Discovering the Dordogne: France’s ‘Secret’ Region Intrigues and Delights

By Marilyn Heimburger
Photos by Don Heimburger

Paris appears to top the destination wish list on a first trip to France. But after that, the Dordogne area of southwestern France is an enticing destination known for history, culture, wine, gastronomy and relaxation.

The Dordogne, also known by its former name, the Perigord, is an hour’s drive east of Bordeaux. The Dordogne River runs east to west through its center, carving out a winding river valley scattered with more than 1,000 picturesque castles and chateaus. From vineyards in the west to pre-historic sites along the Vezere River tributary in the east, and fortified villages from the Hundred Years War, there is plenty to see.

ISSIGEAC
In the tiny medieval village of Issigeac a circular wall surrounds winding streets dominated by the octagonal bell tower of the 15th century Church of Saint Felicien. The 13th century stone buildings with Gothic arches and charming half-timbered houses with beautiful inlaid brick detail are lovingly preserved, not to attract tourists, but to be lived in and used by the less than 1,000 inhabitants. Look for the “Mushroom House,” built with an overhanging second story, to allow carts access to the narrow streets that surround it. An active market is held in the central square on Sunday mornings, but a stroll through the quiet town at dusk calms the spirit and prepares you for a relaxing dinner.

Brickwork in Issigeac
Church of Saint Felicien
“Mushroom House”

La Bruceliere restaurant in Issigeac is family-run and serves gourmet local cuisine with regional wines. A pleasant surprise in rural France, it also offers five rooms for overnight accommodations. www.labruceliere.com

La Bruceliere
La Bruceliere
Bergerac

BERGERAC
The historic town of Bergerac was founded with the castle built to manage river traffic on the Dordogne, and the 9th century bridge accommodating pilgrims on the road to Santiago de Compostela. In the old town, see the picturesque stone buildings constructed with local yellow stone, and the half-timbered houses on the Rue St. Clar. The National Tobacco Museum is housed in the 17th century Peyrarede House.

In the medieval town square, restored in the 1970’s, you’ll discover a stone statue of Cyrano de Bergerac – the comic/tragic hero made famous by Edmond Rostand’s 1897 fictional story about the brilliant and poetic swordsman with a very large nose, in love with the beautiful Roxane. The real-life Savinien de Cyrano, upon whom the fictional character was loosely based, was born in the 17th century near Paris. When he joined the Cadets of Gascony, he changed his name to Cyrano de Bergerac, after a family estate of that name. The town of Bergerac is nevertheless happy to adopt him as a symbol of boldness and generosity.

Unfortunately, Cyrano’s famous stone nose is routinely broken off by admiring fans. So a new colorful bronze Cyrano with a more permanent nose was erected in 2005 in the Place Pelissiere, in the shadow of the picturesque church of Saint-Jacques.

Stone Cyrano

In the 18th century flat-bottomed boats called Gabarre carried wine and wood for barrel-making from Bergerac’s riverfront to Bordeaux for export. Replica Gabarre today offer tours on the Dordogne in Bergerac and in the castle-rich area near La Roque-Gageac.

Cloister

A peaceful courtyard is at the center of the Recollets Cloister, now home to Bergerac’s House of Wines. Here a Wine Journey exhibit explains the history and appellations of Bergerac wines. Visitors can also taste the local wines and visit with a winemaker from the Dordogne Wine Route.( www.vins-bergerac.fr/en/p/maison-des-vins-or-house-wines.) What is there to learn at the House of Wines?

The vineyards in the geographic area of Bergerac are classified into 13 appellations that are grouped into five different types:

Reds: Bergerac, Cotes de Bergerac, Montravel and Pecharmant
Roses: Bergerac rose
Dry Whites: Bergerac and Montravel
Sweet Wines Monbazillac and Saussignac
Dessert Wines: Cotes de Bergerace Blanc, Cotes de Montravel, Haut Montravel and Rosette

Wines of Bergerac

France’s system of appellations consists of a set of strict rules covering which grape types may be used in a particular wine, the areas in which the grapes can be grown, the maximum permitted yields, the pruning type and sometimes the harvesting techniques.

Particularly popular in the area is Monbazillac, a sweet white wine made from grapes harvested after they have begun to shrivel and develop “noble rot.” Each individual grape must be hand picked from the bunch at just the right time — a labor intensive, painstaking job.

Grapes on the vine
Edouard de Saint-Exupery
Chateau Tiregan

WINEGROWERS
The vineyards of Bergerac cover almost 30,000 acres in 93 villages on both sides of the Dordogne. Although traditionally overshadowed by the more well-known wines of its neighbor Bordeaux, many of the Bergerac wines compete favorably with them, and at a lower cost.

Wines of Bergerac
Light lunch

Chateau Puy-Servain (www.puyservain.com) owners Daniel and Catherine Hecquet have nearly 120 acres of vineyards (the average for wine growers in the area is 50 acres) and export 60% of their wine.

