The Dordogne Valley, or the Périgord, as the locals also call it, is home to many of the “most beautiful villages in France”. This area is not as well known as others in the country, but it is undoubtedly one of the most beautiful. These 5 places are among the best in the region, and a visit to the Dordogne is not complete without seeing them all.
1. Domme- Domme is a village located on top of a rocky cliff overlooking the
Dordogne Valley. From the viewpoint, the view encompasses the valley.
from the Montfort meander in the east to Beynac in the west. The view of the lazy river and farm fields belies the violence that took place here in the Middle Ages.
Domme is a bastide founded by Philip the Fearless in 1283, so it is actually newer than other villages in the area. People at the time were encouraged to go to newly founded cities, called bastids, most of which were planned around a central covered market area. There are numerous bastides in France dating from this general period. Although it is worth a visit at any time, Domme is especially pleasant on market days, when you will find homegrown and homegrown fruits and vegetables, sausages, olives, cheeses, cured hams and of course a Dordogne staple, the foie gras. Consult any of the local Tourist Offices to find the hours of the markets in Domme or other towns.
2. La Roque Gageac- This charming village is nestled against a cliff that descends vertically towards the Dordogne River. It has attractive alleys with interesting houses, churches and other buildings, including the Manoir de Tarde, a manor house of the formerly famous Tarde family. One section has abundant semitropical plant life, since the protection of the cliff is such that the flora there can survive even in the winter months.
A walking path runs behind the buildings at the foot of the cliff and offers great views and photography. Troglodyte caves are also found throughout here, and are worth a visit.
3. Beynac About 2 miles down the road is beautiful Beynac. The Chateau de Beynac stands on an extraordinary site, rising from the top of a rock overlooking the
valley dotted with hills crowned with castles. The castle was once captured by Richard the Lionheart, and over the years and during numerous wars it was destroyed and then rebuilt. There is a huge drop of almost 500 feet. from the castle to the river, and the view is spectacular. The panorama includes the nearby castles of Marqueyssac, Castelnaud and Fayrac. The town, hidden at the foot of the cliff adjacent to the river, is where the movie “Chocolat” was filmed. A steeply sloping path known locally as the Caminal del Panieraire (the basketman’s path, this was seen in the opening scenes of the movie “Chocolat”) leads from the back of the village, through rows of Renaissance houses dating from 15 to 17. centuries, up to the castle and the church at the top. This hike is definitely recommended, but it does get steep towards the top. Tours of the castle are normally in French, but some tours in English are available some mornings. Check with one of the local tourist offices for availability.
4. Castelnaud- This “fortified castle”, or fortified castle, is located only 2 kilometers from the castle of Beynac, and it was between the two that the battle front between the English and the French changed during the Hundred Years War. The castle changed hands between the two sides on numerous occasions. There were several periods of restoration after the Middle Ages, the last one starting recently in 1969. The castle offers superior views of the Dordogne valley, and also houses a museum of medieval weaponry and siege. Various catapults can be seen in the courtyard, even from the valley below. There are also two films, one related to the weapons museum and the other about the history of the castle. The surrounding village is picturesque, but be prepared for a steep climb on foot to reach the castle.
5. Sarlat – A bustling city today, Sarlat grew up around a Benedictine abbey founded in the 9th century. The abbots retained their power until the 13th century, when infighting and corruption led to their downfall. The 13th and early 14th centuries were a prosperous time for this bustling commercial city, but the Hundred Years War left it weakened and depopulated. After this came a period of reconstruction, and most of the row houses that can be seen today were built between 1450-1500. This has created a very attractive Renaissance-style architectural unit. If possible, have dinner in one of the many restaurants in the old town and see the town also at night, as it is very well lit. The ancient town of Sarlat has a number of interesting places to visit, such as the Cathedral of San Sacerdos; the Maison de la Boetie, where Etienne de la Boetie was born, a famous writer and friend of Montaigne, who also influenced Rousseau; the Maleville Hotel; among others. There are many charming shops, galleries and restaurants.
The Dordogne region is home to a number of other interesting sites in addition to the 5 described above. As these sites are about 10 kilometers from each other, they can all be visited comfortably in two days. If you have more time to spend in the area, there are other castles and gardens to see, as well as canoeing, kayaking, and other activities. The area is very popular with the British and Dutch, many of whom have second homes in the region or have moved there full time. In my opinion, this is one of the most beautiful and pleasant parts of France. The food is excellent and you cannot visit without trying the confit or the duck breast, the duck confit or the duck breast. It goes without saying that tasting a little foie gras is practically mandatory.