To the French, the Dordogne is a river. To the British, it is a much looser term, covering a vast area roughly equivalent to what the French call Périgord, which starts south of Limoges and includes the Vézère and Dordogne valleys. The Dordogne is also a département, with fixed boundaries that pay no heed to either definition. The central part of the département, around Périgueux and the River Isle, is known as Périgord Blanc, after the light, white colour of its rock outcrops; the southeastern half around Sarlat as Périgord Noir, said to be darker in aspect because of the preponderance of oak woods. To confuse matters further, the tourist authorities have added another two colours to the Périgord patchwork: Périgord Vert, the far north of the département, so called because of the green of its woods and pastureland; and Périgord Pourpre in the southwest, purple because it includes the wine-growing area around Bergerac.
This southern region is also known for its bastides – fortified towns – built during the turbulent medieval period when there was almost constant conflict between the French and English. In the reaches of the upper Dordogne, the colour scheme breaks down, but the villages and scenery in this less travelled backwater still rival anything the rest of the region has to offer.
Canoeing is hugely popular in the Dordogne, especially in summer, when the Vézère and Dordogne rivers are shallow and slow-flowing – ideal for beginners. There are rental outlets at just about every twist in both rivers. Although it’s possible to rent one-person kayaks or two-person canoes by the hour, it’s best to take at least a half-day or longer (some outfits offer up to a week’s rental), and simply cruise downstream. The company you book through will either take you to your departure point or send a minibus to pick you up from your final destination. Prices vary according to what’s on offer; expect to pay around €17–25 per person per day. Most places function daily in July and August, on demand in May, June and September, depending on the weather, and are closed the rest of the year. All companies must provide life jackets (gilets) and teach you basic safety procedures, most importantly how to capsize and get out safely. You must be able to swim.
Périgord Noir encompasses the central part of the valley of the Dordogne, and the valley of the Vézère. This is the distinctive Dordogne country: deep-cut valleys between limestone cliffs, with fields of maize in the alluvial bottoms and dense oak woods on the heights, interspersed with patches of not very fertile farmland. Plantations of walnut trees (cultivated for their oil), flocks of low-slung grey geese (their livers enlarged for foie gras) and prehistoric-looking stone huts called bories are all hallmarks of Périgord Noir.
The well-preserved medieval architecture of Sarlat, the wealth of prehistory and the staggering cave paintings of the Vézère valley, and the stunning beauty of the château-studded Dordogne have all contributed to making this one of the most heavily touristed inland areas of France. If possible, it’s worth coming out of season, but if you can’t, seek accommodation away from the main centres, and always drive along the back roads – the smaller the better – even when there is a more direct route available.
The Grotte des Combarelles was discovered in 1910. The innermost part of the cave is covered with engravings from the Magdalenian period (about 12,000 years ago). Drawn over a period of two thousand years, many are superimposed one upon another, and include horses, reindeer, mammoths and stylized human figures – among the finest are the heads of a horse and a lioness.
For eight hundred years, until 1935, the twelfth-century Cistercian Abbaye de Cadouin drew flocks of pilgrims to wonder at a piece of cloth first mentioned by Simon de Montfort in 1214 and thought to be part of Christ’s shroud. In 1935 the two bands of embroidery at either end were shown to contain an Arabic text from around the eleventh century. Since then the main attraction has been the finely sculpted but badly damaged capitals of the Flamboyant Gothic cloister. Beside it stands a Romanesque church with a stark, bold front and wooden belfry roofed with chestnut shingles (chestnut trees abound around here – their timber was used in furniture-making and their nuts ground for flour during frequent famines). Inside the church, the nave is slightly out of alignment; this is thought to be deliberate and perhaps a vestige of pagan attachments, as the three windows are aligned so that at the winter and summer solstices the sun shines through all three in a single shaft.
