After sleeping straight through the dark, star-laden night on a simple bed, in a simple room with a toilet at one end and a shower and sink at the other end, the day begins at Domaine des Garennes (DdG) at 8:15. Guests muster for breakfast: coffee or tea, juice, bread and croissants with a variety of homemade jams, Nutella or cheese, and optional cereal, served farm-style around a long table in the dining room. Half an hour later and about two blocks away, riders greet their mounts and begin tacking. After owner, Annabella, has checked everyone’s gear, riders mount from an ingenious mounting ramp and, like a family of ducklings, head out behind Annabella.
The ride proceeds along a two-track dirt road, sometimes ker-klocking through narrow cobbled streets that meander through villages dating back to the 1700s and earlier. Occasionally the path narrows to a single track through forests of tree limbs reaching out to scrape daydreaming riders from their saddles.
With about 25 horses to choose from, no horse is overused. They are all sleek, fat, and carefully tended. The gear, while not fancy, is meticulously cared for, as are the stables.Bambi (Bombi, in the local vernacular, named for the sprinkle of spots across her wide rump) was my mount for the week. She, like all the horses, is calm and gentle, with nice gaits and a willing attitude. Although the rides are sprinkled with short trots and canters, the pace is slow and relaxed, geared toward success for the inevitably inexperienced riders who want to experience pastoral French landscapes from horse height. On our rides we saw birds—mostly hawks and swallows—roe deer, fox, beef and dairy cattle, sheep with their donkey guards, and of course there are always busy body dogs who lie in wait to roar out of the bushes, hoping for a mailman to chew on.Old stone fences, crumbled and moss covered, line some of the trails, mute testimony to the labor that cleared land for lovely meadows and fields we observe today. Deciduous forests are thick with small oak and chestnut trees, and a dense undercover of ferns, ivy, and thorny, berry bushes. The largest oaks are no more than 18 inches in diameter, with mostly only 6-8 inches.
It is July 2015 and France is well into a drought that threatens the livelihood of dry land farmers without access to the Dordogne and other regional rivers. The grass is yellow. Thirsty deciduous leaves droop and crumble. Fields of stunted corn stalks wither under the punishing sun. Water rationing is in effect. Distant, dark clouds advertise a mixed blessing; maybe precious rain, but more likely, lightening strikes to ignite tinder dry grass. Unproductive clouds further the discomfort by blanketing the heat and adding just enough moisture to the air to cover every inch of skin in a sheen of sweat.
During this hot period, rides end around noon. After rinsing down the horses and putting away the tack, lunch is laid out in the dining room.
Lunch is incomplete without wine.
After lunch, guests are on their own to loll around the swimming pool or visit the local attractions: castles, caves, sanctuaries, and exquisite formal gardens near the rivers. I will highlight some of the tourist sites I explored in future posts.Before sunset, it’s time for the five-course dinner, during which copious wine and/or beer lubricates tall tales of the guests’ afternoon adventures till long after dark.
I first visited Domaine des Garennes (DdG) in 1999. Since then much has changed and little has changed. During my first visit I unexpectedly landed in the middle of the annual riding vacation of a half-dozen German fellows who had been riding and vacationing together for many years. This trip, officially the Tour de Quercy, was earlier in the year, before the tourist season and the broiling sun had ramped up. We rode all day, stopping in small villages for lunch, letting the horses graze in a nearby pasture while we dined on smoked trout and emptied carafes of wine, then wobbled back to our mounts and mercilessly kidded one another as we tried to haul our tipsy asses back into the saddle.
A few more hours of riding in the afternoon took us past the sights of the Quercy region: Rocamadour, Chateau La Treyne, Belcastle, Gouffre de Padirac, St. Sozy, and many more. Each night found us in different lodging; the first was a rather primitive pension that catered to the cycling crowd. It was memorable for the paper-thin walls and two extremely primitive unisex toilet facilities. We spent the final night in Hotel de la Terrasse, a beautifully refurbished castle with rooms in the turret, a swimming pool, fine-linen dining, and located high on the banks of the River Dordogne.
Since I speak a smattering of really bad German and absolutely no French, my unexpected, six German escorts made this trip for me. I knew I would miss them this time around. This year I found that guests are still warmly greeted by Annabella and staff. Hearty meals are still served on a long, farm table, either outside or in, depending upon the weather. Four- and five-course lunches are simple, but artfully plated, nutritious and delicious, served family style, and accompanied by bottomless flasks of red table wine. The horses are as I remember them. But this year, loss hangs heavy in the air. Annabella’s husband, Jean Paul, died about 15 months ago after a difficult, year-long illness.
Jean Paul was a shy, gentle man who spoke only French and enough Dutch to communicate with Annabella. His family has owned the farm for a long time. Together Jean Paul and Annabella were a team. Jean Paul was the behind-the-scenes organizer who handled the maintenance minutia that accompanies farm life. In addition to the horse operation, DdG offers bed and breakfast hotel services and camping, a family guest house, a small bungalow, a swimming pool, tennis and handball court, and a large event room. During inn-to-inn trips, Jean Paul shuttled luggage and made sure the horses were properly cared for in their temporary quarters, while Annabella helped the riders settle into their quarters. John Paul offered stability and support for their sometimes lofty plans for the property. I suspect he also gently reined in Annabella’s compulsion to rescue all distressed critters, from mice to men. His mother, Paulette, ran the small kitchen into her 80s, a skill that has been passed down to Annabella’s Dutch friend, Isabelle, who not only cooks for people, but also does the shopping, and feeds and wrangles the horses.
Without Jean Paul, Annabella seems slightly adrift. DdG has many underutilized features, all screaming for attention. There are too many details for one person to juggle. Annabella greets her guests for breakfast, guides the rides and shares lunch with guests. She entertains and interacts with guests at dinner, which begins around 8 pm and continues until near midnight. Somewhere within that busy schedule, she must also handle advertising, business communication, billing, and troubleshoot an endless list of maintenance concerns. Her job exceeds 24/7. The French economy, like much of the EU is still rickety from the recession. Bookings are down, taxes are up. Reality is biting at Annabella’s heels. She is a woman whose huge heart wants only to save everyone from pain and discomfort, yet she is still in the grip of her own grief and worry.
Another Isabelle, from the neighboring village of Souzet, comes and goes at odd times of day to clean pots and pans, straighten the kitchen, and perhaps do some housekeeping in the hotel. I remember seeing her 16 years ago and I suspect she is paid a small fee for her part time services. In addition to the Isabelles, a very competent and mature young girl of about 18 spends part of the summer helping out in the kitchen and wrangling horses. When she returns to the Netherlands, I’m not sure who will absorb her wide variety of chores. Aside from these 3 people, Annabella appears to be on her own with this huge responsibility. Jean Paul’s children from a former marriage are uninterested with the place. During the winter, Annabella is there alone—a cold and lonely life for a gregarious and fun-loving person.