The perfect trip: Dordogne
Steeped in tradition, this rural idyll is a vision of quintessential France, with standout cuisine, castle-strewn riverlands and mesmerising prehistoric cave paintings.
La Roque Gageac: Best for river life
It’s a warm summer morning on the Dordogne and the river is stirring into life. Frogs croak and songbirds trill along the banks, hidden among drooping oaks and weeping willows. Swallows dart across the water, hunting for freshly hatched mayflies, while a fisherman casts his line from a jetty, trying to tease grayling and pike from the tangled weeds. As he waits for his first bite, a wooden barge chugs past, the putter of its engine reverberating through the morning air.
Along with the Loire, Rhône, Seine and Garonne, the Dordogne is one of France’s great rivers. Arising some 1,700m up in the mountains of central France, it runs for 300 miles west before meeting the Atlantic near Bordeaux. It travels through some classic French landscapes, from the rumpled domes of the Massif Central to the rolling fields of the Périgord. Edged by woods and criss-crossed by tributaries, the Dordogne’s character changes with the seasons: in summer, some sections dry to a trickle, but in winter, the river often bursts its banks, flooding villages and fields.
For centuries, the traditional mode of river transport was the gabarre – a wide, flat-bottomed barge known for its stability. In the boats’ heyday, during the 17th and 18th centuries, several hundred worked the waterways, ferrying cargoes of timber, walnuts, charcoal and grain to the Atlantic ports before returning with fish, spices, wine and salt. The railway ended much of the traffic in the early 19th century, but a few gabarres continue to ply the currents, now carrying cargoes of sightseers.
‘As a boy, my grandfather remembered seeing working gabarres on the river, so it’s important that we keep them sailing here,’ explains Michel Leger, a boat captain and amateur historian, who runs gabarre trips from the riverside port of La Roque Gageac. ‘They are part of the river’s heritage.’
Though many of the old industries have vanished, the river continues to play an important role in local life. On sunny weekends, thousands converge on its pebble beaches, take to the water in canoes or enjoy views of the river valley from spots such as the Jardins de Marqueyssac – a lavishly restored hilltop garden above La Roque, famous for its labyrinth of box hedges. Much of the river remains wild, with kingfishers, otters and herons hunting along the banks, and wild salmon and freshwater eels navigating the currents on their spawning migrations. ‘For me, life without the river is unthinkable,’ Michel says, as he pilots his gabarre along a quiet stretch bathed in buttery sunshine. ‘You’re surrounded by nature. It’s a place where your worries just melt away.’
Beynac-et-Cazenac: Best for castles
High on the battlements of the Château de Castelnaud, a medieval pageant is under way. In one corner of the courtyard, a blacksmith primes his bellows and stokes flames in a blazing bed of coal, before beating out metal on a rusty anvil. Next door, the castle’s armourer is fashioning chainmail rings, surrounded by vests, hoods and gauntlets. Beside the gate, a liveried page is demonstrating the proper technique for loading a trebuchet (a type of medieval catapult), while three more lurk behind the castle green, arms pointed over the ramparts towards an unseen foe.
‘Castles are more than dusty museums,’ explains guide Laetitia Bortolussi, wearing the red robes of a lady-in-waiting. ‘Seeing artefacts in a cabinet is one thing, but seeing how they were used brings them to life.’ Emphasising the point, a sharp crack and whoosh rings out across the courtyard as the page sends a projectile from his catapult zinging along the castle walls.