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Demands of the Dordogne

Cycling and walking terrain for all abilities

When considering a cycling or walking holiday in France, it is natural that thoughts turn to the level of fitness required. Also that some might be daunted by the challenging terrain they might encounter.

Let us humbly offer the Dordogne as a good starting point, with routes for walkers and cyclists, graded at different levels depending on the arduousness of each route. Don’t worry, none are especially hard!

Doing the Dordogne

It is no coincidence that the Dordogne has long been a magnet for Brits. Since the Black Prince and the Hundred Years’ War, we have clung to this corner of France. There is something about the terrain (think Cotswolds on steroids) that evokes home for many an Englishman. Or at least the idealised notion of home.

There are wooded hills and craggy outcrops often dominated by ancient stone castles, more imposing and dramatic than most in the National Trust handbook. Countless sleepy villages of honey coloured stone and terracotta pots of tumbling geraniums, with no camera-wielding coachloads on a day trip from London.

And rivers in all shapes and sizes: burbling brooks bubbling over the stony shallows, up to the mighty expanses of the majestic river Dordogne itself. All 483 km of it. France’s third longest river, it passes through the regions of Auvergne, Limousin, Midi-Pyrenees and Aquitaine, creating a watery streak through much of the country’s most sensational countryside.

Biron, a small village on the Dordogne/Lot-et-Garonne border
Biron, a small village on the Dordogne/Lot-et-Garonne border

Walking and cycling terrain

On a cycling or walking holiday it stands to reason that it is desirable to travel through an interesting landscape. And an interesting landscape is likely to have some ups and some downs (they may be mountains, hills, inclines or just rolling hillocks but they certainly add variety to the journey). 

There may be rivers to follow, or traverse, which usually adds to the scenic appeal. The bonus for fans of the easy going is that following a river downstream as it meanders guarantees that you’ll be travelling in a downward direction.  

A well planned daily itinerary should allow plenty of time for spontaneous exploration and detours. On a cycling or walking holiday of the easy going variety you don’t want to be clock watching all the way.

So be prepared to stop off at a bustling market and buy some lunch provisions – the Dordogne has many, especially on Saturday mornings. And do expect to venture round that bend to see the view or to climb those extra steps for something really special. Poke your nose round the door of a tranquil rural church and you might just find choir practice. All unplanned but a wonderful insight into the local community you are passing through.

Before sunrise at St Genies
Before sunrise at St Genies

Meet The Périgords
The French tend to know the region as the Périgord rather than the Dordogne. The Périgord comes in various shades, each conveniently with its own characteristics.

The Périgord Noir
For many the epicentre of the Dordogne, this is the south eastern section with historic Sarlat centre stage and all the classic Dordogne features on hand: craggy cliffs, castles, some challenging hills and lots of grottes. This is certainly hilly terrain, and magnificent views have to be earned with a little endeavour!

The Périgord Pourpre
Lying to the west and surrounding Bergerac, this is flattish, low lying land, famed for vineyards and wines like Monbazillac and Pécharmant. While the landscape is expansive and ideal for gentle cycling and walking, you will discover some celebrated bastide towns like Monpazier and Beaumont, perched on hills and requiring a little effort to climb. 

The Périgord Vert
As the name suggests this northerly area is lush and green, the bucolic landscape scattered with small villages, old farms and interlaced with slow moving rivers and streams. It’s very sedate, charming and there are rocky plateaux and gentle hills to navigate occasionally. Towns like Nontron and Brantôme are highlights, as well villages like Thiviers (the foie gras capital), beautiful St Jean de Cole and Bourdeilles.

Evening cityscape of the French town Sarlat
Evening cityscape of the French town Sarlat

Walking and cycling in the Dordogne