Not a cave but a natural rock shelter, the Abri du Cap Blanc lies on a steep wooded hillside. The shelter contains a sculpted frieze of horses and bison dating from the Middle Magdalenian period, about 14,000 years ago. Of only ten surviving prehistoric sculptures in France, this is undoubtedly the best. The design is deliberate, with the sculptures polished and set off against a pockmarked background. But what makes this place extraordinary is not just the large scale, but the high relief of some of the sculptures. This was only possible in places where light reached in, which in turn brought the danger of destruction by exposure to the air. Cro-Magnon people actually lived in this shelter, and a female skeleton some two thousand years younger than the frieze was found here.
In a picturesque spot on the banks of the Dordogne, Beaulieu-sur-Dordogne boasts an appealing and atmospheric old town that is particularly pleasant to explore in late afternoon when the pale-stone buildings glow in the setting sun. Beaulieu is especially known for being home to one of the great masterpieces of Romanesque sculpture, on the porch of the church of St-Pierre. This doorway is unusually deep-set, with a tympanum presided over by an oriental-looking Christ with one arm extended to welcome the chosen. All around him is a complicated pattern of angels and apostles, executed in characteristic “dancing” style, similar to that at Carennac. The dead raise the lids of their coffins hopefully, while underneath a frieze depicts monsters crunching heads. Take the opportunity also to wander north along rue de la Chapelle past some handsome sculpted facades and down to the river.
Clearly visible on an impregnable cliff on the north bank of the river, the eye-catching village and castle of Beynac-et-Cazenac was built in the days when the river was the only route open to traders and invaders. By road, it’s 3km to the château but a steep lane leads up through the village and takes only fifteen minutes by foot. It’s protected on the landward side by a double wall; elsewhere the sheer drop of almost 200m does the job. The flat terrace at the base of the keep, which was added by the English, conceals the remains of the houses where the beleaguered villagers lived. Richard the Lionheart held the place for a time, until a gangrenous wound received while besieging the castle of Châlus, north of Périgueux, ended his term of blood-letting.
The partially ruined Château de Castelnaud is a true rival to Beynac in terms of impregnability – although it was successfully captured by the bellicose Simon de Montfort as early as 1214. The English held it for much of the Hundred Years’ War, and it wasn’t until the Revolution that it was finally abandoned. Fairly heavily restored in recent years, it now houses a highly informative museum of medieval warfare. Its core is an extensive collection of original weaponry, including all sorts of bizarre contraptions, and a fine assortment of armour.
Since its discovery in 1901, dozens of polychrome paintings have been found in the Grotte de Font-de-Gaume. The cave was first settled by Stone Age people during the last Ice Age – about 25,000 BC – when the Dordogne was the domain of roaming bison, reindeer and mammoths. The entrance is no more than a fissure concealed by rocks and trees above a small lush valley, leading to a narrow twisting passage. The first painting you see is a frieze of bison, reddish-brown in colour, massive, full of movement and very far from the primitive representations you might expect. Further on comes the most miraculous image of all, a frieze of five bison discovered in 1966 during cleaning operations. The colour, remarkably sharp and vivid, is preserved by a protective layer of calcite. Shading under the belly and down the thighs is used to give three-dimensionality with a sophistication that seems utterly modern. Another panel consists of superimposed drawings, a fairly common phenomenon in cave painting, sometimes the result of work by successive generations, but here an obviously deliberate technique. A reindeer in the foreground shares legs with a large bison behind to indicate perspective.
Stocks of artists’ materials have also been found here: kilos of prepared pigments; palettes – stones stained with ground-up earth pigments; and wooden painting sticks. Painting was clearly a specialized, perhaps professional, business, reproduced in dozens of caves located in the central Pyrenees and northern Spain.
The small, attractive town of Montignac is the main base for visiting the Grotte de Lascaux, which was discovered in 1940 by four boys who stumbled across a deep cavern decorated with marvellously preserved paintings of animals. Executed by Cro-Magnon people 17,000 years ago, the paintings are among the finest examples of prehistoric art in existence. There are five or six identifiable styles, and subjects include bison, mammoths and horses, plus the biggest known prehistoric drawing, of a 5.5m bull with an astonishingly expressive head and face. In 1948, the cave was opened to the public, and over the next fifteen years more than a million tourists came to see it.