The Chateau VARI estate in the town of Monbazillac is an organic vineyard. Their wine bar, la maison Vari, offers wine along with a simple, but delicious menu for a light lunch. www.chateau-vari.com

Winegrower Edouard de Saint-Exupery of the Chateau Tiregand in Creysse (whose famous literary relative wrote The Little Prince in 1943) welcomes visitors for free wine tastings or for a guided tour of the 17th century family estate, located just 10 minutes east of Bergerac. www.chateau-de-tiregand.com

PREHISTORIC SITES
The valley of the Vezere River, which flows into the Dordogne, has been called the prehistoric capital of the world: the part of Europe that claims the longest period of continuous human habitation. Cro-Magnon man was discovered here in 1868 during excavation for the construction of the railroad. A national museum of prehistory is located in the cliffs above Les Eyzies-de-Tayac. www.musee-prehistoire-eyzies.fr

Lascaux cave painting
Photo courtesy Semitour

The valley boasts 147 prehistoric sites dating from the Paleolithic age, and 25 decorated caves, the most famous of which is the Lascaux Cave in Montignac. The site of 17,000-year-old paintings and engravings, it was discovered in 1940 and opened to the public for viewing. The paintings had survived beautifully for centuries in the stable and somewhat sterile environment. However, visitors unwittingly exposed the cave and drawings to destructive elements such as algae and carbon dioxide, which forced the closure of the cave for viewing in 1963.

Today visitors to the Dordogne can view an exact three-dimensional replica of largest two areas of the cave in Lascaux II, a remarkable achievement that took 10 years to construct. Since 2012, a traveling replica called Lascaux III will be on exhibit in museums around the world, starting with the Field Museum in Chicago, and continuing to Houston and Montreal, not to return to France until 2020. www.lascaux.culture.frwww.semitour.com/site-touristique/lascaux-ii

Caves in Dordogne

Walking through the Grand Roc Caves in Les Eyzies de Tayac is like being inside an illuminated geode. Well-placed lighting showcases the incredibly delicate stalagmites, stalactites and crystallizations of this Unesco World Heritage site. www.les-grands-sites-du-perigord.com

Prehistoric site

A few steps away from the Grand Roc is Laugerie Basse showcasing two prehistoric rock shelters and displays of prehistoric mobile art.

EYRIGNAC MANOR GARDEN
Eyrignac Manor Garden is one of France’s most beautiful private gardens. Known for its topiary art, the gardens and manor have been in the same family for 500 years. Owner Patrick Sermadiras is often on hand to meet guests and share his design and gardening expertise. A well-written visitor’s guide and audio tour is available in English to lead you through the seven distinct gardens. An on-site restaurant offers a varied menu for a tasty lunch. www.eyrignac.com

Eyrignac Garden
Patrick Sermadiras inspects his garden

Sarlat

MEDIEVAL TOWN OF SARLAT
A medieval jewel, Sarlat boasts one of the largest medieval urban areas in the world. Locals are especially proud to showcase the birth-house of political philosopher Etienne La Boetie as a gem of Italian Renaissance architecture. Throughout the town, note the roofs made of overlapping flat stones, the inexpensive, readily available roofing material of the time. These stones made the roofs extremely heavy, necessitating steep roof angles for stability. A little jarring, yet noteworthy nonetheless, are the huge metal doors that open into Sainte-Marie church, which now serves as a covered market. World famous architect Jean Nouvel, who was born near Sarlat, designed the doors to replace the destroyed apse. He also designed the glass elevator that bursts through the open roof of the bell tower, offering a spectacular panoramic view of the surrounding old town.

Sarlat
Sarlat

Boetie House

VILLAGE OF BEYNAC
Bring your walking shoes and climb up the winding stone streets of the beautiful medieval village of Beynac. Your goal is the 12th century fortress at the top of the cliffs overlooking the Dordogne. From there, the view of the surrounding countryside, the town below, the winding Dordogne River and the Castelnaud Castle on the opposite riverbank is unforgettable. A walk through the restored castle is a living history lesson. During the Hundred Years War, the Dordogne River was the border between France and England. Beynac Castle was French and Castelnaud was English. All along the Dordogne River struggles for supremacy meant the bastides (fortified towns built by either the French or the English during the 13th century to contain invasions) were shuffled back and forth between the two countries.

Beynac Castle and village served as the location for more than a dozen films, including Joan of Arc in 1999, Ever After in 1998 and Chocolat in 2000.

