Have you ever fancied paddling in speckled sunlight past ancient châteaux and honey-hued villages, stopping off for a spot of gentle sightseeing and ending the day with a well-earned gastronomic extravaganza? If so, then canoeing down the Dordogne river in southwest France is just the ticket.
For a 170km stretch from Argentat down to Mauzac the river provides classic canoeing. The scenery is glorious and varied, there are umpteen first-class sights within a stone’s throw of the water and the choice of accommodation ranges from convivial campsites and rustic village inns to luxury hotels in converted châteaux. The free-flowing river also offers a variety of canoeing conditions to suit beginners upwards, and though it’s hardly white-water rafting, some of the Dordogne’s rapids are sufficiently challenging, particularly in spring and early summer, to give at least a frisson of excitement.
Keen canoeists should start at Argentat, from where it takes roughly ten days to paddle downstream. The river here is fast, fun and more or less crowd-free. Beyond Beaulieu the current eases back as the river widens, and the first limestone outcrops and sandy beaches – perfect for a picnic lunch – start to appear. Souillac marks the beginning of the most famous – and busiest – stretch of river. If you can only spare one day, then paddle from Souillac, or Domme, to Beynac where the river loops beneath beetling cliffs from which medieval fortresses keep watch from their dizzying eyries. At water level you glide past walnut orchards, duck farms and houses drenched in geraniums.
The crowds fall behind as you slip past Beynac. There are fewer sights and the scenery is more mellow, though the Dordogne has one final treat in store at Limeuil where it splits into two great channels that meander across the floodplain. Leave your canoe behind and head for the limestone cliffs for a bird’s-eye view of this classic Dordogne scene.
Numerous canoe rental companies set up along the Dordogne in summer offering rental by the day or half-day.