The land of Cockayne (“le pays de Cocagne”) is a utopic country of endless plenty and rest, a kind of paradise for the medieval peasant. If you ask a French person where it is, almost half would situate it in the South-West. It might be because of the similarity between the words “Cocagne” and “Gascogne”. Or because of the beautiful and fertile Périgord.
In Périgord noir, around Sarlat, the whole landscape seems willing to provide feasts. Truffles and cèpes grow in the woods that cover the hills. For truffles, you need a pig, or a specially trained dog, to sniff them out and dig them up; but for cèpes, “il n’y a qu’à se baisser”, you only have to bend down. In the valley bottoms are small pastures of russet cows, walnut tree plantations, or corn fields. The corn is used to feed (and force-feed) ducks and geese; foie gras and other duck specialties are on the menu all year round, here.
In the Périgord pourpre “crimson”, in the west of the Dordogne, the land is flatter, and there grow neat rows of vines. Wine bottles are spread the place names Bergerac and Monbazillac across the world. Foie gras and duck, cepes, truffles, walnuts and wine: what more do you need for a banquet? Could Périgord indeed be the land of Cockaigne? Even the houses of yellow limestone, with terracotta roman tiles, look like rustic, well baked loaves of bread.
La Roque-Gageac is officially the “favourite village of the French”. Its site is remarkable; the village is a narrow strip squeezed between a huge cliff and one of the meanders of the powerful river Dordogne. On the surface, it is not an obvious place to settle; every winter the lowest row of houses is flooded; and as recently as 1957, rock falls claimed lives.
The village developed in the Middles Ages as a trading point and as the country residence of the bishop of Sarlat, further upriver. At a time of constant warring and invasions, the cliff was a natural fortification.
The 14th church with its thackstone roof is impossibly picturesque. The rest of the village is incredibly harmonious and elegant, too. The golden houses and their steep tile roofs, reflected in the water, are framed by the cliff and the woods. Many come to enjoy the harmony of style and colours of the village and the breath-taking scenery that surrounds it. The lower street is bustling with a brisk trade, and up to five thousand canoes and kayaks a day go past on the river.
As I walked up the narrow lanes and stairs to see the houses that cling onto the cliff, I had another surprise. The heat radiated from the cliff creates a microclimate. As well as the expected geraniums and oleanders, the gardens of this oh-so-typical French village are filled with bamboos, banana trees and palm trees.
I don’t know if it is the land of Cockaigne, but it for sure is a special place.