spanish house with roof and shutters

Le Cantou, our local ferme auberge

IMG_4426Just a five to ten minute walk up the road to Chateau Fenelon brings you to Le Cantou. In the fields below the poultry (ducks) roam free-range. Everything on the menu here is natural too, no conservatives, no colurants. Though, for  vegetarians, there is not much in the way of meat-free (or in this case, duck-free) dishes. For here, it is all about duck in its many forms — pate, fois gras, mousse de fois gras, rillettes, gesiers and magnet seche (both in their delicious saladeperigourdine), confit, cassoulet…

There is a very pleasant outdoor eating area overlooking the fields and forested hills but, for our most recent visit, unseasonally cool August weather saw us eating inside. The dining room is a converted barn, with the original mangers still in place. The evening menus start at 20E, for soup, entre (salade or mousse de canard) confit de canard with a deliciously morish creamy potato bake for a main, and a choice of desserts (we both choose creme brûlée noix, yum). Hard to go wrong, here. Then, stroll home down the hill to La Vieille Grange. Continue reading

Walking and cycling track

The old railway line along the Dordogne Valley between  Sarlat and Souillac is now a walking and cycling track. Gentle gradients, shaded and with a terrific tunnel to whoop and echo through. Hire a bike at the Sarlat end, or from the Saint Julien bridge, and enjoy a couple of hours of easy cycling, or pack a picnic and stop for a swim at the Saint Julien ‘beach’.

Our everyday market, La Halle de Cougnac

It’s certainly fun to go to a local market, and there is a good choice within easy reach of La Vieille Grange — St Julian de Lampon (Thursday), Souillac (Friday) and Gourdon and the ever popular Sarlat market (Saturday) as well as summer markets in Fajoles (Sunday) and Payrac (Wednesday). And we buy at all when we are in Mercadiol. But we are also great fans of the farm producers outlet at Cougnac, on the outskirts of Gourdon on the Sarlat Road (D704).

On offer under one roof is a range of produce similar to what you will find at a market, and maybe more. On our last visit we bought just-harvested carrots, radishes, asparagus and lettuce; duck sausages; delicious walnut slice (we buy this each visit!); and wine. There is also a range of jams, honey and condiments, eggs, yoghurts, juice, escargots, terrines, meat, cheeses, bread and local wines and artisan beer. And, like any market, it is best to go early. By the afternoon, the asparagus may be gone, and the bread, and remnants only remaining of the walnut slice. Prices are sometimes a little higher than the supermarket, but the freshness and quality is high, and reliable. A visit here is highly recommended. We are hooked!

La Halle de Cougnac 3 km from Gourdon on the Sarlat Road (D704). Hours: Monday to Thursday 9–12.30, 3–6.30; Friday and Saturday 9–6.30 (no closure for lunch); Sunday 9–12 July and August only)

Merci chien! Merci Henriette!

Mercadiol has always had dogs. When we first bought a house in the village more than 40 years ago, the two old farmers and who were then our neighbours Honoré Delmon, next door, and André Pramil just down the lane, both had dogs – large, intelligent, well-behaved farm dogs who protected the village, trotted obediently wherever their masters’ went, and ran wildly through fields and woods when they were set free to roam. Honore’s dogs, Dick and Titou, would sometimes disappear for a day or two – returning wet and muddy, exhausted from their forest wanderings, falling into a deep sleep at their master’s feet. Other times they sat on the back of a tractor or trailer, sniffing the air, happy to be part of whatever outing was underway. But if Honoré told them to guard our house they would sit on the front step (or wherever they’d been told to stay) until their shift ended. Then they would pad gently home for their dinner.

But there were canine visitors to the village, too: dogs on their own, checking out territory beyond their own patch, some no doubt strays or escapees from maltreatment. Mostly the village dogs were able to stop them causing trouble in the village. On one occasion, when our family was packing the car to return to London after a holiday in the village, we were caught out. On the table was a cold roast chicken, cooked the night before to be ready for our pre-departure lunch. As we said our farewells in the street, we became momentarily distracted. A large dog, a shaggy breed with brown coat and high pointy ears, ran through the open door, jumped onto the table and seized the chicken – and raced off with it in his mouth! ‘Voleur ‘we cried, more than a little dismayed, as the dog dashed past us.

By this time Honoré’s sister Henriette and her husband André, by then retired, returned to the village and her family home (pictured below, and there is a chapter about them in Stephanie Alexander’s Cooking and Travelling in South-West France). Ever-generous, Henriette was so shocked she immediately replaced our boring cold chicken with confit duck from a jar she’d prepared for the long winter. It was absolutely stunning!

After thanking her profusely, we ate our new delicious lunch and set off on the long drive trip to London. As we drove from the Mercadiol through leafy lanes, we spied the robber dog, walking through a field, slyly observing our departure, licking its lips and – I’m sure of it – smiling. We could only wave and yell, ‘Thanks, chien! You made sure we both had a really nice lunch!’



If a stray puppy, probably dumped, came whimpering into the village, Henriette made sure she found it a place in the community.