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A walking holiday in the Dordogne Valley

View over the Valley of Dordogne, a ruined chateau juts out of cliff over vineyards and valleys

Perhaps all journeys through the Dordogne Valley should start with stuffing yourself with punnets of freshly picked strawberries. At least, that’s how I began my exploration of the Dordogne Valley’s beautiful villages…

I had arrived in Beaulieu-sur-Dordogne on the day of the town’s Fete de la Fraise, the strawberry festival that celebrates, well, strawberries.

Straddling the moss green waters of the Dordogne, Beaulieu-sur-Dordogne turned out to be the perfect introduction to what was to come in the next few days, for I was about to embark on a self-guided walk through the Dordogne Valley with On Foot Holidays.

A land shaped by a river

View from the deck of a traditional wooden boat on the River Dordogne

The Dordogne Valley, in the region of Nouvelle-Aquitaine south western France, just to the east of Bordeaux, is named after the river that runs through it. Dotted with storybook villages filled with history, I was eager to discover every corner of the limestone cliffs and ancient castles that I had heard so much about.

To get acquainted with the river, I boarded a traditional Gabare – a flat bottomed boat – and found myself charmed by the river. The captain proudly declared to be the “most beautiful river in the world!”

Some might argue that beauty is in the eye of the beholder, as the Dordogne lacks the wildness of the Loire and the electric glacial blue of the Rhone. It’s certainly not considered an ‘exciting’ river, yet there is a certain calmness and serenity about the gentle flow westwards towards the Atlantic Ocean that draws you in.

Fuelled by strawberries and the comforting knowledge that my luggage would be safely transported to my accommodation for the night, I set off on my journey.

Beautiful villages galore

Waterfall in Dordogne at the village of Autoire

With only four days to discover the area, the village of Autoire is where I began my walk, instead of Beaulieu. My route would have me pretty much following the curves of the Dordogne, in and out of valley beds, up and down the steep cliffs, through farmlands and villages that may or may not register as a dot on Google Maps.

My guide and driver dropped me off in the medieval centre of Autoire before disappearing with my luggage towards Carennac. Just like Beaulieu-sur-Dordogne, this is another village part of the Plus Beaux Village de France collection, and is certainly as pretty as a painting. I followed the route map and soon found myself in narrow valley tracks heading towards a waterfall, before ascending a steep rocky path up to Chateau des Anglais (which has nothing to do with the English as it turns out). It clings onto the cliff face like an eagles nest.

Without being on foot, I would not have discovered these locations let alone being able to enjoy the vantage point the chateau offers of the surrounding valley. It was the most perfect of days, with cloudless blue sky against the verdant hills, clusters of villages below. At merely an hour into my journey I was already smitten.

Wandering and wondering

Signposts at a cross roads in the countryside of Dordogne

What appeals to me about self-guided walking, is that I am able to be a little bit independent. While the walking pack provided the most updated maps and directions, I enjoy the process of getting lost, then finding my way again. The ability to choose, when you feel like it, a longer or a shorter path, can reveal different experiences to the traveller.

Given the option, I almost always chose the wilder route. This took me on walks among forests and meadows so I could be as close to the wild as possible. I was alone, yes, but not as alone as you would think. Nature was all around me and the air rich in the scent of acacias and roses. Bees buzzed, butterflies fluttered. Buzzards circled above my head and the forest echoed with the knocking of woodpeckers. Deer, foxes, rabbits and even an owl accompanied me along my walk.

Though some may worry about the concept of ‘self-guided’ walks, there’s nothing to fear. At the beginning of my walk, I conscientiously checked and over-checked the directions and maps in case I took the wrong turn. However, just a day into my walk, I let go of the need to control and simply followed the hiking tracks posted along trees and telegraph posts. I only checked my guide text occasionally to confirm details.

There is something very special being able to walk alone through storybook forests, cliff top tracks and country paths lined with moss covered stone walls. Passing in and out of communes so quaint and quiet, the crunch of my hiking boots on gravel seem to penetrate every window of a sleepy village. Through this journey along the route of the river, I relished being completely immersed into such a beautiful, rural part of France.

Rocamadour and beautiful towns

Buildings on top of a steep cliff and built into its sides at Rocamadour, Dordogne Valley

Having stayed in the cute La Petite Auberge in Carennac, my tour took me to Floirac before progressing into Meyronne to stay in an old castle right on the bank of the river. From here I was able to take a close look at the river and the surrounding limestone cliffs.

What a sight.

My walk eventually ended at the impressive village of Rocamadour, with its grand churches and chapels built into the cliffs. It’s on the pilgrimage route, the ‘Way of St James’ and is a place of religious importance, it’s believed miracles happen here. The 216 steps leading to the medieval complex of churches, chapels and courtyards is hard on the knees but worth the effort..

Of all its history and stories, I found myself most intrigued by the small chapel dedicated to injured rugby players in this area famous for its love of rugby.

At dinner on the balcony of my hotel, watching the evening sun wash the cliff golden red, I felt a sense of accomplishment. There is much more to discover in the Dordogne Valley, but in slow and steady steps, I got to know it intimately, and the experience was truly soul lifting.

Amy McPherson was hosted by www.onfootholidays.co.uk

Amy McPherson is a London based travel writer whose work has been featured in international publications. Cats, cycling and food features heavily in her writing and her blog at: www.footprintsandmemories.com

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