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.

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.

Sometimes known as the ‘land of 1,001 châteaux’, the Dordogne’s landscape is embellished with some of France’s finest medieval castles, built during the early Middle Ages by barons seeking to consolidate their power or protect their wealth. Between 1337 and 1453, during the Hundred Years’ War, the Dordogne also marked the stormy frontier between French- and English-controlled territories, and its castles frequently found themselves on the front line, witnessing numerous sieges and battles.

Across the valley from Castelnaud lies its arch rival, the Château de Beynac, another quintessential example of medieval martial architecture. Centred on a massive keep ringed by watchtowers, drawbridges and ramparts, the castle employed a range of then cutting-edge technology to repel would-be invaders: defensive pinch-points, armoured gateways and reinforced artillery turrets, as well as a network of ‘murder holes’ from which the defenders could unleash boiling oil, tar and crossbow bolts. Ironically, these innovations provided little defence against the greatest threat – betrayal from within – and, more often than not, the fortresses fell as a result of treachery.

‘Our castles provide a window on our past,’ explains Laetitia. ‘It’s important we remember that these were living, breathing places, where people worked, toiled, served, fought and died. Hopefully, our work here helps bring them back to life.’ She raises her hood and strolls away along the battlements, accompanied by the sound of clashing swords and ringing hammers echoing from the courtyard below.

Sarlat-la-Canéda: Best for architecture
‘What a view,’ exclaims historian Corinne Hommel as she leans from the window of a stone turret and surveys the cluttered rooftops of Sarlat-la-Canéda. ‘Essentially this is the same panorama you would have seen if you’d been standing here 300 years ago,’ she says, gesturing across the jumble of gables and slate-topped spires. ‘It’s like looking through time.’

France has plenty of pretty medieval towns, but Sarlat-la-Canéda is perhaps the most beautiful of all. Established around a Benedictine monastery dedicated to St Sacerdos in the early 9th century, during the Middle Ages it became one of Aquitaine’s most prosperous mercantile towns. Though it was pillaged and occupied several times during its history, Sarlat was never razed or substantially rebuilt, meaning its medieval character has barely changed.

Sarlat’s old quarters are built from the golden stone characteristic of many of the Dordogne’s towns. Strolling through them feels like stumbling into the pages of The Da Vinci Code – they are a labyrinth of lanes, passageways, courtyards and cul-de-sacs. Hidden chapels lie at the end of narrow corridors, alleys lead in unexpected directions before meeting dead-ends, and streets intertwine, looping round to meet their starting points or opening out into concealed squares.

Even the stonework hides coded mysteries: medieval characters, coats of arms, Templar symbols, allegorical mottoes and a menagerie of mythical beasts. Corinne runs her hand along a worn carving beside an ornate doorway: it’s a salamander, symbolic of resistance and resurrection during the Middle Ages, thanks to its legendary ability to endure fire. It’s also the town’s emblem, she explains – one of many examples concealed in its medieval masonry.

‘If you know what you’re looking for, Sarlat is a textbook filled with clues,’ says Corinne. ‘Even now we don’t know what all of it means. There are many mysteries that still need to be solved.’

She walks around the outside of the town’s Gothic cathedral, emerging next to a rocket-shaped tower surrounded by a cloistered garden. ‘This structure is known as the Lanterne des Morts, or the Lantern of the Dead,’ she says. ‘We think it was a place of prayer for the deceased. Candles may have been lit in the roof apertures, to announce the deaths and as symbols of the souls on their journey to heaven. But there are no records that describe its purpose so, really, we can only guess.’ She points to several recesses carved in the stone walls. ‘These are tombs for Sarlat’s wealthiest families,’ she adds. ‘If you look, you can still their coats of arms carved into the stonework.’

Later that evening, as the sinking sun casts shadows over the streets, Corinne leads the way to the Église Ste-Marie. Razed in the 14th century, deconsecrated during the French Revolution and restored by the modernist architect Jean Nouvel, the church now houses a covered market and a futuristic glass lift, which glides up the belltower for panoramic views across Sarlat’s medieval heart.

 ‘Thousands of people visit Sarlat every year,’ she says at the top of the belltower, from where the limits of the town’s long-vanished walls are still visible, ‘but very few of them take the time to learn its secrets.’

She turns to watch shadows creep across the old town, where the cathedral’s spire glows like polished brass and flocks of swifts swirl among the black-tiled eaves.

Montignac: Best for prehistoric art
One morning in September 1940, a boy called Marcel Ravidat was exploring the hills above Montignac when his dog, Robot, uncovered a hole beneath a tree root leading to a cave. Climbing inside, Marcel and his three friends lit their oil lamp, raised it to the roof and found themselves surrounded by one of the artistic wonders of the world.

Great bulls loomed from the darkness, herds of horses cantered across the cave walls, reindeer reared their antlered heads, seeming to shift and stir in the flickering lamp-light. Outlined in rich shades of red, black, yellow and beige, using the contours of the rock to give them a three-dimensional quality, the animals seemed astonishingly life-like – as if they’d been painted just a few hours before. In fact, they dated from the end of the last ice age, long before the first stones had been laid at the Pyramids, Stonehenge or the Acropolis. The oldest turned out to be more than 17,000 years old.

