Mary Novakovich visits the historical department of Dordogne to discover why it holds such a special place in our hearts
Such has been the popularity of Dordogne among British Francophiles over the years that the boundaries have shifted in the public imagination. Thus, villages in neighbouring departments in Limousin or the Lot Valley found themselves lumped in with ‘the Dordogne’, so keen were people to live there. As you follow the serpentine route of the River Dordogne past one exquisite hilltop village after another, past the 1,500 or so castles perched perilously on cliffs, you understand instantly what has been drawing people to the area for so many years.
The French usually refer to the area as Périgord, of which there are four regions, each named after a colour. Périgord Blanc in the centre, which includes the department’s capital Périgueux, refers to the pale colour of its rocky outcrops. In the south-east, the large number of oak woods gives Périgord Noir its dark name. Rural Périgord Vert in the north is full of vivid green pastures, while south-western Périgord Pourpre (Purple) refers to the red wines made around Bergerac, the Dordogne’s second largest town.
Périgueux is often bypassed by visitors as they head straight to the historical small towns and villages of the area. But it’s an attractive market town in its own right; its half-timbered medieval houses dominated by the impressive domes and cones of the Byzantine-inspired St-Front cathedral. Renaissance mansions in the pedestrianised streets of the old town have been turned into food shops and boutiques, and restaurant tables crowd under the trees of pleasant Place St-Louis.
Unlike some of the heavily visited tourist sites in the region, Périgueux has a more relaxed, down-to-earth atmosphere. It’s a workaday town that doesn’t exist purely for the summer season.
Bergerac, the second-largest town in Dordogne, is an underrated base from which to explore the vineyards of Périgord Pourpre. It was a major port in the 19th century, when it made its fortunes transporting wine, wood and foodstuffs along the River Dordogne. Nowadays, much of the river traffic is made up of traditional wooden barges known as gabarres, which take passengers on leisurely cruises from Quai Salvette.
Half-timbered houses line the narrow streets and squares of the old town, where you see not one but two statues in honour of Cyrano de Bergerac, hero of Edmond Rostand’s 1897 play. Tiny, charming Place de la Mirpe has the first Cyrano statue, erected in 1977, with a newer one built in 2005 to lord it over the honey-coloured stone of medieval Place Péllisière.
A useful starting point to get to know the 13 appellations of the Bergerac wine region is the Maison des Vins, which inhabits part of a 17th-century cloister that once belonged to a Récollets order of friars. With Bordeaux so close by, it’s easy to overlook Bergerac’s wines, but that would mean missing the chance to taste the fruity Pécharmant and robust Côtes de Bergerac reds, as well as the highly regarded dessert wines of Saussignac and Monbazillac. Wine routes wind all around the region, with winemakers offering tastings and tours – some in picturesque locations such as the 16th-century Château Monbazillac just south of Bergerac.
Where there’s wine, there’s food, and that’s another attraction that draws people hungrily to Dordogne. It’s serious duck and goose territory here – on restaurant menus, in food markets and in small local farms where you can buy confit de canard, foie gras, gésiers (gizzards) and rillettes directly from producers. Meanwhile, prized périgourdine black truffles, giant cep mushrooms, creamy Cabécou goat’s cheese, walnuts, chestnuts and golden honey can satisfy those with less meaty appetites.
The Saturday food market in Sarlat-la-Canéda is one of the busiest in the Dordogne, attracting people from all over the region to the dozens of stalls in the beautiful setting of Place de la Liberté. The Périgord Noir capital was the first town in France to be deemed a protected area under the Malraux law of 1962, leaving its medieval lanes, squares and courtyards preserved for future generations. You can’t escape food in Sarlat, with its inviting shop windows filled with foie gras and confit de canard; the trio of bronze goose statues in the Place du Marché aux Oies won’t let you forget the importance of these feathered creatures in local life.
Drive along the twisting road between Sarlat and Bergerac and you come across the legacy of the medieval wars between the French and the English: the fortified bastide towns and villages – not to mention 45 châteaux that are open to the public. One of the most dramatic châteaux perches over the village of Beynac-et-Cazenac, its turrets reflected in the glossy Dordogne below. You can drive a roundabout route to reach this imposing creation that originated in the 12th century, or you can trudge uphill for about 15 minutes on foot. Once you reach the top you will be refreshed by panoramic views of the Dordogne.
Just beyond a bend in the river is another village that seems to defy the laws of physics as it shelters under steep cliffs. La Roque-Gageac’s ochre-coloured houses contrast with the vivid greens and blues of the dozens of canoes and kayaks bobbing along the river below. As the narrow main road becomes quite choked with traffic in the summer, get a more relaxing view of the village from one of the gabarres that ply the river.
