Dordogne region – a place to linger

Market Day in Monpazier. Philip Gardner
Market Day in Monpazier. Philip Gardner

For anyone dreaming of meandering amongst the chateaus and ancient villages of pastoral Southwest France, the valleys of the Dordogne River and its tributaries provide the perfect destination.

There is almost a surreal feeling as you drive along the winding roads and lanes, past the rolling fields and vineyards that stretch to the horizon.  Then, almost magically, you find yourself passing through an ancient gateway into one of the quaint gray stone villages that have remained largely unchanged for hundreds of years.

En route to a chosen destination, your GPS might send you down a delightful one-way country lane, just wide enough for one car.  However, that does not preclude the possibility of encountering a farm tractor happily coming towards you, as the driver heads back to one of his fields.  He will no doubt wave you back, and sure enough, after you have reversed for a short distance, there will be a section with a grass bank where the two vehicles can squeeze past. 

Looking across the Dordogne river valley from the village of Domme. Philip Gardner
Looking across the Dordogne river valley from the village of Domme. Philip Gardner

The French are mad about cycling – particularly on holidays (of which the French have plenty).  It is always wise, whenever you round a corner, to be prepared for a group of spandex clad figures bent over their bikes as they hurtle along with dreams of the Tour de France peloton.

Give a good-natured wave for those that you meet and perhaps you will see them again at the market, or bistro in the next village.

Getting around is pretty straightforward, since main roads and back roads are all well signposted, and it is difficult to get lost, even without a GPS.  The towns and villages that have been identified as tourist destinations have nearly all adjusted to their newfound popularity, by providing spacious car parks on the edge of town.  Since the towns are quite compact, this is convenient starting point to start exploring their amazing historic squares, buildings, and quiet back lanes.

The Medieval Bastide towns of the Dordogne region are unique for having been built in the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries to a specific pattern. They all have a central market square, with an adjacent church, and with the streets set out in a grid format from that central square. To simplify access from one street to the next, the builders connected them with inviting alleys and passageways interspersed with small courtyards just waiting to be explored.

Many Dordogne villages have been formally recognized in France’s listing of its most Beautiful Villages. To be recorded as a Beautiful Village, a village must also have a population of less than two thousand, plus have some historical significance. The selected villages all proudly display a sign at their entrance to inform visitors of their inclusion in the prestigious list.

Although there are regional similarities, each town and village in the Dordogne has developed its own unique personality and charm. Indeed some differences are quite striking. The beautiful village of La Roque Gageac is nestled beside the Dordogne River with houses built way up and carved into the side of the cliff, as a measure of protection from enemies.

It is quite distinct from that of its picturesque Bastide neighbour, Domme, perched on a hilltop, a mere ten minutes drive away.

A typical Bastide village. Philip Gardner
A typical Bastide village. Philip Gardner

Each town in the Dordogne valleys has wonderful, colourful market days, with stalls selling an extensive range of local produce and crafts. Market Day is a social event, and its party atmosphere certainly transcends the mundane chore of purchasing supplies. Visitors mingle with locals as they check out what the local farms, cheese makers and wineries are offering, and strike up conversations with neighbours and friends who have all come to the weekly gathering.

If the atmosphere of the market becomes a little overwhelming, the market square is  ringed with small cafes, bistros and boulangeries, all offering the opportunity to sit back and watch the show over a glass of wine or a cup of coffee and an amazing pastry.

For the more active, there are numerous identified paths for hiking and cycling, and places for swimming, and horseback riding. If you fancy taking to the river, when it is low in the summer, just look for one of the clusters of colourful kayaks for rent on the riverbanks.

If your interest is attuned to the really ancient, you will discover that the valleys of the Dordogne river and its tributary, the Vezere, have been home to humans for over half a million years. With its temperate climate and lush vegetation, it is not that surprising that some of the very earliest humans migrated to this region to settle amongst its abundance of food, and the readily available shelter in the caves of the limestone hills.

