La Dordogne: an ancient realm where dark rivers sweep under limestone cliffs and medieval hilltop villages emerge from lush dense forest; where a cornucopia of local produce has created a rich and abundant gastronomic heritage; where the extraordinary legacy of prehistoric cave art contrasts with the sublime architecture of grand Renaissance châteaux; where today’s traveller can stay for a week, a month, a season and never grow jaded. Guy Hibbert explores…
The Périgord, to use the old name for the modern French department number 24, the Dordogne, is a multi-faceted jewel of a region in South-West France, where the sun is high enough to make for warm humid summers, sunny dry autumns, short sharp winters and lush verdant springtimes.
Many people claim to know the Dordogne but when you challenge them on their knowledge, it turns out they know their favourite patch well, but have only been to one or two towns and villages beyond – in other words, they have formed their opinion too early. To discover all that this grand region has to offer requires time and imagination, to venture away from the tourist hot-spots, to meander a little off the beaten track, to allow time to linger and create your own memorable experiences.
The British have a long association with the Dordogne, and fought over it often during the Hundred Years’ War in the 14th and 15th centuries. By contrast, today’s Brits are more likely to be seen fighting over an old property for sale, enjoying the sensual delights of a summer market or canoeing down a river. So popular has the region proved with expats that national newspaper journalists in the UK enjoy referring to ‘Dordogneshire’ and if your only experience is passing through Bergerac airport or visiting the pretty town of Eymet then you might think that this reputation has been well earned.
It’s no surprise the British love the area – it reminds them of the more picturesque parts of England, say the Cotswolds, but with less crowds and better weather. But it would be a great mistake to label the Dordogne in this clichéd manner. Nostalgia for pastoral idylls is a powerful draw for many travellers, not just the British, and this is a corner of France that can deliver a heady antidote to the stress of busy lives, giving a taste of what has often been lost in more densely populated parts of the world. Like an actor who happens to be excellent at a certain role, there is always a danger of typecasting – but the reality is that la Dordogne is a star with a diverse portfolio ready to be revealed, if you know how and where to look.
Take a moment to consider the Dordogne ‘by numbers’ and you will begin to appreciate its scale and diversity. It’s actually the third largest département in France and can easily take two and a half hours to cross by road from one border to another. And no wonder its river-based activities are legendary because it has over 500 kilometres of navigable waterways, including the mighty Dordogne, the Vézère, Isle and Dronne. All this space is beautifully green: of the 557 communes, 497 are rural. The tourism office is rightly proud of the fact that they have 190 different sites and monuments open to visitors, including 70 or so museums, no fewer than 10 of France’s listed villages, 15 UNESCO World Heritage prehistoric sites, over 250 hotels, a similar number of campsites and literally thousands of gîtes and country properties for rental. No wonder three million tourists come to the Dordogne every year.
And yet there is space for them all. Because, aside from its supremacy in numbers, the Dordogne is big enough to offer a charming diversity of landscapes, attractions and activities to cater for most tastes and to allow people to join in the action or be an escapist, as the mood dictates.
The Four Colours of Périgord
Some years ago the tourist authorities hit upon a distinct way of naming some of the territories within thedépartement – the so called four Périgords, the Noir,Pourpre, Blanc and Vert (black, purple, white and green). Unlike some more fanciful labels these labels are actually quite handy to get your bearings and they allow the visitor to get a sense of what lies beyond the hotspot destinations. Having lived and travelled in the Dordogne I can vouch for the aptness of the names.
Périgord Noir lies in the southeast and contains that most quintessential of Dordogne towns, Sarlat, where golden and ochre medieval buildings cast deep cooling shadows over immensely picturesque cobbled streets lined with souvenir shops and restaurants serving an endless array of local gastronomic specialities – avoiding duck on the menu is simply not an option. Visit Sarlat in the evening to appreciate the romantic lighting and special ambience. Périgord Noir is also home to the Vézère valley with its magnificent networks of underground caves and grottoes, and the Dordogne valley with its magnificent châteaux on their pinnacles overlooking the broad, shining river below. This is the heart of the Dordogne that many tourists know and love and return to summer after summer.