Sadly, because of deterioration caused by the heat and breath of visitors, the cave had to be closed in 1963; however, a spectacular replica – known as Lascaux IV – has been built at a safe distance from the original. The ambitious new building, opened in December 2016, has been designed to blend into the surrounding landscape, and is half buried in the hill on which it is built.
The gorgeous Jardins de Marqueyssac, sitting on top of a wooded promontory that rises above a wide meander in the Dordogne, are one of the most magical sights in the region. At times, the gardens feel like a Tim Burton fantasy – quirky, maze-like topiary is the first thing that greets you upon entering – while at others it’s like being in the heart of a forest, with only the rustle of birds in the trees above disturbing the peace. Though the gardens were originally laid out in the seventeenth century, what you see today is the result of extensive restoration work from the late 1990s.
Three paths lead through the grounds to the Belvedere, which juts out from the cliff with stupendous views over the river towards La Roque-Gageac and, in the opposite direction, Castelnaud. The gardens are even more magical during the special candlelit evenings in July and August when you can explore to the accompaniment of a live jazz band.
The beauty of Jardins de Marqueyssac is found by simply wondering the grounds and taking in the well-kept grounds. There is an onsite restaurant, particularly nice in the late afternoon. Opening times for the gardens vary depending on the season, during the summer you can expect to visit between 9 am to 6 pm whereas in the winter the gardens typically close at 5 pm.
Top Image: Jardins de Marqueyssac © Kentaylordesign / Shutterstock
The enormous prehistoric dwelling site of La Roque St-Christophe is made up of about a hundred rock shelters on five levels, hollowed out of the limestone cliffs. The whole complex is nearly 1km long and about 80m above ground level, where the River Vézère once flowed. The earliest traces of occupation go back over 50,000 years. There are frequent guided visits in summer, or you can just take an English-language leaflet and wander at your own pace.
The main base for visiting many of the region’s prehistoric painted caves is Les Eyzies-de-Tayac,a one-street village lined with gift shops and foie gras outlets. There are more prehistoric caves around Les Eyzies than you could possibly hope to visit in one day; in addition, the compulsory tours are tiring, so it’s best to just do a couple rather than attempt them all. In town, it’s worth visiting the excellent Musée National de Préhistoire, which contains many important prehistoric artefacts found in the various caves in the region. Look out for the oil lamp from Lascaux and the exhibits from La Madeleine, to the north of Les Eyzies, including a superb bas-relief of a bison licking its flank.
Most of the caves in the Périgord Noir (around the village of Les Eyzies) were not used as permanent homes, and there are various theories as to the purpose of such inaccessible spots. Most agree that they were sanctuaries and, if not actually places of worship, at least had religious significance. One suggestion is that making images of animals that were commonly hunted – like reindeer and bison – or feared – like bears and mammoths – was a kind of sympathetic magic intended to help men either catch or evade these animals. Another is that they were part of a fertility cult: sexual images of women with pendulous breasts and protuberant behinds are common. Others argue that these cave paintings served educational purposes, making parallels with Australian aborigines who used similar images to teach their young vital survival information as well as the history and mythological origins of their people. But much remains unexplained – the abstract signs that appear in so many caves, for example, and the arrows that clearly cannot be arrows, since Stone Age arrowheads looked different from these representations.
Sarlat-la-Canéda, the “capital” of Périgord Noir, lies in a hollow between hills 10km or so back from the Dordogne river and is undoubtedly the big tourist draw of the region. You hardly notice the modern town, as it’s the mainly fifteenth- and sixteenth-century houses of the vieille ville in mellow, honey-coloured stone that draw the attention.
