Stories the River Tells
The Dordogne and Josephine Baker’s Chateau
When you drive through the Dordogne, the area of Aquitaine between the Loire valley and the Pyrenées, the names will fall from your tongue like drops of truffle honey sold in the local markets alongside Cabécou goat cheese and magret de canard. Sarlat, Castelnaud, Souillac, Issigeacwith each passing commune, the seduction grows more poetic and somehow, more persuasive. People succumb to the Dordogne’s allure with a sense of destiny, lasting love from coup de foudre, and I know plenty of people for whom France is not Paris or Provence but rather this untrammeled southwestern slice of valleys, rivers, farms and vineyards. Such understatedness may be why passion for this area is unusually potent and the attraction so enduring.
Author Kimberley Lovato remembers when she fell, a moment that could only be called a conversion. “When I first saw Chateau de Beynac, I drove off the road,” she says about the medieval fortress that roosts dramatically on a cliff-face high above the Dordogne River. “I called my husband and said, “You wouldn’t believe what I’m looking at.” Inspired, she began to delve into the stories behind the cuisine of the region the French still call Périgordthe growers of raspberries, the purveyors of fois gras, the creator of the sublime lavender crème caramel. The result is Walnut Wine & Truffle Groves, Culinary Adventures in the Dordogne, her cookbook, memoir, and tribute to the food, markets and people of the area. “Everything you love about France is here, but better,” she says. “Lifestyle. Physical beauty. Uncrowded markets and restaurants, where dinner is usually cooked by the owner. And life exists around the table.”
In the Dordogne, cuisine is king but so is the history of royals who resided there and reminders of the many battles fought. The bastides of Monpazier and Beaumont du Périgord, fortress towns from the Middle Ages built around an arcade-lined central square, remain largely intact. The Dordogne also lays claim to some 1001 chateaux, many of which came under attack during the Hundred Years War between France and England, and they rise from the vineyards and undulating green meadows in various degrees of splendor. They are at their most sublime when seen from the river itself, either in a hired gabare or better yet in your own rented canoe or kayak. If you depart from La Roque Gageac, where the village’s honey-colored houses descend to the riverbank, you will paddle past several of the castles perched high upon the craggy cliffs. At journey’s end your car awaits you, and you may explore the medieval villages, including Beynac and Castelnaud and the castles that loom above them, which clutch centuries worth of stories. Among the most fascinating tales is also among the most recent, and it is told at Chateau de Milandes, the former home of one the twentieth century’s most intriguing women and a genuine French war hero, Josephine Baker.
As an eight-year-old foraging for food in the slums of St. Louis, Baker worked as a maid until making her way to New York, where she danced at the Plantation Club in Harlem. In 1925, at age 19, her beauty caught the eye of an impresario looking for performers to play La Revue Nègre at the Théâtre des Champs Élysées in Paris. Topless, her hair slicked into a helmet, clad in oversized gold earrings and a pink flamingo feather between her limbs, Baker was a succès fou. Janet Flanner, the New Yorker’s legendary Paris correspondent known as Genet, wrote a belated tribute to Baker’s opening night at La Revue Nègre, which, she writes, “remains to me now like a still-fresh vision, sensual, exciting and isolated in my memory today, almost fifty years later.” Within a half hour of the curtain fall, she had catapulted onto the stratosphere. “Two specific elements had been established that were unforgettableher magnificent dark body, a new model that to the French proved for the first time that black was beautiful, and the acute response of the white masculine public in the capital of all of hedonism of all EuropeParis.” Soon, the woman known as the Bronze Venus or the Black Pearl, with an entourage that included a pet cheetah named Chiquita, had her own show at the Folies Bergères and was the richest entertainer on the continent, and a movie star too.
In 1937, Baker saw and fell in love with the Chateau de Milandes, a Renaissance castle complete with gargoyles and massive stone staircases. During the war, she hid Jewish refugees there while she spied for De Gaulle’s Free French Forces, for which she was awarded the Rosette of the Résistance in 1946 and in 1961, the Légion d’Honneur and Croix de Guerre. In 1963, Baker was the sole woman to speak at the March on Washington with Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.
By then she had bought the chateau and adopted 12 children from 8 countries to raise there. Her great wealth allowed her to transform what she called her “Sleeping Beauty Castle,” into a theme park dedicated to her, complete with an African village, theater, dance hall called the Sans Souci, and a J-shaped swimming pool. Her extravagance came at a high cost, and she was forced to sell Milandes for a fraction of its value and abandon it in 1968.
It was rescued by a local family and today, the museum there honors her memory and contribution with film clips, photographs and yes, the famous banana skirt from when she was the toast of all Paris. The pièce de resistance is a regal bathroom befitting the glamorous former chatelaine decorated in the gilded black palate of her signature scent, Lanvin’s Arpège. It’s a long way from Paris and even farther from Saint Louis, but in the Dordogne, Josephine Baker takes her rightful place among the great women of France. The region, famous for its food, memorialized by its villages, but sustained by the people who loved it and still do, is the richer for it and so are we.