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Review: Dordogne

City/Town/Region/Island

France

A week in the Dordogne: an overview

  • By SilverTraveller ESW

    2372 reviews

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  • May 2013
  • Husband

67 people found this review helpful

We had visited the Auvergne last summer and touched the edge of this area and had been intrigued by the wealth of history and scenery. We felt it would repay a visit. I chose the Sarlet area as being the best place to stay. They had been prepared to send me lots of tourist information, unlike Les Eyzies who told me information was on the web and they had a policy of not sending out information. My email that I had a policy of not visiting places that didn’t send out information fell on deaf ears.

We wanted to book accommodation through Brittany ferries and the only place they had available was, near Borrèze, a tiny settlement to the north west of Sarlat. It was a beautiful setting up a side valley surrounded by walnut orchards. The downside was it was several miles up a very narrow road with many blind corners. We felt it was expensive for what was provided.

Borrèze has lost its bakers but there is an excellent one in Salignac a few miles away. This also has a small and rather scruffy Intermarché, so we planned to do shopping in Super-U in Souillac which was much larger with a good range of produce.

The Dordogne is a very popular tourist area and even in May it was busy. From experience we know large towns aren’t for us and we prefer the smaller towns and villages. We didn’t visit Sarlat even though Michelin gives it its highest ranking of 3*. We were very disappointed by the tourist honey pots of Beynac and La Roque Gageac and rather wonder why everyone goes there. We preferred Belvès with its fortified Castrum and St Cyprien with its glorious golden chancel arch in the church.

Rocamadour is on everyone’s tick list and is the most amazing site when you stand at the top and look down on the religious complex and the lower town. Again we felt this was best seen from a distance and were disappointed by the religious complex. For those wanting to do holiday shopping it has an excellent range of shops which quickly solved holiday gifts.

As in the past we found the smaller non-touristy places repaid visiting and nearly always found something to enjoy. Settlements are attractive with honey coloured stone houses with very steep lauze (stone) tiles. Many have a timeless air to them. Many like Villefrance-du-Perigord still retain their medieval market hall in the centre of the square. It was Market day when we visited Martel with the market in full swing in the market hall. This is a local market and we were the only tourists.

The Sunday market in the square at St Genies is popular with locals and visitors and is always busy. Urval still has its communal bread oven with shelves to prove the bread and the bakers quarters above with his pigeon loft. This is still used on the village fete.

The area has been settled for several thousand years and the Vérèze valley is stuffed with prehistoric sites. We gave these a miss this visit. Early Christian hermits settled the area and many churches like those at St Cyprien, St-Amand-de-Coly and St-Avit-Senieur date from that time.

The area has been fought over for centuries. The Vikings arrived in the 9thC and forts were built in the cliff face high above the river as a defence. These were later reinforced during the hundred years War. Many, like the ones at La Roque Gageac are now crumbling ruins. This is now inaccessible since a rock fall. La Maison Fort de Reignac is the best surviving example of a hill fort and is a fascinating place to visit.

Beynac has a hilltop château set high on the cliffs above the town. It is a marvellous defensive site. Disappointing inside, this is another place best admired from the outside. There are several other medieval chäteaux along the Dordogne valley which we admired from the outside.

Many of the smaller towns started as bastides in the 13th and 14thC. These were new walled towns built on a rigid grid pattern. Montpazier is one of the earliest, built by Edward I to defend his French lands. It retains its medieval street pattern and still has part of the walls with the old gateways.

Elsewhere churches were fortified for use by the villagers in time of attack or siege. St-Amand-de-Coly is surrounded by a defensive wall with a guard tower. It has an impressive fortified tower and is described in the guide books as possibly the best fortified church in the area. When the Huguenots occupied church in 1575 during the Wars of Religion, they were able to hold out for six days against 20,000 soldiers of the Périgord seneschal who had powerful artillery backup.

Urval and Besse have massive naves which look more like a castle keep than a church. Prats-du-Perigord is unusual as the fortified room was built above the chancel. All of these were interesting buildings and well worth visiting.

Many of the churches like that at St Léon-sur-Vérèze date from the 11th or 12thC and are delightful Romanesque buildings. Many still have frescoes. Those in the tiny and neglected Chapelle du Cheyard and the equally tiny church of St Christopher in the graveyard are medieval and in good condition. We hadn’t realised just how much detail there was until we looked at the photographs of them. Those in the church in Belvès are later and are a very different style.

Many of the churches still have the remains of a black funerary band (litre funéraire) painted round the walls. Seen at Besse and Abbaye de Cadouin, these date from the old regime and were painted in honour of the deceased with his coat of arms. At St-Avit-Senieur they form black band across the arches in the nave.

As well as frescoes, many of the churches have elaborately carved capitals as at Santa-Croix and Carsac. The abbey at Beaulieu-sur-Dordogne and Carennac have superb tympanum above the main door.

Others have elaborate altars with retables attached to the top of the alter with the host box, and large reredos on the wall behind them. These are often highly carved with statues and paintings. There are good examples at Martel and St Cyprien.

The area is heavily wooded with mixed deciduous woodland. There are many walnut orchards. In May the trees were just beginning to come into leaf and could immediately be recognised by their characteristic bronze colour. Walnuts are big business and are ground for oil as well as being used to make flour. We had intended to visit Moulin de Tour only to find it shut on a Sunday. We were interested to see the broken shells of walnuts being use as a weed suppressing mulch at St-Amand-de-Coly.

This is rich farming country, especially along the valley bottoms. Local strawberries were on sale everywhere. The forced asparagus grown around Beynac was at the end of its season. This is paté de fois gras country and all the villages sold their own variety of tinned paté. We did try some but found it too rich and greasy for our taste. We weren’t aware of many animals grazing although local cheese is made. The tops of the plateau tend to be unimproved pasture, rich in wild flowers.

In places the old dry stone field buildings, cabanes, can still be seen. Most of them date from the 19thC and were used for animals or storage. Cabanes de Breuil is a small hamlet of cabanes around a working farm.

It had been a very wet spring and everywhere was lush and green. The river Dordogne was so full the tourist gabarres at La Roque Gageac were unable to sail as gangways were under water.

The Dordogne and Vérèze valleys do get very busy with tourists. Once away from them, it is much quieter. Using the Michelin 1:200,000 motoring map to explore, we found some delightful small places off the tourist beat like Vieux St-Crepin with its old château and church and Montferrand-du-Perigord with its market hall, château and old church in the graveyard.

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