Where does Périgord end and the Dordogne begin? It hardly matters when you’re there: you just don’t want to leave…
My first impression of the Dordogne is a that of going back in time. I was arriving from the south on a dull but very warm evening. The past summer was a hot one in France and, coming from a dusty bright and parched land, it’s quite a pleasant shock to suddenly be amongst rolling hills and meandering rivers. In much of France, there are attractive buildings and châteaux, but in the Dordogne, it seems that they are literally everywhere you look. Driving the winding roads (which, bizarrely, are of Irish secondary road standards – i.e. poor and bumpy), you have to keep flicking your eyes around to spot the next turreted mediaeval building that emerges from the foliage. The Middle Ages around here were full of little fiefdoms and demesnes fighting their particular corners, getting their imprimaturs from the local duke or the English, only to have it taken from them in battle the following year and then gain it back the year afterwards. The classic witches’ hat roofs are in abundance and the rutted bumpy roads and peaceful ambiance of the countryside all add to the feeling of being in a time-warp.
The locals here – as well as the tourist office – still use the term Périgord to describe the area. Tourists maps even come with a colour-coded division of four divisions – green, white, red and black. I asked a number of people on market stalls, in shops, etc., what the difference was between the two. Most seemed to think that Périgord was the region and that Dordogne was the department (the equivalent of an Irish county, if you like). Dordogne is a department all right, but the term Périgord actually refers to an old region that existed long before the French Republic arrived over 200 years ago. It seems very fitting, in fact, that such an archaic term should be used for a part of France that seems so old-fashioned.
In order to get a good feel for the area, it’s a good idea to go and visit one or two of the most prominent châteaux. There is a multitude to choose from, but given the time constraints involved, we went for superb elevated gardens of Marqueyssac.
Les Jardins de Marqueyssac are located less than 3km from the famously beautiful village of La Roque-Gageac in the southern part of the Dordogne and is open throughout the year.
From its heights, you get some splendid panoramic views of the countryside. Before you even begin to explore this castle that has been restored to its former splendour, the 360-degree views will make you feel that the trip has been worthwhile.
Be warned that the walk around them is not for the faint-hearted on a hot day. There is quite a distance and a not-insignificant climb between the starting/ending point of the large gift shop and the end point at the viewing gallery overlooking the Dordogne River. The hedges that gather around the stubby maze at the beginning are photogenically curvy, while the outdoor café is a good-value lunch spot, complete with shade and mist machines to cool you down, while you admire the stunning vistas and feed the roaming peacocks.
Along the way, apart from the various species of marked plants and trees, there are some examples of Périgord architecture, such as a chapel and a hut complete with the landmark witches-hat roof, which you can examine up close and see that it is composed of flat stones and not tiles in the traditional sense.
By the time you reach the viewing point some 192m above the Dordogne River, you’ll notice the dozens and dozens of kayaks far below you being paddled like tourists and resembling a giant plastic duck race.
To say that the kayaking sector of the tourism industry in the Dordogne is important is a bit of an understatement and the next day, we went for “Canoës-Loisirs” in Vitrac – a tiny settlement of a thousand souls but a towering metropolis in river-kayaking terms. Already by 10am, the crowds had started to gather at the sizeable riverside base. We were five in total – three teenage boys and two adults. Each had their own kayak except for me and my youngest son, who took a two-seater, with me in the “driving” seat behind – a good position for taking photos, giving orders to paddle, etc.
“You end your run just after the fifth bridge on the left,” our guide told us, before pushing us off into the lazy-flowing river. We had opted for the 16km run. This one was to take between two and three hours, promising to take us past verdant bank and towering cliff, through colourful river flora, past dramatic châteaux and with birds of prey circling above our heads.
The great thing about getting onto the river is that no matter where you are and how busy and traffic-choked an environment you’re in, the pace of life gears down and you’re instantaneously intimate with nature.
Almost as soon as our kayaks made contact with the surface of the water, we were suddenly amidst thousands of dancing blue dragon flies that flitted playfully in front of our kayak and landed on the paddles as soon as we paused.
Ducks, moor hens and otters seemed to share the same space as humans quite comfortably, with all of us going about our business unperturbed by one another’s presence. The River Dordogne has a uniquely clean quality that has recently earned it a UNESCO “Man & Biosphere Reserve” title. It helps that it doesn’t flow through any major towns on its 470km-long course.
Very soon, the first of the many châteaux en route materialized into view. Perched high above the river, they were all built as bastions of defence. All bear the scars of history: mediaeval architecture of brown or cream sandstone; evidence of war damage; of repair; of extension during long periods of peace; further damage and some more modern-day time-induced decay.
Even on this relatively short run, the châteaux are so numerous that they appear every five minutes or so, but by far the most eye-catching sight from an architectural/historical perspective is the village of La Roque-Gageac. Officially one of the 100 Most Beautiful Villages in France, it appears at the end of a straight run of the meandering Dordogne like a fairy-tale vision. With its ochre-coloured houses and troglodyte fort set into the towering sandstone cliffs, the south-facing village enjoys its own Mediterranean-like micro-climate.
We pulled in to eat a pre-packed lunch carried in our watertight barrel, sitting on the grass by the gravel banks and marvelling at the enormous birds of prey that hovered and swooped on the high ground at the opposite side of the river.
Although it was a bit tiring, you can take welcome breaks here and there where are little beaches for safe swimming, often located at one of the many campsites along the river. There are also many riverside cafés en route if you’ve remembered to bring money along (which we hadn’t)
We continued on our journey through the heartland. The last château of jaw-dropping significance being the Château de Beynac, before we went around the last sweep of the river to the left and pulled in, as instructed, to the destination point. Kayaks and gear were returned and packed into trailers for transportation back to the base, while we got on the bus that would bring us back to Vitrac along with several other kayak tourists.
Arm and neck muscles were aching all over, but it was the happy sort of ache that you get after something thoroughly satisfying. A quick straw poll amongst our little group of adults and teenagers gave it a unanimous thumbs-up.
We travelled by Brittany Ferries (brittanyferries.ie), who run a weekly seasonal service from Cork to Roscoff. Irish Ferries (irishferries.com) also run a weekly seasonal service from Rosslare to Cherbourg, while Celtic Link (celticlink.com) run a year-round Rosslare-Roscoff link service.
Aer Lingus (aerlingus.com) operate direct flights from Dublin to Bordeaux (190km away) all year round, while Ryanair (ryanair.com) operate a seasonal direct service from Cork to Bordeaux.
We stayed at the excellent 5-star Camping La Palombière, Sainte-Nathalène, 24200 Sarlat, France. Contact Keycamp (keycamp.ie) on 021 425 2300 for further details.
For a more luxurious approach, try the Hôtel Clos la Boëtie, 95-97 avenue de Selves, 24200 Sarlat-La-Canéda, Tel +33 5 53 29 44 18. It’s a luxury boutique hotel in another of France’s 100 Most Beautiful Villages with double rooms starting at €161 per night.
Visit the superb multi-lingual website Visit Dordogne. It gives you up-to-date information on the entire region, complete with great photography, events and contact numbers.
Canoë-Loisirs features extremely helpful multi-lingual staff and a nice café. (canoe-loisirs.com, Pont de Vitrac, 24200 VITRAC, France. +33 5 53 28 23 43.
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