The expansive French department of Dordogne is often overshadowed by its neighbor, Gironde, thanks to the latter’s famous wine region of Bordeaux. Many savvy European travelers already know the Dordogne (also sometimes referred to as Périgord) as a world-class destination for globetrotters who want to see France as it may have looked a few centuries ago–pristine forests, castles tucked under thickets of brush, carefully tended vineyards, and scattered villages and hamlets seemingly in the middle of nowhere.
Here are ten reasons to add the gorgeous destination of the Dordogne to your wanderlist.
Castles upon castles
Simply driving through the narrow roads of Dordogne, you will likely catch glimpses of castles in the most unexpected places. It is believed that there are at least 1001 chateaux in Périgord, many of which are open to the public for touring. Don’t miss: Chateau Beynac, a majestic castle perched precariously on the side of a cliff; the impressive Chateau Castelnaud just across the way, a castle that changed hands between the English and French several times during the Hundred Years War (and spent many of those years in conflict with Beynac); and 15th century Chateau des Milandes which was restored by legendary performer Josephine Baker. The nearby Chateau de Commarque is a castle in ruins that was discovered under a layer of brambles, then opened to the public for viewing in 1994. Who knows how many other castles are to be found?
While people immediately think of Paris and Lyon for haute cuisine, the southwest of France is rich in regional specialties, many of which revolve around duck and geese. Famous delicacies include slow cooked duck confit, velvety foie gras, walnuts, luscious strawberries, foraged cepes (the local porcini), and the highly-sought black Périgord truffles. During truffle season (December – February), purveyors of this rare delight sell their wares at either Brantome or Sarlat’s truffle market. A special chestnut market is held in Villefranche-du-Périgord in mid-September through November. And foie gras, the revered fatted goose liver, is produced just about everywhere here. Throughout the year, dozens of village markets showcase the best of what the region has to offer, and you’re highly encouraged to sample it all.
Incredible wine, without the attitude
The southwest is France’s fifth largest wine growing region, with twice as many vineyards than Burgundy and three times more than Napa Valley. Just a quick tour through the Dordogne Valley will reveal acres upon acres of meticulously maintained vines, spanning rolling hills and wide plains. The neighboring region of Sauternes is well-known by dessert wine enthusiasts throughout the world, but Dordogne is home to the original botrytised wine (sweet dessert wines made from grapes affected by fungus) of the southwest: Monbazillac (it predates Sauternes by over a century!). In addition, you’ll find reds, white, and rosés from Bergerac, an area with over 2000 years of winemaking tradition. They may not be as well known to the world as those from Burgundy or Bordeaux, but they are just as exquisite.
Cruising the Dordogne River
The Dordogne River is 300 miles long, and offers unique views of the valley from the water. Take a tour via the gabares, flat-bottomed boats styled after those used for transporting goods along the Dordogne since the Middle Ages. If you’d like something a little more interactive, rent a canoe or kayak and glide gently past the small villages and historic castles along the river side, and stop to picnic or sunbathe on the shore. And of course, when the weather is really warm, you’ll find locals and tourists swimming in the Dordogne.
An underground world
Besides the incredible above-ground attractions of the Dordogne, there is an entire network of caves that were created thanks to the enormous amount of water and natural mineral deposits in the area. These caves were sometimes used as refuge against invaders during the Middle Ages, then again during World War II. Take a tour of the Gouffre de Proumeyssac, known as the Crystal Cathedral, where you can walk down into the mineral-lined caverns to see the biggest cave in the region, theatrically lit to enhance the massive crystallized formations. The Caves of Maxange in Le Buisson de Cadouin was more recently discovered in the year 2000, and the Grotte de Villars in the northern Dordogne has both stalactites & stalagmites, as well as prehistoric cave drawings.
The Vézère Valley is home to 147 prehistoric sites and 25 painted caves, a dream for anyone interested in the Paleolithic Age. The most famous of these is the Cave de Lascaux, originally discovered by four young boys playing in the area in 1940. The caves have over 2,000 images created with mineral pigments, ranging in theme from animals to abstract designs, some images demonstrating an early use of perspective to depict visual depth. Today, the original Cave de Lascaux is closed (to protect it from further deterioration) but an exact replica of these prehistoric masterpieces has been created, called Lascaux II, and is open to the public for viewing. Surrounding this “Sistine Chapel of Prehistory,” there are are 15 UNESCO World Heritage Sites to see, like the Grotte de Font-de-Gaume and Abri Cro-Magnon. Your inner paleontologist will jump for joy!
Medieval cities and bastides
Some of the most beautiful places to tour are the cities that don’t really have anything to “tour,” but are simply cities that seem somewhat frozen in time. Sarlat is perhaps one of the region’s most beloved, with cobblestoned streets and majestic buildings, lined with foie gras shops and cafes. The city of Belvès dates back to the 11th century, a myriad of stone buildings perched atop a rocky mound, voted to be one of “le plus beaux villages de France.” Known for its seven bell towers, this city has seen invasions and wars, but managed to retain its medieval charm and preserve many historical relics worth seeing. Other towns and cities to stop in: La Roque Gageac, nestled alongside the Dordogne River; Limeuil, a medieval village situated where the Dordogne and Vezere rivers meet; and Eymet, a bastide (fortified town) founded in 1270 which is popular with British expats–you’ll be able to find plenty of English-speakers here, which is quite useful if your French isn’t so great!
Crafted outdoor spaces
While there is no shortage of naturally occurring beauty in the Dordogne, there are also fantastic outdoor spaces that that are simply exquisite to behold. Take a tour of the topiary art at Eyrignac Manor Gardens, ten hectares of greenery sculpted into an impressive display. Eyrignac boasts seven separate garden sites, each unique in theme, from the Manor House gardens to a Chinese Pagoda. Several times during July and August, Eyrignac hosts white-party style picnics and concerts, both fun events during the warm summer nights of Périgord. Another beautiful place to visit is the Chateau de Marqueyssac, composed of three walking routes designed to lead to Le Belvédère, a “balcony” of sorts that gives visitors a breathtaking panoramic view of the Dordogne Valley. The paths are lined with sculpted arrangements of boxwoods, and are accented with small staircases, rock gardens, benches carved into stone, and your walk, if you’re lucky, scented with the perfume of the rosemary and lavender dotted along the trails.
There are festivals throughout the year in the Dordogne, but the warmer spring and summer months are when you’ll find a few dozen events one after another. From April to June, the walled bastide towns through the Bergerac region host artistic cultural events that celebrate diversity through concerts, cinema, exhibitions and more. The Pourpre Jazz Festival (Bergerac) in May showcases talent from across the globe, including a series of free concerts held Cloître des Récollets of the Maison des Vins. In July, Mimos (Périgueux) is the International Mime Festival, a display of acrobatics, puppetry, and comedy. There is no shortage of theatre and music festivals throughout the summer, so plan accordingly.
Local outdoor markets are the heart and soul of France; stocked high with excellent seasonal produce, hand crafted food items, and much more, they serve as the connection between farmers, artisans, and the community. There is a market to be found virtually every day of the week–even Sundays–with the biggest markets being in Perigueux, Bergerac, Ribérac, and Sarlat-la-Canéda (where they also have night markets during the summer). Some of these markets also sell antiques. Explore these markets with curious eyes (and cash); you may find a handmade wallet, jewelry, woven shopping baskets, spices, or wine that you simply can’t live without!
originally published on TripCreator’s blog 17 June 2016