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 found between the Lot and Dordogne and 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, have a quieter, more local charm, where the greatest pleasure lies in wandering the narrow streets of their old towns.
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.