To the west lies Périgord Pourpre, so named from the colour of the grape, as this is home to the lovely city of Bergerac (of Cyrano fame), surrounded by vineyards producing the much-appreciated Bergerac Blancs and Rouges, with the sweet wines of Monbazillac grown to the south of the city and less well-known reds such as AOC Pécharmant to the east. Périgord Pourpre also encompasses the numerous fascinating 13th-century bastide towns such as Monpazier and Beaumont-du-Périgord with their unique grid layout and fortifications which tell terrible tales of the battles of the Hundred Years’ War.
The central Dordogne, to the north of Bergerac, is named the Périgord Blanc, because of thecalcaire, the bright limestone that underlies the gentle rolling hills and valleys of open farmland and supplies the characteristic white stone for many buildings, including many striking Romanesque churches. The capital of the Dordogne, Périgueux, with its spectacular Romanesque cathedral and quaint vieille ville (great for shopping), is situated in this department, as is the country town of Ribérac, where a very popular market takes place every Friday.
To the northeast of the department lies the Périgord Vert, bordering on the Limousin, where green chestnut and oak forests are interspersed with cattle-grazing pastures. Visitors here head for the picturesque town of Brantôme, with its medieval abbey in white limestone, and the lovely village of Bourdeilles, with its château to visit and where a picnic by the gentle Dronne river is one of my favourite days out.
Now you’ve got your bearings, the question is, in which direction to head first? Of course this all depends on your priorities. But for starters almost everyone can find inspiration in the ‘Vallée de la Préhistoire’, an unrivalled location for caves, caverns and underground treasures. With 147 sites, 15 of which are UNESCO World Heritage listed, there’s scope for everyone, but atop the many archaeological wonders sits the ‘Sistine Chapel of Prehistory’, the wonderful Lascaux cave network with its extraordinary cave paintings, first discovered by four teenagers back in 1940. The year 2016 brings exciting developments for Lascaux, with the opening of The Centre International d’Art Pariétal Montignac-Lascaux (or Lascaux 4), a grand scheme blending contemporary architecture and design which will offer a full reproduction of the Lascaux cave thanks to new virtual reality and image technology.
Beyond Lascaux there are plenty of other underground attractions including the original cave paintings at Font-de-Gaumes, Les Eyzies, the unusually beautiful geological formations at the Gouffre de Proumeyssac and Maxange caves or the chance to go pot-holing at the Grotte de Beaussac.
Châteaux and Villages
Above ground, more traditional but equally uplifting architecture awaits, because the Dordogne has more than its fair share of châteaux to visit. From early fortified castles such as the cave fortress at Reignac and the imperious heights of Beynac and Castelnaud to the Renaissance masterpieces of Jumilhac and Milandes, which was built by the Lord of Caumont for his wife in 1489 but became much more famous in the last century as the home of chanteuse Josephine Baker and her children.
On a much more modest scale, but no less appealing, are the typical golden-stoned blue-shuttered villages of the Dordogne. The greatest claims to fame lies in the fact that no less than ten of the plus beaux villages de France are scattered throughout the department. In fact, the Dordogne is home to the largest number of listed villages in France. Situated 20km from Sarlat, Saint-Amand-de-Coly nestles between two wooded valleys and is famous for its 12th-century abbey. In the Périgord Vert, Saint-Jean-de-Côle’s history is linked with that of the Château de la Marthonie, which dominates its main square, while the typical village of Saint-Léon-sur-Vézère between Montignac and Les Eyzies boasts no fewer than three castles. Other villages include Limeuil (overlooking the confluence of the Dordogne and Vézère), Monpazier, La Roque-Gageac, Belvès, Domme, Castelnaud-la-Chapelle and Beynac-et-Cazenac.