Restaurant Tonnelle

After climbing and touring Beynac Castle on the cliff, enjoy a meal at LaPetite Tonnelle, a quaint restaurant tucked against the cliff on the way down. Their menu offers homemade dishes with locally sourced gourmet food and regional wines, served on their patio with a beautiful view of the village or in their dining room, built right into the rock wall. www.restaurant-petite-tonnelle.fr

desserts
Walnut cake and creme brulee at LaPetite Tonnelle

Chateau

CHATEAU DES MILANDES
On the other side of the river in the town of Castelnaud le Chapelle is the Chateau des Milandes, a beautiful 15th century castle, and the former home of musical entertainer Josephine Baker. Born in St. Louis, Missouri, Josephine’s popularity sky-rocketed during the 20’s in Paris when she appeared in the Revue Negre at the Theatre des Champs-Elysees. During her time at the Chateau de Milandes she adopted 12 multi-national children (her “Rainbow Tribe”) and became beloved by the locals because of her generosity and kindness, even working for the French Resistance during WWII. Poor financial planning caused the house and its contents to be put up for auction in 1968. Four families have owned the Chateau des Milandes since the auction. Current owner Angelique de Labarre has passionately collected items from Josephine’s past to fill the 14 rooms with original costumes, music, photos and furnishings. Beautiful gardens and a live birds-of-prey show on the grounds outside the castle complete an entertaining visit. www.milandes.com

PERIGUEUX
Périgueux, located along the Isle River, is the largest town in the Perigord region, and its contemporary face makes finding the hidden medieval gems a little more difficult.

Périgueux began as two distinct towns. Easy to see are the historic remnants of the older one: Gallo-Roman town of Vesunna. The ruins of the inner sanctum of the temple for the goddess Vesunna and remnants of the ancient amphitheater stand near Jean Nouvel’s newly-designed Gallo-Roman Museum. The Romanesque gate of Porte Normande leads to what is left of the Barriere Castle and Romanesque-style house built in the Middle Ages on Roman foundations. The Saint-Etienne de la Cité Church was the cathedral of Périgueux until 1669, when that title was transferred to the Saint Front Cathedral in the second nearby settlement that comprises today’s Périgueux.

Streets of Périgueux

Further to the east, the more commercial city of Puy St. Front, the second “building block” in what is now Périgueux, developed in the 12th century. Look carefully down narrow streets of the old town for half-timbered houses, towers, walls with evidence of ancient arched windows and gateways, bricked-in and changed to fit the needs of the century. Beautiful ancient stone staircases still lie hidden in entryways of private houses, accessible to guides with keys.

Staircase

Dominating the skyline is the Byzantine-style bell tower of the Saint Front Cathedral. The church is in the shape of a Greek cross, with five domes dating from the 12th Century. It was restored by Architect Paul Abdie between 1852 and 1895. His award winning design of the Sacre Coeur Basilica in Montmartre in Paris was inspired by the style of the Saint Front Cathedral.

Steeple
Saint Front Cathedral at night

ACCOMMODATIONS
The Chateau des Vigiers in Monestier on the western edge of the Perigord is one of the few places in the area that can accommodate large groups. This luxury hotel, with a spa and a 27-hole golf course, offers 36 romantic rooms in a 16th century chateau and annex and 40 more in its contemporary, eco-friendly Relais des Vigiers. www.vigiers.com

LaChartreuse du Bignac
LaChartreuse du Bignac

For peaceful and luxurious accommodations five miles south of Bergerac, LaChartreuse du Bignac offers 12 rooms and a restaurant in a 1630 stone chateau with vaulted ceilings and exposed beams. Extensive grounds with terraces, a swimming pool and a park lead to a small lake. www.abignac.com

The recently renovated Hotel Les Glycines in les Eyzies de Tayac is centrally located near the Cro-Magnon museum and Grand Roc cave, and is a short drive to Lascoux cave. The hotel features beautiful romantic rooms, extensive gardens, a pool and a wonderful restaurant. Order the “Victoria pineapple” for dessert, aim your video camera, and watch the magic begin. The waiter pours warm rum/passion fruit syrup over a hollow chocolate ball until the surprise pineapple tidbits, pina colada and vanilla ice cream appear. Entertaining and delicious! www.les-glycines-dordogne.com

Les Glycines

Les Glycines
Hotel Les Glycines in les Eyzies de Tayac

Vieux Logis in Tremolat is a lovely 4-star country inn, formerly a priory and then a farmstead, that is not to be missed. Rustic comfort in 14 rooms and nine apartments, with a one-star Michelin chef, gourmet restaurant, bistro, seminar rooms and lovely garden and terrace. Once there, you won’t want to leave. www.vieux-logis.com

Logis

NEED A GUIDE?
For a professional travel guide in the Dordogne, European Traveler recommends Frances and Sandra Ho Tham Kouie.
They have more than 20 years of experience in tailor-made tours for English speaking travelers – either individuals or groups. Their knowledge of history and attention to detail will smooth your way to an enjoyable discovery of the Dordogne. www.voyages-france-impressions.com.

For more information about the Dordogne region, go to www.semitour.com. Also, www.dordogne-perigord-tourisme.fr and www.perigord-reservation.com.

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