The close green valleys of Périgord Vert are very rural, with plenty of space and few people, large tracts of wood and uncultivated land. Less well known than the Périgord Noir, its largely granite landscape bears a closer resemblance to the neighbouring Limousin than to the rest of the Périgord. It’s partly for this reason that in 1998 the most northerly tip, together with the southwestern part of the Haute-Vienne, was designated as the Parc Naturel Régional Périgord-Limousin in an attempt to promote “green” tourism in this economically fragile and depopulated area.
It’s undoubtedly in the countryside that the region’s finest monuments lie. One of the loveliest stretches is the valley of the Dronne, from Aubeterre on the Charente border through Brantôme to the marvellous Renaissance château of Puyguilhem and the picture-postcard village of St-Jean-de-Côle, and on to the Limousin border, where the scenery becomes higher and less intimate.
The picturesque old town of Brantôme sits on an island in the River Dronne, whose still, water-lilied surface mirrors the limes and weeping willows of the riverside gardens. The countryside that surrounds the town, along the River Dronne, remains largely undisturbed, though Brantôme itself is firmly on the tourist trail. This is one of the most tranquil and beautiful parts of the Dordogne, best savoured at a gentle pace, perhaps by bike, on a boat trip, or even by canoeing along the river.
Brantôme’s former Benedictine abbey has been the town’s focus ever since it was founded, possibly by Charlemagne. Its most notorious abbot, Pierre de Bourdeilles, was the sixteenth-century author of scurrilous tales of life at the royal court. The first monastery on the site is thought to have been troglodytic in origin, and the caves against which the later abbey was built were initially very important for worship, but over time were relegated to outhouses and storage. The caves here are arguably the most fascinating feature of the abbey; they’re hugely atmospheric, not least the Last Judgement Cave, where the origins of the huge bas-relief remain an enigma, but is thought to date back to the fifteenth century. .
Château de Puyguilhem
Château de Puyguilhem
Just outside the village of Villars, the Château de Puyguilhem sits on the edge of a valley backed by oak woods. It was erected at the beginning of the sixteenth century on the site of an earlier military fortress. With its octagonal tower, broad spiral staircase, steep roofs, magnificent fireplaces and false dormer windows, it’s a perfect example of French Renaissance architecture. From the gallery at the top of the stairs you get a close-up of the roof and window decoration, as well as a view down the valley, which once was filled by an ornamental lake.