Deep in the Dordogne

Fri, 20/05/2016 - 8:00am
Read Time: 3.4 mins

Good food, gorgeous villages and some of the best scenery in France: the Dordogne region is a wonderful place for a holiday dedicated to doing not much of anything, says Emma Johnson.

The town of Espalion, on the banks of the Dordogne River. Photo: iStock The town of Espalion, on the banks of the Dordogne River. Photo: iStock

 

Down by a soft bend in the lazy Dordogne River, we're feasting beneath willow trees on thick, creamy cabécou goats cheese cut through with the dense taste of saucisson sec (dried salami). It feels like the most lovely parts of French culture – including turreted chateaux, fortified towns, pretty vineyards and cliff-built villages – have all conspired to form the dreamy Dordogne region.

This is, quite simply, a good place to be. And as you don’t really need to do anything in particular, other than venture out and slip into everyday life, it is an even better place to be a leisurely bon vivant. Country back roads and groves are there to be strolled; lunches should be long and over wine (you have ample choice – the region produces mellow white, rosé and red wines). So bring a book, a tent and a curious appetite.

Boat, bike and car are all good options for the gradual discovery of the Dordogne's looping, shaded rivers and medieval villages and towns. Travelling under your own steam allow you to aim for – or chance upon – historic sites, local restaurants and hidden camping spots at your own pace. It also means you can delve deeper into the Dordogne and get off the beaten track, a welcome option during the busy summer season which brings hordes of tourists to the region.

A canoe floats past the fortified town of Beynac-et-Cazenac, Dordogne. Photo: iStock A canoe floats past the fortified town of Beynac-et-Cazenac, Dordogne. Photo: iStock

 

Camp sites are not only affordable, but a great way to experience the green surrounds by pitching a tent in the middle of it all. Family-run gites (bed & breakfasts) – ranging from converted barns, to charming cottages to 17th century manors – offer an inside look at life in rural southwest France, and a chance to pick up some insider tips. Wherever you stay, an epicurean exploration is on the itinerary.

Food can tell you a lot about a place and it is clear that things grow delicious here. The Dordogne, or Périgord as it is called by the French, presents a lush spread of landscapes with corresponding tastes and textures. Dark oak forests produce truffles and wild mushrooms; limestone gorges and cliffs ease out into fields and woods, where the region’s famous goose farms and walnuts are found.

The tastes of Dordogne are best experienced in dishes like pommes de terre sarladaise, potatoes roasted crisp in goose fat; or in the dark, rich pungency of truffles, which turn up in omelettes and salads. The celebrated duck dish confit de carnard is a crowd-pleaser: the slow-cooked meat falls easily off the bone, having been preserved and braised in its own fat.

Fast food, crepe stalls and pizza joints appear across France – including in the main centres of the southwest – but street markets remain the unrivalled domain of produits de terroir (regional produce) and are the best place to get up close to the Dordogne's specialities.

The historic town square in Sarlat, Dordogne. Photo: iStock The historic town square in Sarlat, Dordogne. Photo: iStock

 

When Saturday markets spring up on paved streets, local produce takes over. In Sarlat, a centre of the foie gras trade, goosey goods, wild mushrooms and a dazzling array of cheeses take centre stage; in Périgueux, the region's capital, tables are laden with asparagus, strawberries, dried meats, truffles and figs.

Once you've had your fill of markets, meals and wine cellar visits, it's time to explore: Dordogne combines important historic sites with some spectacular scenery. Nestled among limestone hills, Périgueux's well-preserved medieval and Renaissance buildings reward an amble through the centre of town. Not far from here is the Cité quarter, the old town, where the 24.5m high Tour de Véson is imposing evidence of the Gallo-Roman settlement, and all that remains of a second-century temple.

Inside the Lascaux Cave reproduction, Lascaux 2. Photo: Bayes Ahmed / Flickr.com Inside the Lascaux Cave reproduction, Lascaux 2. Photo: Bayes Ahmed / Flickr.com

 

Yet the Dordogne is even older than that. In the Vézère Valley, the Lascaux cave complex features some of the world's most extensive and best-preserved prehistoric art. The original is now closed to the public due to interior degradation, but you can view the vast array of animal figures painted in earthy tones at the painstakingly constructed replica nearby (a massive new reproduction and museum known as Lascaux 4 is due to open late this year in Montignac, 2 km away).

Heading back into the Dordogne Valley, towns worth exploring include La Roque Gageac, with its row of honey-coloured buildings tucked in between river and cliffs; and the dramatic panorama of Beynac-et-Cazenac, famous for its two opposing clifftop fortresses and a key role in Hundred Years War. Set on the banks of the Dordogne River, both towns also make ideal launching spots for boats, kayaks and canoes.

Floating down the river is a great way to end a visit to the region. Take a final sweeping look at the all-in-one French reverie of castles, chestnut trees, reeds and vineyards – a reminder that the Dordogne is a wonderful place to just be.

Emma Johnson

Emma Johnson is a translator, writer and avid traveller. She lives in Christchurch, where she is the director and chief editor of the publishing house Freerange Press .