With its rich history, beautiful views, renowned wine and fantastic food, the Périgord (known to most of us as the Dordogne) is one of the most popular tourist destinations in France.
Some of man’s earliest settlements can be found in this area. A troglodyte village carved into over-hanging rock with evidence of Neanderthal man (50,000 BC), the pre-historic masterpiece that is the Lascaux caves dating to around 25,000 BC. These maybe the best known sites in the area but there are many other lesser known but equally as breathtaking. Deep caverns with magnificent stalactites, stalagmites and columns, underground waterways and pools.
“I believe that the Cro-Magnon man settled here because he was extremely intelligent and had a highly developed sense of beauty” Henry Miller (The Colossus of Maroussi).
Une mille et une (One thousand and one) Châteaux
Known as the ‘land of 1,001 châteaux’, the Dordogne’s landscape is embellished with some of France’s finest medieval castles, built during the early Middle Ages by barons seeking to consolidate their power or protect their wealth.
Featured on countless posters, the towering Châteaux Castelnaud and Beynac face one another across the river Dordogne. Built in the 12th century they contain a range of, then, cutting-edge technology to repel would-be invaders: defensive pinch-points, armoured gateways and reinforced artillery turrets, as well as a network of ‘murder holes’ from which the defenders could unleash boiling oil, tar and crossbow bolts. At Château de Beynac all its fortifications were to no avail when Richard the Lionheart managed to scale its walls and take occupation, albeit short lived. The castles are vast with not only collections of medieval armaments and 15th century frescoes, but dungeons, kitchens and living quarters to visit as well.
It’s not just the castles that attract attention, pretty medieval towns and villages remain largely unchanged by modernisation. France has many pretty medieval towns, but Sarlat-la-Canéda is perhaps one of the most beautiful and well preserved. Established around a Benedictine monastery in the early 9th century, during the Middle Ages it became one of Aquitaine’s most prosperous mercantile towns. Although it was pillaged and occupied several times during its history, Sarlat was never razed or substantially rebuilt, so its medieval character is largely intact.
In the early 16th century another period of building began this time in Renaissance style. A walk through the old town with its winding lanes, courtyards and alleyways is a trip through history. Even the stonework tells a story with carvings of medieval characters, Knights’ Templar symbols and a menagerie of mythical beasts.
Most of the bastide towns in France are in the south west of France and this area still contains some of the best preserved and most attractive. Laid out in a grid pattern with a central square, which served as the market place and commercial centre, the majority were built between the 12th and 14th centuries. Although built at a relatively peaceful time in history once the Anglo-French conflicts deteriorated they were easily fortified by closing up the outer walls.
Of the many picturesque towns and villages in this area La Roque Gageac and Limeuil are two of France’s most beautiful villages. The golden hued medieval and renaissance houses of La Roque Gageac line the Dordogne and the hillside behind, whilst in Limeuil cobbled streets wind up from the river through pretty medieval houses and matchbox sized gardens.
And gardens too; formal, panoramic, tropical, tranquil. One of the most beautiful at any time of the year is Marqueyssac. Perched on a cliff overhanging the Dordogne valley it reveals one of the most spectacular panoramic views in the Dordogne. Six kilometres of paths wind through clipped boxwoods and trees with rock gardens and benches carved into the rock.
And to top it all the Perigord is regarded as having some of the best cuisine in the country (not bad considering the country is famed for its culinary expertise). It’s the home of Foie Gras, Black Truffles and Duck, and the rich soil provides a number of walnut tree plantations producing delicious nut oil.