A fairy tale land of sleepy castles and natural beauty awaits in the Dordogne.
If the cave-paintings of Les Eyzies are anything to go by, then people have been present in the Dordogne region for getting on for 35,000 years. It remains one of the most unspoilt regions in France, which is some feat when you realise that around 3 million tourists descend each year. The area has a particular affinity to the English, who recall with pride the fact that much of the area was under English rule until the end of the Hundred Years’ War in 1453 but, since then, the French have not looked back and the permanent presence of the English is small (with between 5-10,000 residents). Despite what the guidebooks may tell you, you do not feel in “Dordogneshire”. The area is archetypal France with a mixture of magic thrown in. For a start, there are over 1,500 castles in the Dordogne region and many of them have been chiselled into the landscape with such perfection that they appear beacons to a mythical world. Head to Beynac, Marqueyssac, Rocamadour or Salignac and you will get the idea. Meandering through Dordogne the region is of course Dordogne the river. At some 500km long it snakes across the south west of France and fantasy villages follow its path from source to mouth.
Although invidious to choose, the area between Bergerac and Montvalent, being about 150km apart, is as good a one to start with as any. However, you will have to be prepared to explore areas away from the river. Here, you are in wine country, and you will come across somewhat nondescript villages that are, in reality, regarded the world over for their grapes. Loupiac, Monbazillac and Tiregrand (owned by the Saintexupéry family) come to mind. The images of the vines stretching for as far as the eye can see are particularly memorable – particularly at places like Monbazillac and Ribagnac. Not to be out done, of course, you need to think of the food that comes from the Périgord (which essentially should be seen as another name for the Dordogne). The area is famous for its duck and goose products (its confits and its foie gras), strawberries, walnuts as well as the famous black truffle. Aside from food an drink, it is probably the peaks and turrets of the chateaux that are most synonymous with the region and the fairytale world. A chateau is not, strictly speaking, a castle (it is better translated as a country house), but the confusion really begins when it starts looking like a castle. The chateau at Monbazillac is a case in point. It dates from the 16th century, and it guards the 3,500 hectares of wine-producing land with commanding views over the region. Another wonderful chateau is at Biron. The Chateau de Biron was in the Gontaut-biron family from the
11th to the 20th centuries. There is a tremendous history to Biron, and the Biron family. Many of its members were illustrious soldiers, most notably Armand Louis de Gontaut who played a significant role in the American War of Independence but who was later guillotined during the French Revolution. Worth seeing too is the chateau at Salignac, having a wonderful view into the valley below, that actually goes back to the 12th century when it was an important fortress. After having headed for the chateaux, you should take time to visit a few of the villages and towns in the area. If you can only go to three or four, make sure Beynac, Dômme, Rocamadour and Sarlat are on your list. Beynac is 500ft above the Dordogne, and you can quickly see why it became a stronghold of Richard the Lionheart. You will marvel at how Beynac stays together, giving the appearance of almost being built into the rock. Dômme is listed as one of the most beautiful villages in France and it is an authentic military bastide (or fortified village) where the Knights Templar lived in the 14th century. Henry Miller said that the glimpse of the Dordogne from Dômme “is something to be grateful for all one's life.” Rocamadour is another majestic feat of human engineering. It is built on the face of a sheer 400ft cliff. During the Middle Ages, the pilgrims came from across Europe to ascend all 216 steps of le Grand Escalier to pay homage to the Virgin Mary and St Amadour. As you will find out if you go, many still follow in their footsteps. Last but not least you will need to savour Sarlat. If you can, you should use it as a base for a couple of days. Every Wednesday and Saturday,
Sarlat’s Place de la Liberté is turned into a wonderful street market, a tradition going back to the Middle Ages. As you would expect, the cuisine of Sarlat (being the capital of the Périgord Noir region) is something that you will remember for a long time. Try Le Vin au 10, L’esprit Sarlat or Le Presidial. Perhaps not as famous as the chateaux, topiary is however distinctly Dordognesque. Not far from Salignac is the village of Saint-crépin where, close by, are Les Jardins du Manoir d'eyrignac where you will see intricate examples of topiary as well as a beautiful 17th century manor house and a central ornamental pond (kept fresh owing to the spring in the garden). There are 5 hectares of gardens at Eyrignac with around 80 plant species and 300 plant sculptures. There are 6 full-time gardeners. It is amazing to learn that the owner who redesigned the gardens in the 1960s had no previous experience of garden design. It gives hope to us all! Perhaps a geographically more stunning example is at Marqueyssac. The location is almost as memorable as the topiaries themselves because of the wonderful views of the Dordogne beneath (the area is known as the “Valley of the Chateaux”), but the scale of Marqueyssac takes your breath away. It is about 5 times the size of Eyrignac – 150,000 boxwoods now grow there. Again, it is somewhat remarkable to understand that the gardens were saved from complete ruin in the 1990s. You cannot escape the bucolic effect of the Dordogne region. Whether it is the waterfalls in Autoire on the border with the Lot region, or in the Périgord Limousin Natural Parc, horseback riding around Monpazier, one
of the most beautiful villages in France, the sheep that graze contentedly at Proissans, or just the bales of straw all around Salignac, you can quickly be taken to another time and place. There are adventure hikes along forest streams and walking routes that take you from Bergerac to Sarlat down valley bottoms and into woodland. There is history all around you. Go to Les Eyzies and the National Museum of Prehistory, housed in a 13th century castle, to see where it all began. Les Eyzies is France’s centre of pre-historic humanity, and fossils from parts of the region suggest that the earliest signs of human life appear in the Dordogne. Our ancestors picked the right spot! When you are in the Valley of the Chateaux, with the mist of the Dordogne hovering and rising in the air allowing just the sight of a few pointed-hat turrets, your thoughts turn to what Henry Miller, writing at the outbreak of World War II, said in the Colossus of Maroussi - “It was a stroke of genius on my part to make the tour of the Dordogne region… it gives me hope for the future of the race, for the future of the earth itself. France may one day exist no more, but the Dordogne will live on just as dreams live on and nourish the souls of men.” Fortunately, there is still time to go and live the dream! Spring is an ideal season to visit unless you are going truffle hunting which takes place from November to April. A lovely place to stay is Le Moulin du Roc in Champagnac de Belair (www.moulinduroc. com), a charming hotel with an intimate Michelin-starred restaurant that is re-opening on 6 April after renovations.
From above left: Boats in the Dordogne river, horses at St Crepin; a bird's eye view of the Dordogne river from Dômme; Monbazillac castle and vineyard. Previous page: The Dordogne river at dawn
From above left: The gardens at the Manoir d'eyrignac; the chapel at Marqueyssac Gardens; the Manoir d'eyrignac's entrance door; a topiary tree in those gardens; more topiary at the Marqueyssac gardens. Next page: Tree house at the Marqueyssac Gardens
From above left:
The Autoire Circus waterfall; sheep at Proissans; a house in Sarlat; bales of straw in Salignac countryside. Previous page:
A view of Salignac Castle from the field.
From above left: The village of Biron; the village of Rocamadour; Le Moulin du Roc hotel in Champagnac de Belair; a cabin at La Roque-gageac. Next page: A vineyard with a windmill near Ribagnac