Dordogne Valley Tourist Guide, Things to do in the Dordogne and on the River

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The Dordogne is a region of agricultural landscapes, woodlands and mellow stone buildings, reminiscent, if you’re familiar with the UK, of the Chilterns, the Cotswolds and the Downs.

The French know this region as the Périgord, named after its most important river. It is the cradle of humanity. Famed for the evidence of Neanderthal and Cro-Magnon Man found throughout the region, and for the caves they used.

The amazing prehistoric art in the Lascaux cave

Here you’ll find the famous Lascaux cave (although the actual cave is closed to the public a facsimile a short distance away at Montignac is open), decorated with outstanding examples of prehistoric art.

There is, too, plenty of evidence of medieval settlement, such as Rocamadour, and of the Anglo-French conflict. But this remains an idyllic area of castles, churches and medieval villages, born of many years of conflict, poverty and neglect.

The department is divided into four, each named by colour:

Green‘ for its forests and rivers.

White‘ for the pale stone that features so prominently in the Dordogne’s capital, Périgueux.

Black‘ for the denseness of the forests around Sarlat.

Purple‘ in reference to the wine area around Bergerac.

Discovering the Dordogne Valley

The Dordogne valley usually refers to the path followed by the Dordogne river, and is towards the south of the department, passing more or less east to west, through Bergerac.

The more northerly half of the department is really quite a way from the river! Tourism in the Dordogne doesn’t start and end with the river.

Sarlat is well worth a visit

You especially must see the wonderful town of Sarlat. It has beautiful medieval architecture and the most incredible French market which is justifiably famous around the world.

The Dordogne capital of Périgueux should also be on your ‘must see’ list if you’re on vacation in France.

But also be sure to venture north and south a little to discover the quiet but equally beautiful regions a little more hidden from the public gaze.

Boating on the Dordogne River

There are some wonderful opportunities for boating in France and, while it isn’t quite the Canal Du Midi, one of the finest ways to familiarise oneself with the Dordogne River is by taking a 55-minute trip on one of the traditional flat-bottomed boats.

These are known as gabares and were used for transporting goods between the Massif Central and Bergerac, Librouen and Bordeaux.

Following the river

The gabares were originally built to transport wood from the forests, in particular Oak used to produce vats and barrels, and Chestnut used to make the stakes to support vines.

The name Dordogne has evolved from the Celtic words Du unna meaning fast water. During the Roman Empire, the river was known as the Duranius, which during the Middle Ages gradually evolved to Duranna, Durunia, Durdunia, Dordoigne and finally Dordogne.

The river, whose source is high on the Puy de Sancy (1,886m/6,186ft), in the Auvergne, crosses five departments (Puy de Dôme, Corrèze, Lot, Dordogne and Gironde) before joining the Garonne to form the Gironde estuary.

Mankind has existed on the banks of the river since ancient times. Remains from the Celtic period (2,500 BP) have been found in the middle section of the valley, while amphorae once used for wine have been uncovered in the region of Bergerac.

These amphorae date from the 1C-2C BCE and bear witness to a wine trade with Ancient Rome before vines were planted along the banks of the river.

The upper section of the river, upstream of Souillac, is little more than a narrow strip of water flanked by steep cliffs. It’s navigable only for about 30 days of the year, in spring and autumn when the water level is high.

The middle section of the river was navigable for 6 to 8 months of the year. Boats from this part of the river would transport oak, chestnut, cheese and wine from Domme and would return with salt, wheat and salted fish. The lower section of the river was permanently navigable.

The top of these cliffs along the Dordogne are reach by a Belvedere walk from
Les Jardins suspendus de Marqueyssac.

For different experiences of a horticultural kind you mustn’t miss the somewhat bizarre Les Jardins de L’Imaginaire or the slightly more traditional Hanging Gardens of Marqueyssac.

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