DORDOGNE RIVER TRADE HISTORY: ‘LA GABARES’
BEFORE CANOES & CASTLE VISITS WERE PRINCIPLE TOURISM ENTEPRISES ON THE DORDOGNE RIVER and a very long time before the arrival of the railway along its banks in the late 1800’s, this river was once an important means of communication and exchange.
Traces of boating activity date as far back as Gallo-Roman period (1-2c BC – 3c AD). In fact, the center of Old Bordeaux was built on the site of the original Gallo-Roman port which was the capital of the Roman province of Aquitania. Amphorae once used for wine have been uncovered in the region of Bergerac; these amphorae bear witness to a wine trade with Ancient Rome before vines were planted along the banks of the river.
The Vikings also were a regular presence on the Dordogne river system, at least from the 840’s until the 860’s. Viking activity is well recorded in many parts of the Carolingian Empire, but raids on the Dordogne River system have been largely ignored so we can’t impart much detail here. We do know: Dordogne River trade through the middle ages of salt, leather, wood, walnuts and wine flourished and increased through the 13th century, slowing during the Hundred Years War and then with development of the gabares experienced a resurgence until the late 1800's.
The gabares were the traditional flat-bottomed boats used on the Dordogne for transporting goods between the Massif Central and the ports of Bergerac, Libourne and Bordeaux.
The Dordogne was divided into three sections for navigational purposes:
The Upper Dordogne (upstream of Souillac)
The upper section of the river is often no more than a narrow strip of water flanked on either side by steep cliffs. This part of the river was only navigable for approximately 30 days of the year in spring and autumn when the water level was high. In summer the water was too low and in winter too violent.
These gabarres were built to transport wood from the forests: Oak used to produce vats and barrels and Chestnut used to stake the vines. Upon arrival at their destination, the boats were sold along with their load. The boatmen then returned home on foot.
The Middle Dordogne (downstream of Souillac)
The middle section of the river was navigable for 6 to 8 months of the year. Boats from this part of the river would transport oak, chestnut, cheese and wine from Domme and would return with salt, wheat and salted fish.
These boats were able to return upstream by using the rising tide as far as Castillon, but from there on towing was necessary. The towpath more or less followed the river bank, with towing teams usually consisting of 20 to 30 people, who were replaced every 7km/4.5 miles. On difficult stretches 80 to 100 people were required to haul the boat. In the middle of the 18C manpower was replaced by oxen.
The Lower Dordogne (downstream of Castillon to the Bordeaux estuary)
This section of the river was permanently navigable and boats made their way back upstream in the same way as in the Middle Dordogne.
The railway arrived in Sarlat in 1882, and in the rest of the valley shortly after. Competition from the railways quickly undermined river transport, which soon died out on the Upper and Middle Dordogne, but gabares continued to ply their trade on the Lower Dordogne until the 1950's.
Today, only a few gabares remain on the river transporting tourists and the memories of that bygone era.
Bon voyage et à bientôt! Jack
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