The natural composition of the rock eventually resulted in slides that completely sealed those prehistoric cave homes, until they were discovered during the past century. Resulting in amazing dwellings with incredibly preserved artifacts and paintings that date back to the dawn of prehistory. Visitors are no longer permitted to enter the original caves themselves, because of the damage their expelled carbon dioxide would do to the rock faces with its paintings. However, there is a remarkable prehistory museum built right into the cliffs at Les Eyzies in the dramatic Vezere valley, with the troglodyte village of La Madeleine just to the North.

Of course, no Dordogne town or village would consider itself respectably French, if it did not offer a selection of small restaurants and bistros, where one can soak up the local atmosphere at an outdoor table overlooking the main square.

French meals are an integral part of their culture, and establishments offer a daily set meal, posted on a board outside.  With lunch in the Dordogne being a leisurely two-hour affair, there is no pressure to eat and leave, and some of the most enduring memories are of sitting at a table  finishing a glass of wine, and soaking up the local ambience.

 SOURCE/CREDIT: Vancouver Sun, by PHILIP GARDNER

 

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Product of the month: The Périgord Walnut

The Perigord walnut is an extremely healthy and versatile nut grown in southwestern France. Perigord is the old walnutsname for this region, which is now usually referred to in English as the Dordogne. Most of the Perigord walnut production area is located in the Dordogne department, but there are also significant amounts produced in the neighboring Corrèze and Lot departments and small areas of other neighboring ones.

It has benefited from a Protected Designation of Origin status since 2002, but the walnut has had a history in the region that dates back thousands of years. While the walnuts grown today aren’t quite the same, walnuts themselves have been found at 17,000-year-old prehistorical Cro-Magnon sites in the Périgord walnut-producing region.
The Périgord walnut production area is located in and around the départment of Dordogne in southwestern France.

Walnuts continued to play a major role in the culture of the area ever since then and are inextricably linked to the region’s history. During the early Middle Ages, peasants would often pay off their debts with Perigord walnuts and by the 13th century, tithes to local churches were paid in walnut oil. The oil was at one time considered to be worth its weight in gold and contributed greatly to the wealth of the region due to its widespread and many varied uses. In 1730, it was found that more than three fourths of the national peasant population used nothing but Perigord walnut oil for cooking. Besides culinary uses, the oil can also be used as body oil or in painting.

The Périgord walnut can be used in so many ways in cuisine that the list of culinary dishes it can’t be used in is probably a lot shorter than the list of dishes it is included in. The possibilities are almost endless: Salads, mousses, covered in chocolate, baked in breads, used in cheeses, roasted or used as oil – the Périgord walnut is a versatile nut that has thousands of applications. It’s even used to make a type of liqueur, Eau-de-vie de Noix du Périgord, and a type of wine in the region (vin de noix – “walnut wine”), bringing a subtle, nutty flavor to the drinks.

 

There are numerous health benefits of consuming this walnut. The Périgord region of France has one of the lowest rates of heart disease – by some estimates it has the second-lowest rate in the world. The cholesterol-lowering properties of the walnut, which play a large role in local cuisine, certainly help to play a part in this. The walnut is also rich in fiber and antioxidants, high in protein, and filled with healthy minerals like magnesium, iron, and potassium.

Credit/Source:  French Food in the U.S.

Dordorgne Dreaming

sunflowersThe Dordogne is France’s third largest department, and as well as numerous picturesque villages, it also boasts an incredible 4,000 chateaux, 10% of all the chateaux in France.  Like many French departments, the Dordogne is named after the river that flows through it. Foie gras, duck and goose are regional specialities.

