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. Not to be missed are the famous prehistoric cave drawings at Les Eyzies and Lascaux, the formidable Château de Beynac, the well-preserved 13th-century fortified hamlet of Domme and the Renaissance old quarter of Sarlat (the foie gras center of France). Consider a day trip to the vertical village of Rocamadour and to the Padirac Chasm, which has an underground river toured by boat. Spring and fall are the best times for a visit.
One of the great treasures of southwestern France is its collection of caves decorated with prehistoric paintings and etchings, mostly ranging between 15,000 and 30,000 years old. Opened in December 2016, Lascaux IV is a convincing replica of the region’s most famous cave. It reconstructs parts omitted by Lascaux II, the first re-created cave, which opened in 1983. See the real thing at Font-de-Gaume, where artists used the undulations in the cave to create an astonishing sense of depth. Les Combarelles feels more like a small, winding tunnel through the rock than a grand chamber. Its small size means that you can’t help but observe the many etchings up close. And Pech Merle, hidden in the Causses du Quercy Regional Natural Park, is one of the few caverns with impressive geologic formations in addition to vibrant prehistoric art. Book tickets well ahead of your visit.
Wineries in both the Dordogne and Lot valleys have rededicated themselves to quality in recent years, and the regions now produce world-class wines in a range of styles. In the Dordogne, near Bergerac, look for classy Sauvignon Blancs, full-bodied Pécharmant red blends and sweet and racy Monbazillac, akin to Sauternes. Hefty, inky Malbec-based Cahors comes from the Lot Valley, but also seek out the region’s lesser-known whites (Chardonnay and Viognier are especially good). Be sure to visit the architecturally dramatic cellars of the Château de Mercuès and do a tasting. We also had delightful tours and tastings at Château Tour de Gendres in the Dordogne Valley, and at Château Lagrézette and Clos Triguedina in Cahors. Make appointments in advance.
Southwestern France's Castles
Castles positively litter the landscape of the Dordogne Valley, a front line in the Hundred Years’ War. Favorite examples include the blufftop Château de Beynac; the Maison Forte de Reignac, built into the side of a cliff; the Château des Milandes, once owned by Josephine Baker; and the romantic Château de Bonaguil, which has been only partially restored.
A Magnificent Garden
Julien de Cerval, a magistrate from Sarlat, inherited the unremarkable Château de Marqueyssac in 1861, and he proceeded to transform its grounds the Les Jardins de Marqueyssac, one of the most splendid gardens in France. Paths meander through some 150,000 century-old boxwoods, a surreal topiary landscape the likes of which I’ve never seen. From certain viewpoints, you can overlook acres of Seussian tufts, beyond which spreads one of the most spectacular sections of the Dordogne region.
Cruising the Dordogne River
In season, it can be great fun to take a sightseeing cruise along the Dordogne River in a gabare, a traditional wooden cargo craft. The website Périgord Découverte lists a number of companies offering a variety of itineraries, or ask your concierge for a recommendation.