We rode out of St. Julien, across the bridge over the Dordogne River and a mile down the other side of the river. We turned right on a side road toward a settlement called Le Gard and pedaled uphill along the narrow country road until we saw on our right about one acre of grapevines. We pulled over and locked our bikes to a tree, and along the south edge of the vineyard we went, following a path that quickly led us into the chestnut forest. We climbed uphill, the trail taking us through a second-growth plantation marked with the signs of an active logging industry — clearings, piles of logs and stumped trees ringed by spindly shoots, all fighting toward the sunlight splashing through the canopy. In the mud and leaf litter, among the acorns and chestnuts, were scars of rooting wild pigs.
The trail took us upward and eventually wound to the right, spiraling uphill and toward the summit of what was revealing itself to be a conical hill. The dense woods prevented us from seeing outward until we were near the top, and — just as our landlord had described to us when giving us directions — we came to a slight but dramatic opening in the trees. Stepping to the edge of an outcropping, we saw for miles before us the valley of the Dordogne. The river snaked eastward several hundred feet below, and the Rouffillac Chateau sat on its hillside perch almost straight across the void, over the highway to Carlux. Looking to our village, we could see the church tower and, after a bit of speculating, we identified our own house.
But we hadn’t come here to look outward from this mountain; we had come to look inside it. After taking a few photographs, we followed the trail the final yards, pushed a few branches out of our way, and scrambled down a rocky drop — and there it was, the cave we had come looking for, the grotto in which locals had hidden during World War II whenever Nazi activity became particularly hot and nasty. The opening could not be seen from below, for it was buried by the oak canopy. The entrance was some 10 feet high, and as we stepped into the gaping maw, the temperature dropped from 80 Fahrenheit to a damp 65 or so within. We looked at the raised earth terrace where, so we had been told, the cave’s tenants had laid down ferns as bedding. We wondered if they cooked inside or out, if they peered often through the bushes down at the valley, if they wrapped all glassware and metal in cloth to prevent reflective giveaways to the Nazi soldiers below and if, perhaps, they occasionally even enjoyed themselves with wine and food while they waited for some of the most evil people ever to inhabit the Earth to go away.
The Nazis did, of course, eventually leave. They went north after D-Day to fight the Allied Forces on the Normandy coast — but as they went, the German soldiers committed atrocities that locals remember for seven decades and counting. On June 8, 1944, Major Adolf Diekmann, at the time summering in the Périgord with his Nazi battalion, stopped just beneath the cave in the hamlet called Rouffilac. He demanded that the proprietress make him and his men some crepes. She refused — so Diekmann burned her and 15 others to death in the bakery. The same group of soldiers killed 99 people the next day in Tulle, and the day after that burned alive 642 more in Oradour-sur-Glane, including 205 children. Diekmann was killed in battle before he could be tried for war crimes.
Fleeing such horrors, people of the area, including fighters of the Resistance, came to this hole in the mountain.
In local caves, the layers of wartime history lie deep. I spoke to a man in our village named Jean Lauvinerie. Now 86, he was a teenager during the Nazi occupation, and though he doesn’t know of the cave above Rouffillac, he told me as we talked in his kitchen that many other holes in the bedrock around St. Julien served as weapons caches and hideouts for the Resistance fighters during World War II. Mr. Lauvinerie was too young at the time to fight, but he did work as a courier, delivering messages to the men and women in hiding in the hills. Lauvinerie was eventually recognized by the government for his help during the war and some years after the Germans were defeated, Lauvinerie accepted an honorary arm band which he still keeps in a box in the cupboard, in his and his wife’s small home beside the butcher, across from the church — but he declined a handful of medals.
“So many others did so much more in the war,” he said. “Compared to them, I didn’t deserve medals.”
I leave behind me a trail of beers.
