A driving tour of the Dordogne and Lot valleys will delight all manner of travelers, including children and adults. Historically, the region is of great importance. The Dordogne River was a front line during the Hundred Years’ War, which left the landscape positively littered with castles and fortified villages, and in the much deeper past, Cro-Magnon inhabitants decorated numerous caves with surprisingly sophisticated paintings.
Active travelers can canoe while surrounded by limestone bluffs and medieval villages. And gourmands can indulge in the area’s specialties of foie gras, truffles and walnuts. The local wines, too, have quietly become world-class, both in Bergerac and Cahors.
Although the Dordogne and Lot valleys are not especially well-known in the United States, their extravagant beauty is no secret to Europeans. Avoid the summer high season, if possible, and travel in April, May, September or October. Roads are well maintained and marked, but the prettiest are often narrow and winding.
Read the full account of our editor’s trip to the Dordogne and Lot valleys in the Hideaway Report.
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Fly into Bordeaux and rent a car at the airport. Drive 50 minutes to the picturesque medieval town of Saint-Emilion, set amid some of the world’s finest vineyards. Check into the Hostellerie de Plaisance, perched on a bluff a short walk from the central square.
Explore the town and then have dinner at the nearby restaurant in the Logis de la Cadène hotel, which has received a Michelin star.
Depart Saint-Emilion. If it’s a Saturday, stop in Sainte-Foy-la-Grande to wander its weekly market.
Drive an hour into the countryside south of Bergerac, a patchwork of rolling vineyards and walnut orchards. The area produces a wide range of wines, including dry whites (Bergerac Sec), rich reds (my favorite is Pécharmant) and Sauternes-like dessert wines (Monbazillac, Saussignac).
Make an appointment for a tasting at Château Tour des Gendres, hidden deep in the countryside (the easiest way to find it is to head to Ribagnac and follow signs from there to the winery). Owner and winemaker Luc de Conti helped transform the region’s wines, which deserve far more attention than they receive (a fact reflected in their low prices).
Continue on another hour to one of my longtime favorite hotels in southwestern France, Le Vieux Logis. The hotel has ample charm and warm, attentive service, a combination all too rare nowadays.
Relax by the outdoor pool and then have dinner a short walk down the road in the cozy Bistrot de la Place, a restaurant owned by Le Vieux Logis.
Drive a little less than an hour to Sarlat, one of the best-preserved medieval towns in France. Market days, which are held on Wednesday and Saturday, are great fun but crowded, especially in season.
Explore the narrow, mostly pedestrianized streets of the historic center and have lunch at the quaint Les Jardins d’Harmonie on a quiet square not far from the cathedral.
From there, it’s about 30 minutes to Lascaux IV, the new replica of the world’s most famous prehistoric cave. The paintings may be 15,000 to 30,000 years old, but they display an astonishing sophistication. Book the 4:06 p.m. tour in English well in advance, and allow 10 minutes to walk from the parking lot to the building.
Return to Le Vieux Logis and dine in its airy Michelin-starred restaurant.
Make a side trip along the Vézère River valley today. Pause in the pretty riverside town of Limeuil and then turn north toward Les Eyzies, home to the National Prehistory Museum. Have a look at the exhibitions of interest, but be sure not to miss the view from the terrace.
After lunch at the nearby Le Bistro Les Glycines, tour Font-de-Gaume, one of the only caves open to visitors, which contains prehistoric paintings and etchings. The depth the artists achieve using the undulations in the stone walls of the cave is extraordinary. Book tickets as far in advance as possible — ideally months ahead.
Return to Le Vieux Logis. Dine at one of several fine restaurants nearby (ask the concierge for a recommendation) or have dinner again at the hotel.
Check out of Le Vieux Logis. Follow the Dordogne River about 40 minutes to Beynac, a steep medieval town sweeping up to an immense fortress overlooking the valley. Tour the castle and then continue along the river to Les Jardins de Marqueyssac, an extraordinary clifftop garden of Seussian topiaries with panoramic views up and down the Dordogne.
Have lunch 10 minutes away at O’Plaisir des Sens, which has both a gourmet restaurant and a less formal bistro. Backtrack a few minutes to La Roque-Gageac, a picturesque town built into a curve of a bluff along the Dordogne. Stop in Lou-Castelou (Rue de La Falaise), a cavelike food-and-wine shop with walls partially formed from the face of the cliff.
