The Dordogne is one of France’s most entrancing regions, with a cinematic beauty that seems almost too perfect to be real. Curving gracefully through a landscape of vineyards, pastures and orchards, the Dordogne River is often lined with steep hills and limestone bluffs riddled with caves. And on seemingly every convenient rise stands a château, sometimes alone, sometimes surrounded by a medieval village of golden stone.
The Dordogne valley looks like a fairy tale now, but it owes its appearance to having been the front line during the Hundred Years’ War (1337-1453). Richard the Lionheart occupied the imposing Château de Beynac, and not far away at Castillon (now known as Castillon-la-Bataille), the English and French fought the final battle of the war. The region later prospered thanks to its wine, with the river acting as a conduit to the more populous north, but a vine pest and railroads conspired to ruin this trade. The Dordogne became a backwater, ensuring that its landscape remained more or less unmarred by modernity.
But the Hundred Years’ War is recent history. Cro-Magnons who lived in the area left a rich legacy of cave paintings and etchings, dating back some 15,000-plus years. The astonishingly sophisticated compositions at Lascaux are the most famous, and the recently opened replica, Lascaux IV, is a highlight of the region. And before the Cro-Magnons arrived, Neanderthals lived in the Dordogne for hundreds of thousands of years. The valley has an unusually strong link with deep human history, and sometimes the connection feels surprisingly palpable.
After renting a car in Bordeaux, it took all my willpower to press on through the vineyards of Saint-Emilion to Bergerac, a lesser-known region that nowadays makes wines of real quality and interest. Look for rich reds from Pécharmant and carefully crafted Sauternes-like whites from picturesque Monbazillac. Having enjoyed an impressive tasting at Château Tour des Gendres, we headed to my longtime recommendation in the region, Le Vieux Logis.
In many ways, this 23-room property is my ideal of a French country hotel. On the edge of the tiny, tidy village of Trémolat, Le Vieux Logis occupies a small collection of buildings overlooking formal topiary-studded gardens, a swimming pool and a broad lawn fringed with mature poplars. A former farm dating to the 16th century, Le Vieux Logis feels comfortably worn-in but not worn-out. The two lounges to the left of reception have plush furnishings upholstered in burgundy velvet and tartan wool, inviting relaxation by the fire. A third lounge to the right, beyond the bar, has a cozy, clubby vibe, with wood paneling, leather armchairs and another woodburning fireplace. Overall, the atmosphere is stylish without being trendy. This is a hotel with real charm.
Our first accommodation, a Comfort Room (one step up from a Standard), was small but pretty, with wood floors, a queen bed, a table with a coffeemaker, a tiny work desk and a towering antique wardrobe that concealed the minibar and a television. Windows shaded by heavy brown and green canvas drapes overlooked the gardens. In the marble-floored bath, the white-tile shower was separate from the tub. As I had requested a larger room if one became available, the staff moved us after our first night to a nearby Grand Standing Room, a double upgrade. This category is much better suited to a couple, with more storage and a larger bath.
The staff provided similarly thoughtful service throughout our stay. Too often I sit in a lounge or by a swimming pool without acknowledgment from passing employees. But at Le Vieux Logis, wherever we chose to relax, we had to wait only a minute or two before someone came by to inquire if we needed anything. In both dining options too, the service was polished and professional. We had an elegant dinner of seasonal small plates in the airy Michelin-starred restaurant, and in Bistrot de la Place, a casual, friendly spot down the street also run by Le Vieux Logis, I relished the deceptively simple, deeply flavorful dishes accompanied by excellent local wines.
From Le Vieux Logis, we made day trips along the Vézère Valley, visiting prehistoric sites such as Font-de-Gaume, a cave where you can see 19,000-year-old paintings in situ; Les Combarelles, a smaller cave rich with similarly ancient engravings; and, farther north, Lascaux IV. One of the most spectacular stretches of the Dordogne River starts just east of Le Vieux Logis, where immense castles and steep medieval villages appear on the horizon like film sets. In season, this is the stretch for a cruise in a gabare (traditional wooden cargo ship) or a leisurely paddle in a canoe.
We visited in early spring, which meant that no cruises or canoe rentals were yet available, and many of the region’s Michelin-starred restaurants were closed. In compensation, we had major sites like the Château de Beynac and the extraordinary gardens of Marqueyssac almost entirely to ourselves, and ordinarily overcrowded towns like La Roque-Gageac and Sarlat were blessedly quiet.
The warm, attentive and anticipatory service; the plush but cozy décor; the fine gourmet restaurant and charming bistro; the outdoor pool amid formal gardens.
Even Grand Standing Rooms aren’t especially large; book an Apartment if possible.
The Michelin-starred La Tour des Vents, under the same ownership, is an ideal stop for lunch near the vineyards of Monbazillac and Bergerac.
