I well remember visiting the Dordogne (as we British usually refer to it) for the first time and feeling I’d discovered a little piece of paradise. There was so much to take in and everything seemed just so, well, perfect.
The Perigord region (as the French know it) is a gentle landscape of lush valleys and green pastures, wooded slopes and hill top castles, sleepy little honey coloured villages, crumbling old buildings in picturesque disorder, potted geraniums and fabulous cuisine. Throw in some sunny skies, and a few friendly locals and what more could a Brit abroad want? Something a little different from home, of course, but not too unfamiliar please.
Above panoramic: La Roque-Gageac. Honey-coloured stone houses line the banks of the mighty River Dordogne beneath dramatically overhanging cliffs.
That it is so beloved by many British visitors is probably no surprise. There is more than a hint of Cotswold charm about it, though it rarely oversteps the mark and strays towards the twee and chocolate boxy. The overall impression is very much that of many English shire counties – decidedly rural, unshowy, family-friendly and with a slightly wholesome, almost old-fashioned feel.
And, of course, for places to be described as ‘lush’, ‘verdant’ and ‘fertile’ there has to be a useful amount of rain – something we Brits are no strangers to. Summers in the Perigord may be hot and sultry but rain showers are not unusual.
The Perigord has long been prized by royals, tussled over by kings and queens, French and English – notably during the Hundred Years’ War. The numerous castles, straight from the pages of children’s illustrated storybooks, dominate many a craggy hill or promontory. Beynac and Castelnaud, where the English and French glowered at each other across the river border are typical and come complete with stone buttresses, turrets and (replica) siege equipment.
Above panoramic: Belvès. A lively village with 15th century covered market hall.
It is a region immersed in history. In fact it’s been a popular destination for millennia: Cro-Magnon man left his mark in the caves here over a million years ago and the region is considered the fount of pre-history, with worldfamous centres at Les Eyzies and Lascaux.
In the heart of the region, Sarlat is the big draw for many: penetrate the modern outer ring of a typical provincial French town and you find a delicious centre with honeycomb streets and alleyways and ancient buildings in rich golden hues. If anything seems familiar it could be that you’ve seen it before in a film. Development restrictions mean an absence of permanent features like street ‘furniture’ and signs, so that the old town can be transported back several hundred years without too much difficulty.
There are lots of enticing restaurants (not all fantastic or good value, so choose carefully). Find a table outside on a balmy summer evening and savour the ambience, the swooping swallows, the soft features of the buildings around and above – you are a tiny fragment in a very, very, long history.
Above panoramic: Monpazier central square. A perfectly preserved village in the heart of the land of the bastides.
But, as is often the case when travelling, it’s the lesser known gems that are often more rewarding. The fortified hilltop bastide of Domme is justly famous but, on a good day, less crowded and, well, more personal. Much of Domme’s appeal lies in the views over the Dordogne valley – at no risk of hyperbole, simply stunning. Try and avoid clashing with coach visits (first thing in the morning, or late afternoon can often be good times) and take a mooch around the little streets that encircle the hill. In case of rain, you can head underground to the grottes, some of the best in the area.
Did you know…? When Eleanor of Aquitaine married Henry of Anjou, the lands of Aquitaine became her dowry.When Henry became king of England, the English soon developed a taste for the light red wines of Bordeaux – ‘clairet’. Soon the entire wine production of the Bordelais was being shipped to England to satisfy our thirst for ‘claret’.
There’s no shortage of excellent campsites in this region and many feature good sized pitches and a wealth of lovely old buildings (bearing in mind many campsites used to be farms, mills and the like). These are often sensitively converted to create charming restaurants, receptions and bars. Many campsites have water frontage and you can paddle or swim in slow moving rivers or venture off along leafy paths or across flower meadows.
With so many high quality eateries, dining out is easy and a real feature of any holiday here. Healthy competition ensures plenty of choice and great value and you’ll find superb restaurants on many campsites, offering local specialities and interesting menus. In fact some site owners seem as proud of their kitchen as their pool complex. One memorable evening I found the plat du jour from the campsite takeaway (yes, the takeaway) was magret de canard with traditional sarladaise potatoes – now that was a little piece of paradise.
Above panoramic: Saint-Léon-sur-Vézère. Teeming with authenticity and charm, this quaint little village is a hidden gem.
Market Day Sarlat market is possibly France’s greatest, with a riot of colour and an array of choice. It is very popular with locals and tourists, so aim for a prompt start (open from 8:30 am).
Going Underground If caught in a summer shower, head for the nearest grottes – the numerous underground caves, cleverly illuminated, with stalagmites, stalagtites and even underground rivers.
What’s the quack…? Gastronomically, the duck is ubiquitous here. From the foie gras which is on sale at many a farm gate, to the duck breast confit, the delicate magret and the signature Salade Perigourdine with various ducky morsels, including the delicious gesiers (or gizzards as we would call them less prosaically). They say the quack is the only part of the duck that is not eaten.