Summertime Fun – for Children of all Ages
The summer season delivers maximum value for family holidaymakers with over a hundred events and activities focused on the younger tourists. Under the seductive heat of the Périgord sun there are plenty of activities to entertain the kids. After they have exhausted the pleasures of family canoeing why not give them a little education about ancient history at the Prehistory Labyrinth, opening in 2016, where they become explorers for a day. Or visit the Isle river near Jumilhac for a spot of gold-panning. For a theme park with a gentle French country vibe try Le Bournat. And don’t forget that many châteaux stage activities and displays with falconry, jousting and medieval street fairs to enjoy.
Anyone looking for more active pastimes is well catered for – the département offers numerous canoeing, kayaking, cycling and hiking trails for all standards, some, such as the Cro-Magnon Footpath, follow in the footsteps of prehistoric man. Organise your own ad hoc expedition or join in one of the many organised events. There truly is something for everybody – vintage costume and bicycle fans, for example, should not miss the retro cycle rally leaving from Monbazillac in August.
More Unexpected Pleasures to be Discovered
But often the charm of the Dordogne lies in the unexpected. You are driving or cycling and en route you take a wrong turn and find yourself in a little village which wasn’t recommended and hasn’t won any accolades. But as you look around your mystery village there’s an irresistible ambience – you have stumbled into a haven where time appears to have stood still for centuries. So you stop for a leisurelydéjeuner in a sleepy café and admire the sun filtering through the canopy of an ancient plane tree in the square. You exchange some friendly words with the waiter and watch a couple of old gents sitting and chatting on a bench near the fountain. On a crumbling ochre wall you notice the faded blue and white painted lettering advertising a long forgotten liqueur while at the foot of the wall a cat stretches lazily in the spring sunshine. In other words, you slow down, and you let the Dordogne, this rich and magically diverse region, fold its warming arms around you.
Blessed with fertile soils, enough rain to irrigate and plenty of warm sun to ripen its produce, the Dordogne offers an extravagant palate of local produce to tempt you.
Dordogne strawberries are hard to beat (buy them from any market and be sure to eat them the same day!) Sweet and fragrant, with many varieties to choose from – they even have their own website.
Walnuts are a Dordogne speciality, with Appellation d’Origine Contrôlée status. You’ll enjoy them on a classic Périgordine salad – or even better, take back some walnut oil to dress your salads at home.
Black truffles are a local speciality highly prized by chefs for their delicate, aromatic, yet ear thy flavour. The truffles are harvested from December to February and sold in markets at very high prices.
Foie gras can divide opinion but there’s no getting away from its status in the Dordogne, where the duck and goose varieties are served in nearly all restaurants as an appetiser or cooked as part of a gastronomic main course.
Duck features in many shapes and forms within Périgordine cuisine, served as rillettes (a kind of pâté) on toast as a starter or cooked as magrets (grilled breast with a sauce) or confits (preserved in fat, served crispy).
SOURCE/CREDIT: France Today By Guy Hibbert – September 21, 2016
GETTYBUSTLING STREETS: Sarlat offers local produce and cafesA sightseer’s dream, it clings to the side of one of the giant gorges in the Lot valley in the Perigord region and is one of the many breathtaking places to visit in an area full of scenic wonder.The town is named after Saint Amadour whose body, legend has it, was found perfectly preserved under the cathedral in 1166. That made the town famous and popular with pilgrims – but nowadays it’s a tourist destination.The landscape is so dramatic you need two lifts to get from the cathedral at the top to the restaurants and shops on the main street at the bottom. Meanwhile birds of prey soar overhead as they stretch their wings from the aviary at Rocher des Aigles (Eagles Rock) on the top.
GETTYFAIRYTALE CASTLE: Chateau de la Malartrie on the Dordogne river
“To take in the spectacular scenery along the Dordogne, hop on a boat or hire your own canoe”
This is the kind of drama my wife Paula and I had been looking forward to as we embarked on our first holiday without children in 20 years. We booked an 11-night stay in Perigord with Al Fresco Holidays, took the overnight P&O ferry from Hull to Zeebrugge, then travelled to Le Val D’Ussel, just north of the market town of Sarlat and near the beautiful River Dordogne.