A little past the Dordogne’s most famous towns stands the remarkable Château de la Treyne, a romantic castle perched on the edge of a limestone bluff above the river. Surrounded by almost 300 acres of formal gardens and forest, the château’s central tower dates from the 14th century, but most of the 17-room hotel was built some 300 years later. The small, barrel-vaulted entry hall barely hints at the grandeur of the rest of the castle.
The most spectacular space is the Louis XIII salon, home to the château’s Michelin-starred restaurant, with a soaring ceiling of deep octagonal coffers, a massive wood mantelpiece, walls paneled in silk damask and a wide Aubusson tapestry. We had a delicious candlelit dinner of white asparagus with a walnut crust, morel duxelle and lemon sabayon; flawlessly cooked local lamb with multicolored carrots; and a delicate dessert of mille-feuille topped with vanilla custard and orange gelée. Our knowledgeable and personable waiter also acted as sommelier, recommending some fine Cahors pairings, both red and white. In summer, it’s also possible to dine on the broad terrace overlooking the river. We had an apéritif there each evening as the sun set. After dinner, I liked to take my digestif in the adjacent wood-beamed Fragonard salon, with its Renaissance-era woodburning fireplace and comfy sofas, or sometimes in the wood-paneled library just off the bar.
Our palatial junior suite, Louis XIII, also overlooked the river and came with parquet floors and Fortuny-like red silk damask fabric covering the walls. Serpentine wooden columns supported a canopy over the firm queen bed, and a large inlaid work desk bore a silver tray with complimentary treats: walnut cake, candied walnuts, prunes in Pineau des Charentes liqueur and a crystal decanter of walnut wine (like slightly nutty sweet vermouth). A contemporary striped sofa faced a wardrobe concealing the minibar and television. In the hall, a closet afforded plenty of storage. The modern red-marble bath felt luxurious, with a deep Jacuzzi tub, separate shower with a rainfall head and side jets, a single well-lit vanity and walls covered in wood-framed mirrors. Fresh flower arrangements decorated the entire junior suite. I also appreciated judicious technological touches, such as an iPod dock.
Ever-present management and well-trained, friendly staff ensured that our stay was a pleasure from start to finish. I checked out with real regret and turned south, heading away from the Dordogne River into the Lot Valley. We paused in the ridiculously vertical medieval town of Rocamadour — a madhouse in summer but almost empty when we visited — as well as the lesser-known-but-no-less-dramatic town of Saint-Cirq Lapopie. In between is the cave of Pech Merle, notable for both prehistoric paintings and its forests of stalactites and stalagmites. From Saint-Cirq Lapopie, we followed the Lot River, which carves a curvaceous half-canyon through the landscape, with a wall of limestone always looming over one bank or the other.
The dramatic blufftop setting; the excellent cuisine served in palatial surroundings; the gardens and hiking trails; our regal Junior Suite with magnificent river views.
The outdoor pool is a rather long walk from the château; the “house apéritif” and local prune brandy were shamefully overpriced, which we discovered only too late.
The Michelin-starred Pont de l’Ouysse is a five-minute drive away.
Located just past the region’s capital, Cahors, the Château de Mercuès is visible from miles away, perched high on a hill rising steeply from the Lot. The 13th-century castle served as the home for the bishops of Cahors (the names of which are written in a chapel inside) until France officially separated church and state in 1905 and evicted the clergy. It became one of the first 10 members of Relais & Châteaux in 1959, and in the 1970s, Nina Simone and Edith Piaf performed in its cellar nightclub. The hotel closed a few years later, and the current owner, Georges Vigouroux, bought the property as much for its vineyards as its castle. He dug up the front lawn to build an underground winery, sometimes drilling through solid rock, to create one of France’s first “design” wineries intended to draw tourists. The restored front garden is its roof.
The personable general manager, Yann Potet, gave us a tour of the facility, its contemporary design a striking contrast with the rest of the hotel, and organized a tasting of its wines. I associate Cahors with tannic, sometimes impenetrable Malbecs, but these wines had excellent balance and integration. Try the rich and complex 2011 Cuvée Malbec 6666 or the forceful 2009 Malbec Cahors, the château’s “icon” wine. Even the Chenin Blanc, which doesn’t qualify as Cahors because it’s white, deserves attention, with ripe fruit and impressive focus. Potet proved extremely knowledgeable about the wines and Cahors terroir in general; had I not known he was the general manager, I would have guessed he was a sommelier.
The Château de Mercuès now has 30 guest rooms in addition to its world-class winery. We reserved a Junior Suite, and a personable staff member led us to La Tour d’Angle (the corner tower), the door of which opened to the hotel bar. Fortunately, three doors separated the bar from the bedroom, ensuring that we always slept in peace. Because the suite is on the piano nobile (originally its rooms served as lounges), it had soaring ceilings surrounded by elaborate moldings, capping walls papered in burgundy and gold. In the parquet-floored living room, a dramatic black Empire daybed with bronze bust finials faced a marble-topped table and a nonfunctional fireplace. The round bedroom, with a canopied king bed, occupied part of the turret, with walls some six feet thick. The work desk was tucked into a curious, windowless niche in the wall, hidden behind a door. The television was also covert, concealed within a gilded mirror.
