The oval area bordered to the east by the uplands of the Massif Central and to the west by the Atlantic plains was the most contested between the English and the French during the Hundred Years’ War, and has been most in demand among English visitors and second-home buyers in more recent times. Although it doesn’t coincide exactly with either the modern French administrative boundaries or the old provinces of Périgord and Quercy, which constitute the core of the region, the land here has a physical and geographical homogeneity thanks to its great rivers: the Dordogne, the Lot and the Aveyron, all of which drain westwards from the Massif Central into the mighty Garonne.
From Limoges in the province of Limousin in the north to the Garonne valley in the south, the country is gently hilly, full of lush hidden valleys and miles of woodland, mainly oak. The northerly Limousin is slightly greener and wetter, the south more open and arid. But you can travel a long way without seeing a radical shift, except in the uplands of the Plateau de Millevaches, where the rivers plunge into gorges and the woods are beech, chestnut and conifer plantations. The other characteristic landscape is the causses, the dry scrubby limestone plateaux like the Causse de Gramat between the Lot and Dordogne and the Causse de Limogne between the Lot and Aveyron. Where the rivers have cut their way through the limestone, the valleys are walled with overhanging cliffs, riddled with fissures, underground streams and caves. And in these caves – especially in the valley of the Vézère around Les Eyzies – is some of the most awe-inspiring prehistoric art to be found anywhere in the world.
The other great artistic legacy of the area is the Romanesque sculpture, most notably adorning the churches at Souillac and Beaulieu-sur-Dordogne, but all modelled on the supreme example of the cloister of St-Pierre in the quiet town of Moissac. Hilltops through the region are marked by splendid fortresses of purely military design, such as Bonaguil, Najac, Biron, Beynac and Castelnaud, which more than compensate for the dearth of luxurious châteaux.
The charm of the area undoubtedly lies in the landscapes and the dozens of harmonious small towns and villages. Some, like Sarlat and Rocamadour, are so well known that they are overrun with tourists in the height of summer. Others, like Figeac, Villefranche-de-Rouergue, Gourdon, Montauban, Monflanquin and the many bastides (fortified towns) that pepper the area between the Lot and Dordogne, boast no single notable sight but are perfect organic ensembles.
The wartime Resistance was very active in these out-of-the-way regions, and the roadsides are dotted with memorials to those killed in ambushes or shot in reprisals. There is also one chilling monument to wartime atrocity: the ruined village of Oradour-sur-Glane, still as the Nazis left it after massacring the population and setting fire to the houses.Read More
The food and wine of Périgord
The food and wine of Périgord
The two great stars of Périgord cuisine are foie gras and truffles (truffes). Foie gras is best eaten either chilled in succulent, buttery slabs, or lightly fried and served with a fruit compote to provide contrasting sweetness and acidity. Truffle is often dished up in omelettes and the rich périgourdin sauces which accompany many local meat dishes, but to appreciate the delicate earthy flavour to the full, you really need to eat truffle on its own, with just a salad and some coarse, country bread.
The other mainstay of Périgord cuisine is the grey Toulouse goose, whose fat is used in the cooking of everything, including the flavourful potato dish, pommes sarladaises. The goose fattens well: gavé or crammed with corn, it goes from six to ten kilos in weight in three weeks, with its liver alone weighing nearly a kilo. Some may find the process off-putting, but small local producers are very careful not to harm their birds, if for no other reason than that stress ruins the liver. Geese are also raised for their meat alone, which is cooked and preserved in its own thick yellow grease as confits d’oie, which you can either eat on its own or use in the preparation of other dishes, like cassoulet. Duck is used in the same way, both for foie gras and confits. Magret de canard, or duck-breast fillet, is one of the favourite ways of eating duck and appears on practically every restaurant menu.
Another goose delicacy is cou d’oie farci – goose neck stuffed with sausage meat, duck liver and truffles, while a favourite salad throughout the region is made with warm gésiers or goose gizzards. Try not to be apprehensive, or your palate will miss out on some delicious experiences – like tripoux, sheep’s stomach stuffed with tripe, trotters, pork and garlic, which is really an Auvergnat dish but is quite often served in neighbouring areas like the Rouergue. Other less challenging specialities include stuffed cèpes, or wild mushrooms; ballottines, fillets of poultry stuffed, rolled and poached; the little flat discs of goat’s cheese known as cabécou or rocamadour; and for dessert there’s pastis, a light apple tart topped with crinkled, wafer-thin pastry laced with armagnac.
The wines should not be scorned, either. There are the fine, dark, almost peppery reds from Cahors, and both reds and whites from the vineyards of Bergerac, of which the sweet, white Monbazillac is the most famous. Pécharmant is the fanciest of the reds, but there are some very drinkable Côtes de Bergerac, much like the neighbouring Bordeaux and far cheaper. The same goes for the wines of Duras, Marmande and Buzet. If you’re thinking of taking a stock of wine home, you could do much worse than make some enquiries in Bergerac itself, Ste-Foy, or any of the villages in the vineyard areas.
From the Occitan word bastida, meaning a group of buildings, bastides were the new towns of the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries. Although they are found all over southwest France, from the Dordogne to the foothills of the Pyrenees, there is a particularly high concentration in the area between the Dordogne and Lot rivers, which at that time formed the disputed “frontier” region between English-held Aquitaine and Capetian France.
That said, the earliest bastides were founded largely for economic and political reasons. They were a means of bringing new land into production – in an era of rapid population growth and technological innovation – and thus extending the power of the local lord. But as tensions between the French and English forces intensified in the late thirteenth century, so the motive became increasingly military. The bastides provided a handy way of securing the land along the frontier, and it was generally at this point that they were fortified.
As an incentive, anyone who was prepared to build, inhabit and defend the bastide was granted various benefits in a founding charter. All new residents were allocated a building plot, garden and cultivable land. The charter might also offer asylum to certain types of criminal or grant exemption from military service, and would allow the election of consuls charged with day-to-day administration – a measure of self-government remarkable in feudal times. Taxes and judicial affairs, meanwhile, remained the preserve of the representative of the king or local lord under whose ultimate authority the bastide lay.
The other defining feature of a bastide is its layout. They are nearly always square or rectangular in shape and are divided by streets at right angles to each other, producing a chequerboard pattern. The focal point is the market square, often missing its covered halle nowadays, but generally still surrounded by arcades, while the church is relegated to one side.
The busiest bastide founders were Alphonse de Poitiers, on behalf of the French crown, after he became Count of Toulouse in 1249, and King Edward I of England (1272–1307), who wished to consolidate his hold on the northern borders of his Duchy of Aquitaine. The former chalked up a total of 57 bastides, including Villeneuve-sur-Lot (1251) and Monflanquin (1252), while Edward was responsible for Beaumont (1272) and Monpazier (1284), among others. While many bastides retain only vestiges of their original aspect, both Monpazier and Monflanquin have survived almost entirely intact.