La Roque-Gageac is also a center for excursions on the river, either by canoe or gabare, a traditional wooden cargo vessel.
Continue along the Dordogne and check into Château de la Treyne, a magnificent castle on the edge of a bluff overlooking the river.
Have dinner tonight in the palatial dining room.
Circle counterclockwise from the château this morning, first heading south into Causses du Quercy Natural Regional Park.
Wind through the deeply rolling pastures and forests to Rocamadour, a famously vertical medieval town about 20 minutes from Château de la Treyne. Take in a panorama of the town from a viewpoint near the Hôtel Le Belvédère and then have a stroll along its one main street. A staircase leads up to Rocamadour’s famous pilgrimage church.
Continue the circle, visiting the pretty and generally unspoiled towns of Autoire, Loubressac, Carennac and Martel, stopping where the mood strikes. Perhaps have lunch in Martel at Le Relais Sainte-Anne, in an old stone house with a garden on the edge of town.
Stop for a tasting of fine walnut liqueurs and plum brandies at the Distillerie Louis Roque in Souillac, and then return to Château de la Treyne. The entire circle requires two hours of driving time.
Take the rest of the afternoon to relax by the outdoor pool or have a walk from the château to Le Bastit along a bluff above the Dordogne (30 minutes one way).
Have dinner tonight in the Michelin-starred Pont de l’Ouysse, about five minutes away by car.
Depart Château de la Treyne and drive an hour south, into the Lot. Stop first at the cave of Pech Merle, notable because it has impressive geologic formations (stalactites, cave pearls) in addition to prehistoric paintings and human footprints fossilized in mud. Again, book tickets well in advance.
Continue south to the Lot Valley and the dramatic town of Saint-Cirq-Lapopie, perched high above the river. Stroll through its hilly streets and have a simple but satisfying lunch at Auberge du Sombral.
Tracing the path of the Lot River is not the fastest route to Mercuès, but it’s certainly the prettiest. Stop where you like along the way — plenty of small towns, water mills and riverside cliffs call out to be photographed — and drive up the hill to Château de Mercuès, which commands a sensational panorama of the valley.
Check in and have an aperitif in the garden overlooking the river before dinner in the restaurant, rich with Empire-style embellishments.
Drive 40 minutes south, pausing briefly across the river from Cahors to see the 14th-century Valentré bridge (the city itself is attractive but unremarkable).
Continue to Château de Haute-Serre, a winery under the same ownership as the Château de Mercuès. The quality of Cahors wines, made mostly from Malbec, has taken a giant leap in recent years, and the best have real richness and finesse. Take a tour and have a tasting, followed by lunch in the winery’s fine restaurant.
Return to Château de Mercuès after lunch and do a tour and tasting in the winery, built beneath the front garden.
Take the rest of the afternoon to relax by the outdoor pool or sit at a shady table in the garden.
Have dinner tonight at Le Gindreau, a Michelin two-star restaurant about 15 minutes from the château.
Continue exploring the Lot Valley and the wines of Cahors. Start with a tour and tasting at Château Lagrézette, about 10 minutes from Mercuès. The castle on the vineyard-clad hill is private, but the high quality of the wines makes a visit worthwhile nevertheless. Be sure to try the fine white and rosé bottlings in addition to the Malbecs.
Lunch at Hostellerie Clau del Loup, ideally on the patio, and drive on to Puy l’Evêque, set on a dramatic slope rising from the river. Have a stroll in town and then head to Clos Triguedina, one of Cahors’ most important wineries.
As of this writing, Clos Triguedina has recently completed a sleek new tasting room in which to showcase its superb wines. Don’t miss the chance to try The New Black Wine, made in the old Cahors manner of heating some of the grapes before fermentation.
Return to Château de Mercuès following the opposite riverbank and take the rest of the afternoon to relax.
Dine in the château’s bistro tonight.
Continue north through exquisite and unspoiled countryside, heading back toward Bergerac. Before you reach the city, turn west to La Tour des Vents, a Michelin-starred restaurant with views of the Monbazillac vineyards and distant Bergerac across the river.
Take the rest of the afternoon to relax and then have dinner at the hotel’s Michelin two-star restaurant.
Use today to enjoy the hotel’s celebrated vinothérapie spa, and perhaps visit a nearby Bordeaux winery, if you’re so inclined. Golf and cooking classes are also available.
Have dinner in the hotel’s bistro tonight.
Drive about 30 minutes back to the Bordeaux airport, return your rental car and depart.
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