Tall windows overlooked the gardens facing the entrance and the sweeping Lot Valley. The double window in the bath presented my favorite panorama. Mirrors affixed to its shutters hung over the dual vanities, but when we opened them, we could see a lengthy stretch of the river and a vast swath of unspoiled pasture alongside it. I loved brushing my teeth each morning as the sun rose, casting the river and the landscape in a rosy glow. The red-marble bath itself was otherwise not entirely to my taste. The large tub was European in style, with a hand-held shower (there was no walk-in stall), and to the right of the sinks was a rather incongruous alcove clad in silver prism paper and furnished with a clear Lucite armchair. Mrs. Harper dubbed it the “disco nook.”
The newly Michelin-starred Le Duèze also mixed the traditional and contemporary, with ornate Empire stucco work (including an eagle bursting from one corner) on stylishly beige walls and, in a smaller back room, brightly colored paintings inspired by Velázquez’s “Las Meninas.” We opted for the truffle-themed menu, with dishes such as an “open raviolo” topped with lightly crusted foie gras accompanied by asparagus and truffle jus, and tender veal sweetbreads with black truffles from Lalbenque and a rich potato purée. Buffet breakfasts in this space were equally delightful; after the first day, our cheerful server always remembered exactly how we liked our coffee and eggs.
We used Château de Mercuès as a base for exploring the Cahors region along the ever-scenic Lot River, enjoying tastings at nearby wineries such as Château Lagrézette and Clos Triguedina and exploring medieval towns such as Luzech, Puy-l’Evêque and Cahors itself.
The panoramic views of the Lot Valley; the on-site winery; the stylish and historic restaurant; our Junior Suite’s dramatic Empire décor and memorable views; the helpful and cheerful service; the large outdoor swimming pool.
Our Junior Suite’s lack of a proper shower; its absence of a master light switch; its pretty but very creaky wood floor.
Under the same ownership is Château de Haute-Serre, an acclaimed Cahors winery and restaurant 30 minutes to the southeast. The Michelin two-star restaurant Le Gindreau is 15 minutes in the opposite direction.
We then drove northwest from the Lot through unspoiled countryside, stopping at the magnificent half-ruined Château de Bonaguil en route to our final hotel, the Château des Vigiers, a 25-room golf resort near the exquisite Monbazillac wine region. Centered on a 16th-century castle fronted by immaculate fairways, a handful of enigmatic ruins and an octagonal dovecote, the property seemed impressive at first. But although I could have happily spent three or four days exploring the vineyards of Monbazillac, I was soon glad that I’d booked just one night at the Château des Vigiers. Golfing the 27 holes of the resort is doubtless a pleasure; I just wish I could say the same of the treatments in its highly touted Maria Galland Beauty Spa. A short walk from the château, this faces a small and uninviting outdoor swimming pool. Inside, the spa feels claustrophobic, with the hot tub and sauna pressed against windows looking into the narrow entry hall. Mrs. Harper had a perfunctory and occasionally asymmetric scrub and a desultory massage that was nothing more than an exercise in moisturization. The therapist also failed to offer tea or water afterward. Meanwhile, I wandered through the rest of the facilities, discovering an ancient locker room with badly stained carpeting. I have experienced few spas that were more poorly laid out or maintained.
Life in the château was only a marginal improvement. At check-in, I felt less than encouraged when the front desk asked if we understood the meaning of “turndown service.” Our Prestige Room had fine golf-course views, an original mantelpiece and attractive blue-and-white toile de Jouy wallpaper, but its green-dotted beige carpet was in dire need of replacement. I liked the soaking tub and well-lit dual vanities, but the curtained white-tile shower stall was unattractive. Downstairs, we relaxed in one of the several clubby lounges for some time without anyone asking if we might like a drink. And because the Michelin-starred restaurant was closed, we were obliged to dine in Brasserie Le Chai, a former winery. My cep mushroom velouté and duck confit both tasted fine, but the presentations were unrelievedly brown and unappealing.
In short, the Château des Vigiers has few redeeming qualities other than its golf course. Instead, finish your circle of the Dordogne and Lot regions at Les Sources de Caudalie, set amid the vineyards of Château Smith Haut Lafitte, about half an hour from Bordeaux’s airport. With a Michelin two-star restaurant and a celebrated spa offering “vinothérapie” treatments, Les Sources de Caudalie ends a swing through southwestern France in appropriate style.
The parklike setting amid well-groomed fairways; the location near picturesque and high-quality wine country.
The shabby spa; the forgettable food; the uninterested service; the stale accommodations.
If golfing here is of interest, base yourself an hour away at Le Vieux Logis.