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Aquitaine / Dordogne

The department, which is the third largest in France, is to be found in the Aquitaine region in the south west of the country between the valley of the Loire and the Pyrenees.

It is named after the Dordogne River which flows through the department from east to west. Dordogne consists of four of the original areas known as Perigord after the old county name – Le Perigord. The department is divided into four geographical parts.

The Perigord Vert (green) is aptly named as it is an area of lush valleys with numerous rivers and streams running through it. Montron is the area’s main town. The Perigord Blanc (white) takes its name from the limestone plateau to be found there. At its centre is the departmental capital, Perigeaux. The Perigord Pourpre (purple) not surprisingly comprises the vine growing areas around its capital, Bergerac. Finally, there is the Perigord Noir (black) which is centred on the administrative centre, Sarlat. The name is taken from the oak and pine woods which cover the valleys of the rivers Dordogne and Vezere.

The Perigord area as a whole is one of numerous chateaux (in excess of 1500), churches and cave formations. Its many charming villages and bastides (fortified hilltop communities) are still much as they were centuries ago with all their archetypal features intact. The region around Sarlat in the Perigord Noir is generally considered the least spoilt by development of all.

Likewise many of the towns such as Perigueux, Sarlat and Bergerac have substantial old quarters. Here the antiquated streets and squares have been made traffic free for the greater convenience of visitors.

Dordogne is particularly popular with British tourists and home owners. The department has easy road and rail links from the Channel ports and there are flights from the UK to the airports of Bergerac and Bordeaux. The area offers an excellent choice of accommodation ranging from gites to chambers d’hotes and some of the top-rated camp sites in France which I can recommend from personal experience!

The pleasant climate provides for virtually all year round enjoyment: during the fairly hot summer months you will experience the sight of the ubiquitous sun flowers in all their glory! You can certainly make the most of life in the great outdoors but don’t be surprised if you are interrupted by one of the occasional summer storms which can be quite dramatic.

Spring and autumn months also provide mild temperatures although tend to have higher rainfall. These can be the best seasons for those wishing to pursue more energetic pursuits such as canoeing and walking or indulge in more hectic sightseeing. Another advantage is that you will find the main attractions much less crowded than in the main holiday season.

Even the winter season has its attractions and although the weather might be quite chilly, skies tend to be bright and sunny. You will even find some larger tourist amenities remaining open. It is worth noting that there can be considerable variation between the weather in the north and the south of Dordogne in terms of both temperature and rainfall with the south faring better in both respects.

Obviously, the department’s main attractions are associated with its amazing natural features combined with the unspoilt character of its architectural heritage. Everywhere you go you will find numerous examples of typical honey coloured stone buildings. However, there are some especially significant locations, many of which are to be found in the Perigord Noir, centred on Sarlat.

Often referred to as ‘ the jewel in the crown of the Dordogne’, Sarlat-la-Caneda is one such location. Lying a little to the north of the Dordogne River, this charming town contains many well-restored medieval and Renaissance features. The old town consists of one main street, the Rue de la Republique, with a maze of narrow streets on either side to get lost in.

The town’s much extended cathedral is an interesting blend of styles including Roman and Gothic. From here you should follow the Rue des Consuls with its many imposing mansions such as the 13th century Manoir de Gisson which has been recently opened to the public.

Should you need a break for refreshment, head back to the main square, a delightful pedestrianised area where you will find plenty of restaurants housed in the old buildings.

About eight km from Sarlat on the north bank of the Dordogne is located one of France’s most spectacular villages. With steep limestone cliffs as a backdrop, La Roque – Gageac has changed little over the centuries. Here you will find several amazing buildings and other interesting features like the troglodyte fort 40 metres above the village itself.

In my view, one of the Dordogne’s most charming locations is the small town of Le Bugue whish is situated near the confluence of the Rivers Dordogne and Vezere. A little quieter and less touristy than some of the better known spots, it is nevertheless a great base from which to explore the UNESCO World Heritage sites of the Vezere Valley. Incidentally, the original Lascaux caves are now closed but the replica caves, Lascaux 11, are open to visitors and proving a major tourist attraction.

Le Bugue does offer some low-key attractions including the Aquarium which may appeal more to young families. The town’s market is held on Tuesday morning and offers a wide selection of goods and food products.

Dordogne is also one of France’s greatest gourmet centres. Wandering around the Saturday morning market in Perigeux you will find stalls packed with chestnuts, walnuts and a range of seasonal fruit and vegetables from quinces to figs as well as Cabecou goat’s cheese. Nearby in Place St-Louis duck and goose are on sale. These provide the main ingredients for many local dishes – not forgetting the ultimate delicacies of black truffles and foie gras. All this can be washed down with wine from the Bergerac vineyards which I’ve always found perfectly acceptable.

There is really nothing not to love about this quintessentially French department with its traditional rural character and delightful peaceful ambience.

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