A fairy tale land of sleepy cas­tles and nat­u­ral beauty awaits in the Dor­dogne.

Country House Magazine - - Contents -


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

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