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Doing The Dordogne

Our Top 5 must-see sights

There’s so much on offer in this region: world class castles, underground grottoes, prehistoric cave paintings, traditional boat trips, cliff-hanging medieval villages, canoe trips. And it’s foodie paradise with delicacies like foie gras, truffles, walnuts, Roquefort and cognac. From rolling fields to rocky gorges, through fertile grasslands, lush valleys and spectacular plateaux, this is a historic and diverse region of compelling scenic splendour.

I well remember visiting the Dordogne 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 Périgord 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 traveller abroad want?

That it is so beloved by many visitors is probably no surprise. There is plenty of picturesque 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.  

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 everywhere, offering local specialities and interesting menus.

Sarlat

Sarlat
Sarlat

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. 

The Saturday market is widely regarded as one of France’s best. You can spend hours marvelling at the fresh produce and sheer vibrancy of the place. There are lots of enticing restaurants so find a table outside on a balmy summer evening and savour the ambience, the swooping swallows, the soft features of the ancient buildings around and above – you are a tiny fragment in a very, very, long history.

Domme

Domme
Domme

The fortified hilltop bastide of Domme is justly famous but, on a good day, less crowded and more personal than Sarlat. Much of Domme’s appeal lies in the views over the Dordogne valley – at no risk of hyperbole, they are 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.

Lascaux Caves

Cave art at Lascaux
Cave art at Lascaux

The Dordogne is 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 world-famous centres at Les Eyzies and Lascaux.

It did take Man a million years or so to get round to some decorating though. At Lascaux the cave paintings date back over 17,300 years and provide a detailed look at the beginnings of civilisation. These days tourists (and specifically the carbon dioxide they generate) are kept away from the fragile paintings, but Lascaux 2 at Montignac (west of Brive) is a faithfully created 39 metre replica.

Castles

Castelnaud la Chapelle
Castelnaud la Chapelle

Well yes, this is a bit of a cheat and allows several tips to be sneaked in under one heading. The truth is, the castles of the Dordogne all add up to a hugely important story, and impact so dramatically on the landscape that it is impossible to favour just one. Well, that’s my line and I’m sticking to it.

The Périgord 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.

The list includes Château de Hautefort (Hautefort), Château de Jumilhac (Thiviers), Château de Montreal (Isaac), Château de Fenelon (Sainte Mondane) and many more. Of course, this is just the beginning: there are reputed to be 1,001 different castles.

But the two stand-out castles are Beynac and Castelnaud, where the English and French glowered at each other across the river border during the Hundred Years’ War. Both beautiful and imposing, they come complete with stone buttresses, turrets and (replica) siege equipment.

Rocamadour

Rocamadour
Rocamadour

Strictly speaking in the Lot region, Rocamadour is a stunning little village with religious origins as a place of pilgrimage. It is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and is astonishingly popular among tourists who flock to see the incredible buildings clinging to the cliff side, seemingly defying gravity, as well as little chapels, grottoes and other hidden nooks that give it such charm and character. As a bonus, nearby lies Gouffre de Padirac, one of France’s most impressive underground caves.


Our Belle France ‘Dordogne Prestige en Vélo’ holiday has been carefully created to include some of these places.

Doing the Dordogne - all in one holiday!

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