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.
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.
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 which we talk about below 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.
What is Perigueux in Dordogne like? Visitors Guide to Perigueux
Périgueux, the second city of the Dordogne, has long been at the crossroads of Périgord, and is now the regional capital.
Périgueux in the heart of Nouvelle-Aquitaine is a town of some antiquity in the fecund valley of the River Isle; its history is displayed in the town’s architecture, which ranges across two distinct districts: the Cité and the Puy St Front.
The town is particularly renowned for its gastronomy, among which truffles and foie gras are prominent, attracting visitors from around the world.
What is Perigueux in Dordogne like?
This busy city is divided into three parts: the main part of the present city stands across the slopes around the cathedral, while to the west are rather mundane modern suburbs.
The Gallo-Roman settlement of Vesunna completes the scene, to the south-west. It is here, in the ancient part of the city, that anyone with an interest in history and archaeology should take a stroll; this was the heart of Périgueux, especially in the Middle Ages.
Pilgrims undertaking the journey to Santiago de Compostela were instrumental in bringing considerable wealth and renown to the cathedral area in particular.
Although the town has its attractions – the domed cathedral and its Roman remains – it is the surrounding countryside that offers visitors the greatest appeal. Especially around Sorges (if you like truffles) and along the valley of the Dronne along the Charente border.
This is the capital of the Dordogne department and an ideal base for wider exploration of the so-called Périgord Blanc.
It is a small, bustling place, a market town, but not overly attractive in itself, having a more utilitarian feel about it in spite of its popularity with tourists.
For those with time to relax, then the tree-shaded boulevard Montaigne, along the western edge of the old town, is a place to unwind with a pastry and coffee or glass of wine.
There are bustling and very traditional French markets here (Wednesdays and Saturdays) which are always a place to spend a few hours, even without buying anything.
But, if you’re looking for French truffles this is the place to come, as well as for charcuterie and the local speciality, the delicious pies known as Pâtés de Périgord.
If you’re near the cathedral, pop into the Musée d’Art et d’Archéologie du Périgord (22 Cours Tourny; Tel: 05 53 06 40 70), which houses one of the most comprehensive prehistory museums in France.
The Gourmet Book Fair in Périgueux
The Périgord is not only about truffles, foie gras and walnuts! Every two years, the Périgueux Salon du Livre Gourmand, in the Dordogne region, pays a mouth-watering tribute to literature and gastronomy – and each time the menu is rich, colourful and tempting.
With the mission statement “something for everyone, the event sees chefs, publishers and authors arriving during the weekend, not to mention local producers and artisans, farmers, and book lovers.
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.
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.
Eyrignac Gardens in Dordogne
The extent and complexity of these splendid gardens does not immediately strike you. Only once you have begun your journey, does the intricacy and skill of the displays reveal itself.
At the heart of the gardens is the 17th-century manor house, the Manoir d’Artaban, home to the family and its ancestry that developed and still maintain the gardens.
Located 13km north of Sarlat, the central essence of the gardens is green sculpture, topiary, the art of pruning trees and shrubs to give them a geometrical of free-form shape.
In this skill, Eyrignac is unquestionably the leader, and the gardens are a kaleidoscope not so much of colours but of shapes and perspectives, managed and developed constantly to create a living sculpture.
There is constant development here. A kitchen garden was opened in 2014, and stands within a rectangle enclosed by a chestnut fence.
At the edge of the estate, in sight of a small landing strip and helipad, are the Spring Gardens and Wild Flower Meadows. This area ais still a work in progress, and is evolving all the time.
The opportunity exists to take a self-guided tour through the gardens using an audio guide (available in 6 languages), or simply to wander freely.
Places and paths that may not be walked on, are clearly identified. Botanical paths have been created, the better to enable visitors to discover the plants of the Périgord, and their uses.
Restaurant and Tea Room “Côté Jardins” at the entrance
Free car park in shady area
Shady picnic area (free access)
“Côté Jardins, Côté Manoir” Gift Shop open all year round (gardening and decoration)
Camper vans welcome day and night
Partially accessible for disabled persons. (Tourism and disability label)
Dogs on leads are welcome.