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Woodworking: Idyllic hillside cottage, just the place to start

The view from Domme, pop. 987

Years ago, my wife and I and our friends Grace and Ralph Sulerud decided it would be fun to forget about booking a new hotel every two days in Europe and rent a “property,” where we could park for a week and drive around every day and see the sites. 

We thought we might get to be like residents of wherever we stayed. Of course that doesn’t happen. I’ve lived in River Falls for 15 years and folks here still consider me a “newcomer” or a carpetbagger or worse. But we’ve found renting a property still affords us pleasures.

Over the years we’ve stayed in Tuscan farm cottages, British estates, villas in Normandy and Brittany. And we’ve always found them more comfortable than a hotel, more convenient and less expensive.

Our lease this summer was no different.

First, we decided on a destination. We had spent little time in rural France so the Dordogne Valley was to be our destination. It’s full of history (the 100 Years’ War), old castles and beautiful scenery.

Once I asked a former Time Magazine editor from the Paris bureau why the Dordogne was so inexpensive. “Because it's rural and boring and no one goes there. That’s where Time sends its reporters to punish them.”

That sounded pretty good to us.

Since the Time editor told us that, the Dordogne has changed a good deal and has now become a popular tourist destination, especially among the French and, unfortunately, is no longer inexpensive.

Ruth got on the trusty internet and found a property in a little hill town called Domme, pronounced “Dumb.” In the center of town was a cottage owned by a British couple, Leif and Jeremy Lawson, who offered it for rent at $1,300 per week, or less than $100 per couple per day.

They seemed convivial, helpful, and forthright, “we have no pool,” so we signed on.

We arrived in Domme which sparkled in the sunlight. About 15 years ago, it was a backwater, but then the restorers arrived and sandblasted the stucco off all the buildings, revealing a village of beautiful stonework.

It was so beautiful tourists complained it looked fake because it was so perfect. Time has weathered the facades with a fine patina.

We drove right to our cottage and thanked the good Lord for a private parking space because the town’s parking lots were crowded with tourists even after high season had passed.

The interior of the cottage was beyond our wildest expectations — big, high ceilinged rooms, two baths, a patio with grape arbor and fig trees.

We were too early for the arrival of the property management fellow, Steve Hogg, who lived at the bottom of the hill in the large town of Sarlat. So we made our way to the beautiful old Hotel Auberge, where we dined on pate and omelets, washed down with mugs of beer.

When Hogg arrived he brought with him a “starter kit” of goodies — a bottle of wine, a baguette, two cheeses and other vital accessories. He showed us around and left. I got right to work cooking dinner. 

I threw a leg of lamb into the oven and turned on the juice and blew the main fuse. We worked on the elaborate circuit breaker box to no avail.  Ruth dropped over to the Medieval Hotel and a waiter came over and miraculously found the main circuit breaker in the cottage’s old cattle barn. 

Ruth tried to pay him and he said to forget it and drop in for a drink sometime where he worked across the street. Now we were in business.

Domme turned out to be a perfect spot. It had been a Catholic stronghold until the Huegenots took it by surprise and occupied it for several years, then sold it back to the Catholics.

When they returned they found it blown to smithereens, so we figured our cottage was probably only about 400 years old. Domme was easy to get around in, friendly, lots of smiles all around, with a very helpful tourist bureau up the street.

And it was very convenient to all the things a tourist needs. Like the supermarkets of Sarlat, the bakeries of our own little town and about eight restaurants in our little town should we choose to eat out. 

On top of that, the drives to all the sites in the region were close by, including a mockup of the 15,000 year old cave paintings of Lascaux, now closed to the public, the Cave of Font de Gaume, still open, plus castles and cathedrals from the 13th and 14th centuries and towns like Rocamadour, built into a mountain side. Some of the destinations were so close we didn’t burn a tankful of gas in our week of touring. 

After a week we bade fond farewell to a town that was once an exile for journalists who needed punishment to an exciting historic town and headed for Lyon and plane back to Minneapolis.

--Dave Wood

Dave Wood is a past vice-president of the National Book Critics Circle and former book review editor of the Minneapolis Star Tribune.  Phone him at 715-426-9554.