In a region famous for its markets, Sarlat’s twice-weekly (Wed & Sat) offering is particularly notable for its size and the range of produce on offer. Of the two, the Saturday market is the largest, spreading down from northerly av Gambetta to place du 14-Juillet. The stalls that crowd the main drag are a rather uninspired selection of clothes, shoes and mass-produced crafts; veer off towards place de la Liberté, however, and you’ll find stalls selling everything from seasonal fruit and veg (not to mention truffles) to foie gras, walnut wine and nougat. It’s an irresistable Sarlat experience, but get there early as most stalls start packing up at around 12.30pm.
The first place of any size east of Sarlat is Souillac, at the confluence of the Borrèze and Dordogne rivers and on a major road junction. Virginia Woolf stayed here in 1937, and was pleased to meet “no tourists … England seems like a chocolate box bursting with trippers afterward”; things have changed little today, and the town has an understated charm, once you head into the winding streets west of the main road through the centre.
Roofed with massive domes like the cathedrals of Périgueux and Cahors, the spacious interior of the twelfth-century church of Ste-Marie creates just the atmosphere for cool reflection on a summer’s day. On the inside of the west door are some of the most wonderful Romanesque sculptures, including a seething mass of beasts devouring each other. The greatest piece of craftsmanship, though, is a bas-relief of Isaiah, fluid and supple, thought to be by one of the artists who worked at Moissac.
The Périgord Pourpre takes its name from the wine-growing region concentrated in the southwest corner of the Dordogne département, most famous for the sweet white wines produced around Monbazillac. The only town of any size is Bergerac, which makes a good base for exploring the vineyards and the uplands to the south. These are peppered with bastides, medieval fortified towns, such as the beautifully preserved Monpazier, and here also you’ll find the Château de Biron, which dominates the countryside for miles around.
Bergerac, “capital” of Périgord Pourpre, lies on the riverbank in the wide plain of the Dordogne. Once a flourishing port for the wine trade, it is still the main market centre for the surrounding maize, vine and tobacco farms. Devastated in the Wars of Religion, when most of its Protestant population fled overseas, Bergerac is now essentially a modern town with some interesting and attractive reminders of the past. The compact vieille ville is a beguiling area to wander through, with numerous late medieval houses and one or two beautiful squares.
The vast Château de Biron was begun in the eleventh century and added to piecemeal afterwards. It’s worth paying for an audioguide if you’re after a bit more background information (descriptions in the château itself are in French only), but you can wander at your own will around the rooms and the grassy courtyard, where there is a restored Renaissance chapel and guardhouse with tremendous views over the roofs of the feudal village below.
Monpazier, founded in 1284 by King Edward I of England (who was also Duke of Aquitaine), is one of the most complete of the surviving bastides. Picturesque and placid though it is today, the village has a hard and bitter history, being twice – in 1594 and 1637 – the centre of peasant rebellions provoked by the misery following the Wars of Religion. Both uprisings were brutally suppressed: the 1637 peasants’ leader was broken on the wheel in the square.
Monpazier follows the typical bastide layout, with a grid of streets built around a gem of a central square. Deep, shady arcades pass under all the houses, which are separated from each other by a small gap to reduce fire risk; at the corners the buttresses are cut away to allow the passage of laden pack animals. The attractive, though much altered church, lies just to the northeast of the main square.
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. .
The Château de Puyguilhem sits on the edge of a valley backed by oak woods, just outside the village of Villars. 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.
Périgueux, capital of the département of the Dordogne and a central base for exploring the countryside of Périgord Blanc, is a small, busy market town with an attractive medieval and Renaissance core of stone-flagged squares and narrow alleys harbouring richly ornamented merchants’ houses. The main hub of the modern town is the tree-shaded boulevard Montaigne, which marks the western edge of the vieille ville.
Place de la Clautre sits at the heart of the renovated streets of the medieval town, the most attractive of which is the narrow rue Limogeanne, lined with Renaissance mansions, now turned into boutiques and delicatessens, intermingled with fast-food outlets. Roman Périgueux, known as La Cité, lies to the west of the town centre towards the train station.