We stayed in a spacious Vivaldi three-bed mobile home with decking. It was airy and comfortable with air conditioning in the living area. La Val D’Ussel was perfect for our needs, with a restaurant, shop and plenty of recreational facilities including two swimming pools, a spa, table tennis, crazy golf and a play park – should you bring the children.
Just a three-mile drive down the hill lies the medieval town of Sarlat, a bustling little place, and the streets are filled with market stalls on Saturdays. This is your chance to enjoy the produce of the area.
GETTYSIGHTSEEING: Liberty Plaza, city hallThere are delicious sausages, wine, cheese, foie gras, truffles, cherries and walnuts – plus straw hats, baskets and leather goods. We also made it our mission to taste as much patisserie as possible from pear tarts to almonds – you name it, we ate it.To take in the spectacular scenery along the Dordogne, hop on a boat or hire your own canoe. Either way, you’ll get brilliant view of the chateaux standing proudly along the river bank. We embarked on a boat at Beynac and took in the impressive castles of Castelnaud and Fayrac.Another way the see the valley in all its glory is to drive to Domme, a town perched high over the Dordogne. The panoramic view is stunning, as are the shops and restaurants in this popular coach-party destination.
ALAMYIDYLLIC SITE: Rocamadour on the hillside is a perfect base for exploring the area CREDIT/SOURCE: The Daily Star
PUBLISHED: 09:42 30 June 2017 | UPDATED: 17:33 10 July 2017
by Peter Stewart for Living France
Sarlat-la-Canéda is one of Dordogne’s most popular destinations (Credit: Jonathan Barbot)
Sarlat-la-Canéda is a Dordogne favourite, where visitors never fail to be captivated by the town’s fine medieval architecture and gastronomic delights. Here’s our insider’s guide to the main attractions, restaurants and hotels and buying property in Sarlat-la-Canéda
Sarlat-la-Canéda is unsurprisingly one of the most popular towns in Dordogne. Located just a few kilometres from the River Dordogne in south-west France, the town has retained much of its 14th-century charm and its medieval architecture is still a main pull for its thousands of yearly visitors. A popular base for exploring the Vèzére valley, you could easily spend all of your time discovering Sarlat’s quaint medieval buildings, twisting alleyways and picture-postcard squares.
Sarlat-la-Canéda has lots of impressive manor houses (Credit: Dan Courtice)
What to see and do in Sarlat-la-Canéda
Originally an abbey church dating from the 11th century, the Cathédrale St-Sacerdos is a mixture of Romanesque and Gothic styles. The organ in the church is said to be one of the best preserved from the 18th century. Pop inside to hear it being played as part of a special concert or simply soak up the peace and quiet away from Sarlat’s busy squares. Nearby you can spot the a rocket-like structure called ‘lanterne des morts’, a 12th-century stone monument that is said to honour Saint Bernard, who is believed to have cured the sick by blessing their bread.
House-hunters to Sarlat should stroll along Rue des Consuls, which has a number of impressive mansion houses that are testament to Sarlat’s growth during the Middle Ages. From being a small community controlled by the church, it had, by the mid-1500s, evolved into a prosperous market town popular with wealthy merchants. Further on you’ll see elegant buildings including the 16th-century Hôtel de Mirandol with its imposing doorway; the 14th-century Hôtel Plamon with its mullion windows; and the 15th-century Hôtel de Vassal with its double turret.
You can’t go to Sarlat-la-Canéda and miss the buzzing Saturday food market in the city centre. You might have to jostle for space among the crowds of eagle-eyed locals but it’s well worth it. Trestle tables are laden with farmers’ produce: fleshy red tomatoes, brightly coloured carrots, farm-fresh plums and twisted cucumbers sit alongside seemingly bottomless boxes of garlic, truffles, and trays of foie gras.