The same coaches that snake into La Roque-Gageac usually make their way to Domme as well. This hilltop bastide overlooking the Dordogne’s southern bank is filled with pretty honey-hued houses with typically steep terracotta roofs. Narrow streets of shops slope downhill towards 13th-century gateways. Head to the north-facing Esplanade de la Barre for sweeping views of the river and the valley below. Like nearby Beynac and La Roque-Gageac, Domme is classed as one of the Plus Beaux Villages de France. Unlike its neighbours, Domme also has the largest natural cave in Périgord Noir, which you enter via the 17th-century market hall. Wander past stalagmites and other rock formations before taking the lift that brings you right out onto the cliff face for more wonderful views of the valley.
Dordogne’s most famous cave, of course, is the prehistoric Grotte de Lascaux in the Vézère valley, north of Domme. Even though the original cave containing paintings made 17,000 years ago has been closed to the public since 1963, the replica known as Lascaux II is still captivating. The reconstruction of the original cave paintings is beautifully done, showing the unexpected artistic talent of the Cro-Magnon people. If you visit from Easter to September, you’ll need to buy tickets in the town of Montignac, which is two kilometres away. Montignac is worth a visit anyway, with its attractive balconied houses overlooking the River Vézère and the evocative ruins of an ancient castle in the centre of the town.
The rugged geography of the Vézère valley suited our prehistoric ancestors very well, with its rocky outcrops holding hidden caves, many of which are now open to the public. They’ve been designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site, including the Palaeolithic paintings in the Grotte de Font-de-Gaume, the Magdalenian drawings in the Grotte des Combarelles and ancient sculptures found in the Abri de Cap-Blanc.
To gain a deeper understanding of the prehistoric past of the Dordogne, visit Les Eyzies-de-Tayac-Sireuil and its Musée National de Préhistoire. This huge, austere construction, built in 2004, in the shelter of an overhanging cliff, somehow blends into the ruins of a 16th-century château. Inside is a fascinating collection showing millions of years of human history, thanks mainly to the archaeological finds discovered in and around the Vézère valley caves. The tourist office in Les Eyzies has information on cave visits, all of which have restrictions on the number of visitors allowed at any one time.
The landscape becomes somewhat gentler where the Vézère and the Dordogne rivers meet at the bottom of the village of Limeuil. It’s an enchanting little place – another member of the Plus Beaux Villages de France – with steep cobbled streets tumbling down towards the shaded banks of the two rivers. Ancient arched gateways lead to stone medieval houses and artisans’ workshops in the upper village.
The riverside is an inviting place for lazy picnics or a bit of splashing about from the pebbled banks. It’s also one of the many stops along the department’s rivers where you can hire canoes and kayaks. Leave your car in the village while the canoe company transports you to your starting point. The calm waters are a magnet for amateur kayakers and canoeists, as a high level of skill isn’t needed to paddle along both rivers. You should, however, know how to swim, and do bear in mind that the rivers get very crowded during July and August. You’ll notice a difference in river traffic, if you come even slightly out of season.
If you have any energy left after your water adventure, head to the top of the village to the Jardins Panoramiques de Limeuil. Lush landscaped gardens surround the ruins of a château, including a 19th-century arboretum, and ‘discovery paths’ and nature trails where children can boost their botanical knowledge. In July and August, artisans hold workshops for people of all ages to try their hand at old-fashioned skills, such as weaving and wicker work.
South-west of the Vézère valley, vineyards alternate with farmland that blazes bright yellow with sunflowers in the summer. In the midst of this bucolic landscape is Issigeac, a tiny village the history of which stretches back to Roman times. Sometime in the Middle Ages, the villagers developed their own, slightly different way of building half-timbered houses, many of which are still in excellent condition.
A stroll through its quiet streets is a delight as you look up to spot pleasing architectural quirks carved into the wooden beams. On Sundays – particularly in high season – the peaceful air is pleasantly shattered when the weekly market takes over much of the village.
Follow the country roads east from Issigeac for about 30km to reach one of the Dordogne’s best-preserved bastide villages, Monpazier – not surprisingly, another member of the Plus Beaux Villages de France. Its typical bastide layout – with a grid of streets running from its exquisite arcaded main square, Place des Cornières – is virtually intact. It’s impossible not to be drawn to the square’s pale stone houses and arcades, where shops and stalls lurk under the atmospheric arches. Restaurant tables spread out into the centre of the square, where the 16th-century covered market takes pride of place. In spite of having suffered its share of disasters during the Hundred Years War and the Wars of Religion, Monpazier has changed remarkably little over the centuries.
It was these wars that shaped so much of the Dordogne’s history, giving birth to the ‘new towns’ of the bastides. Their beauty combined with the region’s landscapes give a sense of timelessness that even the multitudes that make up the high-season tourist crowds can’t easily shake. LF