Foie gras. Walnuts. Prehistoric caves. Canoes. Cepe mushrooms. Cobblestones. Castles. Medieval villages.
This is Dordogne. About a five hour drive south from Paris, this lovely region of France is one where the eating is good and some of the best activities just require bringing your heart rate down and enjoying the moment. This region seems to be often overlooked to more popular areas of France like Normandy and the Riviera so here's a peek at what Dordogne has to offer:
This is my pick for getting a view over the Dordogne river, the surrounding villages, and their protective castles. Domme was founded by Philip III (the Bold) of France as bastide. Marks from the Hundred Years' War can be found throughout this region, and this fortified medieval town is one of them. It changed hands a few times between the French and English. Now it is a peaceful stop to take in the stunning landscape and take a stroll.
2. La Roque-Gageac
La Roque-Gageac is one of the villages you came to Dordogne to see. This picturesque town is piled up on a cliff overlooking the river. Dordogne is dotted with signs introducing towns as the most beautiful villages in France (as determined by the "Les Plus Beaux Villages de France" association). La Roque-Gageac seems to be one village particularly praised for its beauty (although Domme and Beynac-et-Cazenac - see below - also are bestowed this honor).
There are basically two streets in this village - one is the main county road (D703) and then this small road above that runs parallel at a significantly higher elevation. My favorite things to do in this village? One was to eat lunch overlooking the water and watching kayakers paddle down the river. The other was to ditch this street and take a short hike to get a better look at the Château de la Malartrie, leaving the tourists behind. The château was actually only built in the late 1800's for a French ambassador, but it is available today for vacation rentals (as in you can rent the entire estate for you and your closest 11 friends).
3. The Grotte de Font-de-Gaume
Dordogne is well-known for its prehistoric caves. Even if you are not particularly interested in prehistoric times, this cave is an absolute must-see. Font-de-Gaume is the last cave in the world with polychrome (multicolored) paintings to be open to the public. (The famous Lascaux cave also in Dordogne has polychrome paintings but had to be closed since it has rapidly deteriorated after being open to the public. The Lascaux II cave is a meticulous replica and is supposed to be wonderful to visit as well.)
The art cannot be dated exactly, but it is estimated to be 15,000 years old. If you had an idea that prehistoric people were barbarians focused only on killing animals to survive, this experience will give you an entirely new perspective. There were plenty of animals roaming around at this time so hunting was easy, leaving people with spare time to focus on other aspects of life like art and music. A walk in this cave shows the masterful skills and perspective these artists had and their ability to create a dynamic scene that comes alive when a fire torch is held to the walls.
TIP: Older guidebooks advise getting tickets in advance, but in 2013 that changed. Everyone must stand in line for same-day tickets only. Only 80 people can enter the caves each day, but that number can be reduced with no notice for conservation reasons. I would get there by 8:00am (opens at 9:30am), especially if you want to get onto an English tour. I arrived at 8:30am one morning and missed getting in by one person. It worked out for the best though because the next day I got a choice of tour times and was able to go on a tour in English. The guide gave one of the best tours I have been on and was so passionate to share the cave with the group.
Font de Gaume, 4 Avenue des Grottes, 24620 Les Eyzies-de-Tayac-Sireuil, France, intersection of D-47 and D-48
Price: 7,50 € for adults, 4,50 € reduced rate (price as of Nov 2013)
This town has been entertaining tourists for centuries. Ever since the body of St. Amadour was discovered in 1167, about 1,000 years after his death and looking pretty good all things considered, pilgrims have included this spot en route to Santiago de Compostela.
It still is touristy, but it makes for an interesting visit. The town lies at the bottom of the hill and the cluster of religious buildings are above (and free to enter). The most well-known object is the statue of the Black Virgin, housed in the Chapelle Notre Dame.
Beyna-et-Cazenac is also considered to be another of the most beautiful villages in France. If I had to chose between the villages in Dordogne though, this one is the definite winner.
Beynac-et-Cazenac has winding, cobblestone roads and features a castle at the top of the village. This castle isn't like the one in La Roque-Gageac that is designed to look centuries older than it is. The Château de Beynac is from the 12th century and was a French fortress during the Hundred Years' Year. The British were just across the river at Château de Castelnaud.
My parents and I rented a 16th century stone house in this town to call home in Dordogne for a week. I would definitely recommend this village to stay in, but a car is needed to get around the area (otherwise Sarlat is the town of choice for train travelers).
If you are looking for an area to find quaint medieval villages, rural landscapes, and outstanding food, Dordogne is perfect. A car is really necessary to get around, but one can also bike or canoe to see the area. Hope this gives you a taste of this not-as-known region of France!