Another market well worth a visit is the indoor market at Église Sainte-Marie. Enter through the gigantic steel doors, and you’ll see stalls piled high with everything from spicy saucisson to local St-Nectaire cheese. Don’t forget to look out for the church’s main attraction; a glass lift that rises up through bell tower to reveal breathtaking views over the rooftops of Sarlat and beyond.
Place des Oies is where you can see the life-size bronze statue of three geese that seems to appear on every postcard of Sarlat; birds that have served as a delicacy for many Salardais over the centuries. Meanwhile, on Place de la Liberté, many visitors might experience a feeling of déjà vu, as this iconic square has often served as a backdrop for films.
We have been so accustomed to look for the phrase appellation d’origine contrôlée (AOC) on a wine label, to signify that it comes from a recognized wine area, that we often overlook good wines without it. In fact, many growers who could use the AOC mark choose not to do so because the requirements can be burdensome. Winemakers in an AOC district are limited to the types of grapes than can be used, how much wine may be produced per hectare and so on. And then there are the good wines that come from outside the 300 or so AOC areas in France.
About a quarter of French wine production is listed as vin de pays and is entitled to carry the letters IGP on the label for Indication Géographique Protégée. There is yet another category below this, vin de France, which tends, with some exceptions, to be cheap plonk. We have several IGP wines in this region, including some from well-known vineyards that also produce AOC wines, like Château de la Jaubertie and Château Tirecul La Gravière, for each of whom I have a deep respect.
Tirecul’s Monbazillac was the first Bergerac wine to get the maximum 100 points in a Robert Parker tasting. And if you come across a wine called Le Haut Païs made by Vignerons de Sigoulès, it is very much worth trying. They make a red and a white, and I find them to be a cut above most bottles of generic Bordeaux or Bergerac, although much of this wine goes for export to Holland and Germany (where I came across it on a book tour).
Other winemakers are reviving vineyards that recall the centuries before the phylloxera plague struck in the 1860s, when the Périgord and Dordogne regions were major wine producers. Then came the new wonder crop of tobacco and the tradition of wine production was almost lost – almost, but not quite. Individual farmers continued to grow vines for their own household and the skills remained.
I have long enjoyed the wines of Domaine de la Vitrolle in the Vézère valley between Limeuil and Le Bugue. I was initially attracted by the château itself, the secret HQ of the Resistance in World War Two and for some crucial months around D-Day in 1944, it was the base of André Malraux and ‘Captain Jack’ Poirier. They have been making wine there for three decades and in recent years the English winemaker John Anderson has produced some fine sparkling wines and very drinkable reds and whites. For less than 5 euros a bottle, his Demoiselle de Limeuil are very good value. (They also grow excellent apples and have some stylish gîtes available for rental.)
The other day, a friend in Bordeaux served at dinner a bottle of a wine I had not known before, a Périgord wine called Le Petit Manoir. Once back in the Périgord, I made a beeline for the vineyard, between St-Cyprien and Le Bugue. It is close to the home at Péchalifour of my chum Edouard Ayrou, the legendary truffle expert, whose guided tours of his truffle lands are strongly recommended. On the D35 road from Le Bugue to St-Cyprien, just before the turn-off to Meyrals, look for the sign to Péchalifour and Domaine de la Voie Blanche and you come to the vineyard, where Natalie Dalbavie can arrange tastings (between October and April). She and her husband Marc are self-taught winemakers who were inspired by finding the remains of a 2,000-year-old winery on their land. They are great believers in organic wines and even tried using horses to work the vines. They also use giant terracotta jars to age their wine, just as their predecessors did in Roman times. Natalie reckons that one year in terracotta gives as much ageing as two years in oak barrels – but she loses 13% a year through evaporation. They make two wines at this vineyard, Les Joualles and Le Petit Manoir, where the terroir is clay and limestone. Les Joualles comes from an old Occitan term for the traditional practice of growing rows of vines amid apples and other fruit trees.