Though many more painted caves have since been discovered around the Vézère Valley, Lascaux is still considered the masterpiece. In academic circles, it’s known as the ‘Sistine Chapel of cave art’. In all, the cave contains 2,000 individual images, including a 5½-metre-long bull, the largest prehistoric artwork ever found in Europe. Most depict animals – reindeer, horses, bulls and aurochs (an ancestor of the domestic cow) – but there are also mysterious signs and geometric symbols, as well as a human figure with a bird’s head, known as the ‘wounded hunter’. Many theories have attempted to explain their purpose, ranging from shamanic temples to prehistoric comic strips – but, in truth, no-one can be certain what these frescoes meant to the artists who made them.

Lascaux was opened to the public in 1948, but closed just 15 years later, when it became apparent that carbon dioxide from visitors’ breath was damaging the artwork. A replica of the most important sections of the cave was subsequently created nearby, and opened in 1983 as Lascaux II. It includes the Salle des Taureaux, or Hall of the Bulls, famous for its frescoes of crimson aurochs and dappled horses, as well as a gallery lined with reindeer.

It’s been followed by a touring exhibition (Lascaux III) and an ambitious €50 million facsimile of the entire complex, Lascaux IV, due to open in late 2015. This is a formidable undertaking: the process involves laser-scanning the caves, creating millimetre-perfect fibreglass replicas, and then painstakingly repainting each fresco.

Manon Cherpe is one of 20-odd artists employed at the Atelier des Fac-Similés du Périgord, the organisation completing Lascaux IV. ‘Although we’ll probably never know what the paintings meant to our ancestors,’ Manon says, as she sets to work in paint-spattered overalls, ‘we’re beginning to understand how they made them.’

Another focal point of ancient art lies 18 miles west of Lascaux. Sometimes known as the ‘cave of 100 mammoths’, the Grotte de Rouffignac is explored via an electric train which clatters through six miles of caverns, covered with images of woolly mammoths, ibex, reindeer, lions and horses. One image even shows a woolly rhino, one of the only examples in prehistoric art.

Back at the Atelier des Fac-Similés, Manon is absorbed in her work: a potbellied horse, its legs poised in mid-gallop, its mane stirred by an invisible breeze. Carefully, she applies a dot of paint, then leans back to assess the effect. ‘Working this closely to the paintings, you can almost feel the artist’s presence beside you,’ she says. ‘Sometimes, it’s like you can feel them guiding your hand.’

Périgueux: Best for food
The sun is just up in Périgueux, but the streets are already filling with shoppers. Beneath the white domes of the Cathédrale St-Front, the cobbled square is packed with stalls, and the air is rich with scents: sweet fruit, pungent cheeses, freshly baked bread. Customers sample just-picked strawberries from wooden punnets, or wait in line to buy meat from their favourite butcher. Shouts ring out across the square.

There’s been a regular morning market in Périgueux, the largest city in the Dordogne département, since Roman times. Every Wednesday and Saturday, traffic is banned from the centre, and its squares fill with farmers and artisans. Pitches are highly prized. Some families have been manning stalls for generations.

From fine wine to foie gras, the Dordogne is fiercely proud of its food heritage – and nothing gets locals more animated than the truffe noir, or black truffle. ‘Truffles are the treasures of the Périgord,’ explains Maryse Chaulet, a trufficultrice who sells them outside her delicatessen on Place St-Silain. ‘We’ve been cultivating them here for centuries. Of course I’m biased, but honestly, they’re the best in France.’

Celebrated by chefs and connoisseurs, this fungus that grows wild on the roots of oak trees is capricious in the extreme: a spot that’s truffle-rich one year can be inexplicably barren the next. Thanks to their rarity, prices can be eye-watering: a single 100g truffle costs upwards of £45. ‘There’s a reason they’re known as le diamant noir du Périgord,’ says Maryse, smiling. The truffle season runs from December to February, but truffes d’été, or summer truffles, are increasingly popular. They are paler and also less expensive, usually selling for around £20 per 100g. ‘Most French people think they aren’t worth eating,’ says Maryse. ‘They are less pungent than black truffles, but still delicious. I like them best on hot toast.’

Truffles are just one of many specialities that can be found at Périgueux’s market. At one stall, chunky legs of cul noir pork dangle behind the counter: similar to Spanish pata negra, the cured meat is known for its odorous, smoky flavour. Next door, walnut oils and Bergerac wines are available to sample, as are some of the region’s renowned Gariguette strawberries.

‘Food is a way of life in the Dordogne,’ says Maryse, as she spreads truffle tapenade on a piece of toasted baguette. ‘It’s always been that way here. And I’m sure it always will be.’

The article 'The perfect trip: Dordogne' was published in partnership with Lonely Planet Traveller.