The best châteaux of the Dordogne
The Belle France Top 5
The Hundred Years’ War saw the French and the English fighting it out for ownership of the Dordogne. Clearly they both wanted it badly. Very badly.
The fact that the fighting went on for so long (OK, there were a few pauses for a breather along the way) indicates the importance and appeal of this very special region. Its history may have been turbulent but, medieval geo-politics aside, much of the appeal still remains relevant today.
The appeal of the Dordogne
For many, the Dordogne is the ideal region for a cycling holiday. It has the climate (hot, sunny and with occasional refreshing summer showers); it has the cuisine (countless restaurants and eateries seem perpetually locked in a battle to offer the best food at the most attractive prices – healthy competition ensures great quality and great value for money). And it has the exquisite landscape – different to the UK, but not so different, almost chocolate boxey in places and occasionally Cotswolds-on-steroids.
It also has the topography: a terrain that is not too challenging but which has just enough hills and valleys to make life interesting for cyclists. And, of course, it has the castles – the brooding, rugged types that perch on lofty cliffs, and the more refined, elegant châteaux that sit amidst well tended estates.
Castles and châteaux
These are marvellous places to pause for a nose around, perhaps indulging in a restorative coffee. They give a chance to immerse yourself in the man-made aspects of this glorious region, as well as providing a historical perspective that can bring it to life.
There are plenty to choose from – with apparently over 1,000 castles of every description and type, each having its own story to tell and its own unique character.
Here are our Top 5 châteaux of the Dordogne – not necessarily household names, and certainly not the largest or most historically important. Some are lived in, some you can rent for yourself but all have a great story and offer a glimpse behind the drama and sweep of history that accompanies this thrilling region.
Château de Cardou Bergerac
Dating back to the 13th century, this gem is listed as a ‘Historical Residence of Character’ and stands at the end of a long drive amid 150 hectares of parkland. It has evolved over the centuries, with various makeovers bringing it into line with the latest military requirements and structural techniques.
The château has been in the family now for nearly 300 years and only recently, in 2001, was one of the wings restored and established as a unique rental, allowing guests to play lord of the manor for a short time.
Château de Hautefort Périgueux
Just 40 km from ancient Périgueux, Hautefort is both prestigious and unusual. Its architectural style is little seen outside the Loire Valley: the slate grey roofs, turrets and intricate formal gardens are ornate and more associated with the châteaux nearer Paris and the royal court.
Painstakingly restored during the 20th century the château has much to offer and intrigue the visitor. Elegant 17th century tapestries, beautifully furnished rooms with polished wooden floors give a homely feel, in stark contrast to most of the austere ‘fort-style’ castles of the region.
Outside, the gardens are stunning and have been awarded ‘Jardin Remarkable’ status, celebrating the striking topiary and carefully laid out parterres. The formal gardens give way to English-style landscaped parkland with tremendous views over the village of Hautefort.
Château des Milandes Castelnaud
In a spot littered with ancient castles (most notably Beynac and Castelnaud which glower at each other across the Dordogne valley), Milandes stands out as a castle with a different story.
It was built in the 15th century by the owner of Castelnaud castle as a gift for his wife who disliked Castelnaud’s hash, chilly interior and its lack of creature comforts.
So Milandes adopted a more homely style, less defensively fortified, with Renaissance features, attractive stonework and architectural detail. Unlike other castles with their militaristic designs and grim imposing designs, Milandes has a wealth of turrets, mullioned windows, stained glass and gargoyles, as well as beautiful gardens.
It was all famously restored by the renowned owner Josephine Baker, the American chanteuse who made her name at the Folies-Bergère in 1926. She brought it back to life with art deco flair and today the château is a testament to her eventful and colourful life.
Château de Sauveboeuf Aubas
Just a few kilometres downstream from the Lascaux caves and Montignac, this 17th century castle is more a small palace than medieval castle on whose ruins it was built. The current owner has restored many of the rooms over recent decades and gradually it has gained a reputation as a small-scale castle with a real, lived-in feel.
There’s a magnificent stone staircase, beautiful stone framed windows, Renaissance terrace and ample opportunity for a riverside stroll through the fruit orchards along the Vézère.
Château de Puymartin Sarlat
Back in 1270 this imposing castle was right on the border separating English and French forces when the Hundred Years’ War broke out. A dangerous position and, not surprisingly, it was sacked and subsequently re-built and modified over the following centuries.
Today it is a small gem with pointy turrets, stone towers, courtyards and even a ghostly spirit, a White Lady said to inhabit the tower. Certain rooms are furnished in historical style and the original character is intact.
It is set just 8 km from historic Sarlat and close to other ‘big name’ attractions of the Dordogne such as picturesque Domme (with its epic sweeping views) and La Roque-Gageac with its honey-coloured houses clinging to the riverside and cliffs.