The wine I had tasted in Bordeaux was a 2012 Petit Manoir made of Merlot, which is now sold out. So I tried the 2014, which because of the vagaries of that year’s weather is made entirely from Cabernet Franc. It is very good indeed, and at 23 euros it is worth laying down for three years or more. They have a second vineyard about twenty miles to the north-west at La Bachellerie, further up the Vézère valley, with a mineralrich terroir terraced with river pebbles where they make red and white wines named La Source. These are serious wines, between 12 and 16 euros a bottle, and I bought several of a very remarkable red that was made without sulfites.
There is a pleasing sense of history about drinking these wines made in a vineyard that dates back to Roman times, and where the wine is grown and made in the age-old way. And there could be no better proof that the AOC label need not be a pre-requisite for making very good and distinctive wines..
■ Credit/Source: Martin Walker, The Bugle
Martin Walker is a Grand Consul de la Vinée de Bergerac. He and his wife have had a home in the Périgord since 1999 and one of his great hobbies is visiting the vineyards of Bergerac.
Ready to indulge yourself with some of the finest food Europe has to offer? It has to be Destination Dordogne!
Think of fine cuisine, mouthwatering dishes and Michelin star creations, and it’s hard to imagine a menu thatdoesn’t include a taste of France. French cuisine is famed the world over. But it’s one particular area of France – Dordogne – which is at the heart of the finest food on the planet. A food lovers’ paradise, it’s the home of the rich, dark, musky Perigord truffle. That alone puts Dordogne at the top of the food chain. From foie gras to morel mushrooms, dozens of local cheeses, the finest wines and traditional rustic duck and goose dishes washed down with local walnut laced liquour – plus romantic Michelin star restaurants – Dordogne is a food lovers’ heaven. And its stunning scenery means there are plenty of opportunities to work it off, with a cycle ride or romantic stroll alongside chateaux that look like they’ve come straight from a child’s storybook. Feeling tempted?
Here’s our foodie guide to enjoying one of the world’s most mouthwatering destinations.
Head to market
Usually in the middle of town, among cobbled lanes and pretty plazas, Dordogne’s markets are a sensory delight. Visit Sarlat-la-Canéda, one of the busiest markets in Dordogne or the pretty medieval village of Issigeac. Head undercover to the market hall at the historic fortified village of Monpazier, voted one of France’s most beautiful village. Buy some Cabecou de Rocamadour – a small local goat’s cheese – a freshly baked loaf and find a spot to sit back and watch.
Dine at the top tables
All that wonderful produce means Dordogne has some of the world’s best and most romantic restaurants. There’s the finest Michelin star dining, to quaint corner bistros and chefs who are pushing the foodie boundaries. Indulge at the beautiful chateau at the Michelin starred Chateau des Vigiers which also boasts a golf course and a spa, or nip into Les Petit Paris in Daglan which specialises in seasonal local produce. The choices are endless.
Top up your glass
Some areas of France might be better known, but there’s no mistaking the quality of wine produced in
Dordogne. The Bergerac area has more than 1200 wine-growers, producing excellent reds, whites and rosés to wash down all that gourmet food. Visiting a vineyard is a ‘must’. Head to Château de Tiregand and explore its Pécharmant wines. Or visit Château Montdoyen, where the art of winemaking has been passed through generations.
Tuck into truffles
Dordogne is famed for its black Périgord truffle, or black diamond. You’ll discover truffles on the menus and even special truffle markets in Périgueux, Brantôme and Sarlat-la-Canéda. Or hunt for your own – join a truffle hunting tour and at Truffière de Péchalifour.
Take it outside
A picnic amid stunning scenery is hard to beat. Just stock up at the market and head to La Roque Gageac, one of the country’s prettiest villages or in the grounds of the Walnut Museum near Castlenaud. The chateau there is a national monument.
Take a boat trip on the river Dordogne at La Roque-Gageac, picnic by the banks and round it off with a walk to Chateau de la Malartie. Wherever your tastebuds take you, a break in Dordogne is bound to leave you hungry for more. Discover delightful Dordogne for yourself.
Source/Credit: written by Sandra Dick for The Scotsman