The department has four distinct territories. In the north you will find ‘Green Périgord’ which derives its namedordogne regions from its many green valleys and woodland, covered with trickling streams, and houses the Périgord-Limousin Regional Natural Park. The major towns in the area are Brantome (the “Venice” of the Dordogne), Nontron and Riberac.  In the center of the department is ‘White Périgord’, so called because of its limestone plateaux. It contains the capital of the Dordogne, Périgueux, with attractive shopping centre and marvellous winding old town.  The ‘Purple Périgord’, in the South West of the department, is named from the area’s grapes, which are put to good use in Bergerac, the capital of this wine producing region. The area was of great strategic significance during the hundred years war, and visitors will find a number of fortified villages, castles and chateaux built by both the English and the French here.  In the south-east you’ll find ‘Black Périgord’, with deep valleys and ancient forests. It contains the towns of Saint-Cyprien and Sarlat-la-Caneda, which are both popular with foreign buyers. It houses numerous prehistoric caves with some 30,000 year old cave paintings.

Sarlatsarlat sign

Sarlat is the capital town of the Perigold Noir – a beautiful area of deep valleys and ancient fortresses, in the South East of the Dordogne. The town is a great example of 14th century France as many of its buildings from this era remain in tact. The nearest airport is Bergerac.

 The area surrounding Sarlat has history reaching back as far as ‘Primitive Man.’ Prehistoric caves with paintings for example have been found and the Vezere Valley is now classified by UNESCO as being a world heritage site.

The town center meanwhile began to makes its mark in the 9th century, eventually developing around a Benedictine abbey built in the 12th century. The wars then struck, and the town suffered greatly due to its position as a frontier region between the kings of France and England. In 1360, Sarlat became English and remained so until 1370 when the Connétable du Guesclin took over.

From the 14th to the 17th centuries, Sarlat was prosperous and displayed this through its architecture; new and grand dwellings were built as symbols of nobility, using Gothic and Renaissance styles.

Sarlat Activities 

Sights to see include:

  • the medieval sector centred around ‘Place de la Liberté’
  • the curious architecture of the St Bernard tower, also known as the ‘Lanterne des Morts’ (Lantern of the Dead)
  • the St Sacerdos Cathedral
  • ‘Les Jardins du Manoir d’Eyrignac’
  • the house of Etienne de la Boétie, a great philosopher
  • Château of Castelnaud with its medieval warfare museum
  • Château du Temniac, which overlooks Sarlat

There is a twice-weekly market, overflowing with fresh produce, including local specialities such as foie gras, walnuts, black truffles, wild mushrooms and pork delicacies.  Annual fairs and festivals include: ‘Les marches;’ different types of markets throughout the year, ‘Festival des Jeux de Théâtre,’ mid July to the beginning of August, ‘Festival du Cinéma’ every November, which unites big screen stars, directors and producers, as well as students studying film and ‘Les Hivernales;’ exhibitions of local artists every Christmas.  Cycling, horseriding, swimming, canoeing, fishing, hot air balooning, and golf are also popular activities.

Food and Drink 
A typical ‘Perigordin’ meal consists of: ‘tourin blanchi’ a garlic and onion soup mixed with goose fat and eggs and topped with sorrel, foie gras, a ceps or truffle omelette, goose preserved in fat with sarladaises potatoes, a salad with nut oil, cabécou (goats cheese), walnut cake and a bowl of strawberries.

 

Sarlat in Dordogne

Sarlat-la-Canéda, or simply Sarlat, is a town in the Dordogne department, in Aquitaine in southwestern France.

Photo: TripAdvisor

Photo: TripAdvisor

The region is known in France as the Périgord Noir (the Black Périgord) – known for foie gras, truffles, and walnuts.

It is one of the most appealing, and popular, of the Dordogne villages, (or towns). It developed around a large Benedictine abbey of Carolingian origin. The medieval Sarlat Cathedral is dedicated to Saint Sacerdos.

Because Sarlat has been ignored by the events of recent centuries most of the town has been preserved and is representative of 14th century France. Restoration work has been impeccable and authentic.

Rick Steves Overview/Market:

Photo Gallery of Sarlat:

(Source: youTube)

10 reasons to visit Périgord, Dordogne

There are a thousand good reasons to visit Périgord, but FrenchEntrée has selected its top ten. Read our top 10 reasons why you should visit Périgord. Discover the history, heritage, gastronomy, chateaux, and some of the more quirky things…

Source: 10 reasons to visit Périgord, Dordogne