No, I’m not littering. Rather, I’m leaving behind artifacts — and they’re full of lager. Why shouldn’t I? Almost everyone who has visited this region, in the hills of southern France, has left their mark. Prehistoric people painted buffaloes and bears and such on cave walls. Later in time, people built cathedrals and castles which still stand today in nearly every town and on nearly every hilltop. Vintners dug their own caves and stashed vintage after vintage of the world’s finest wines.
And so, in a land so buried with layers of history, I shoved two beers several days ago into a hole in the base of a stone wall, beside the cemetery, in the village of Groléjac, near Sarlat-la-Caneda. These were strong beers, of 8-plus percent alcohol, which should preserve them for several hot summers and cold winters — and whether next month, or next year, or in a century, I hope that someone visits this site and has a beer — on me. (You might take one and leave the other for posterity, though that’s just a gentle suggestion.)
So where exactly are these hidden beers? Here are the directions: Take highway D-50 west from Saint-Julien-de-Lampon. The Dordogne River will be at your right as you wind through the hills and the dark woods. You will pass through Sainte Mondane after three kilometers and, after several more, you will enter Groléjac. You will see a walnut orchard on your right, a cemetery on your left. You are there. Now pull over and notice that, along the base of the wall beneath the cemetery lawn where it reaches the road level, there are cobblestone-sized holes. Use the photo above to guide you, and you should have no trouble finding the right nook. In one of them are two strong lagers. If you find them, send me an email (I’ve left my card affixed to each can), and I’ll pass on the word. You might even continue the game and take the beers to a new place. Email me a description of where one may find them next, and I’ll notify readers.
I hid another beer yesterday — also a strong lager in a can. It, too, I left in a stone wall running along the south side of highway D-703 just a kilometer or so west of Le Bugue at a site overlooking the town itself, out in the sprawling green valley. Almost straight beneath the highway is the Vezere River, a tributary to the Dordogne. Note that the beer is hidden about 100 meters east of the white stucco 27 kilometer marker stone.
The Groléjac beers and the one stashed near Le Bugue are only the beginning of this game. I intend to make a habit of hiding beers in strange places as I pedal from near Bergerac to Bordeaux and then south into the Pyrenees and, finally, Spain. I concede: These aren’t beers of the highest quality, but it’s the game that’s worth playing; a beer in the grass, along the roadside in southern France, is just a little extra incentive.
Beer is not something for which the French are particularly known. Indeed, most of the strong lagers and ales found in local fancy foods stores are from Belgium and Holland. One Dutch brand, Amsterdam, makes a lager called Navigator, which seems appropriate for a traveler to enjoy. The beer is strong — about 8.5 percent alcohol by volume. But Amsterdam’s biggest gun is — and how cool is this? — the Maximator, a wine-strength lager that comes in a half-liter can. I discovered this beer years ago, during another bike ride through France, and drank a can of it with my father and a friend named Rudi in the grass by a small highway, as we looked out upon a distant castle, or a flock of sheep, or some crumbling stone buildings, or some peasants slogging manure. I really don’t remember, but it was classic French. Anyway, upon standing to go, my dad momentarily staggered under the influence of the beer as he put on his helmet. And so we’ve joked for years about the time near Conques that my dad got “maximated.” (Just four days ago, one of our party, a fellow named Milton, drank an entire Maximator in a sitting. He was a bit wobbly on the ride home, and we exhumed the old maximator joke. It never gets old.)
But the French do brew. Their beers are often labeled as “artisanale” and corked into 750-milliliter Champagne-style bottles. The majority of these are low alcohol — 5 or 6 percent by volume — which is fine, but these thirst-quenchers wouldn’t last a summer stashed in a stone wall in the South of France. Nonetheless, beer is here, most of it in supermarket aisles, some available direct from roadside breweries, and a few cans for free — if, that is, you shove your hands into the right holes.
You may not want the beer, but the Périgord is one of the loveliest parts of the world, and anyone should go — even if it’s only for the wine.