Having taken a short 2 hour flight from London City Airport to Brive Airport in the Dordogne on a dull February friday, and with just three days (actually 50 hours) to pack in as much as I could, I hit the ground running and headed straight for Beynac which is about 10km from Sarlat (where I was based) and a short drive from the airport.
Lunch was booked in a gorgeous little restaurant called La Petite Tonnelle. Ordinarily you might not think it necessary to book lunch in February but it was Valentine’s Day and I really wanted to be sure of getting a table as the restaurant is in the most picturesque location on a winding steep road in the village and my friends told me it was really friendly (they were right by the way).
Beynac is one of eight “most beautiful villages in France” in the area and deservedly so. Even in February, the allure of this feudal little village which looks like it is tumbling down the hill is strong, clinging with tenacity to the steep sides, complete with lemon coloured stone buildings and muted pastel shutters Beynac is quite simply, stunning.
Emerging from the town car park, down by the River Dordogne which meanders through the town, the little village which seems to be sprouting out of the rocks (as do many of the villages in this area) is breath-taking even when it is cloudy as it was beginning to be that day. The little roads and houses look as though time has stood still indeed the town served as one of the charming locations for the film Chocolat (read our interview with Chocolat author Joanne Harris).
The waters of the river Dordogne were high but calm on the day I visited. Several centuries ago it would have been teeming with activity as it was a major thoroughfare for deliveries to Limousin, Bordeaux, Bergerac and other towns and cities. These days in spring and summer you can enjoy a leisurely boat ride and a view of the chateaux and hill side villages whilst you watch the lazy fish jumping in the river and listen to the birds sing. There was no boat ride on the day I was there (Europe had been suffering torrential rain and storms in the days before I arrived), so I just had lunch and a quick scoot round before moving on to the chateau and gardens of Marqueyssac close by.
The majestic fortress of the Chateau de Beynac stands guard over the village of 500 inhabitants; there are winding little streets and narrow cobbled lanes which make for a quite strenuous climb to the top to reach the castle and the church of Ste Marie. It’s worth the effort for the amazing panoramic views though people with limited mobility might find it a difficult climb. Having said that a friend tells me her 94 year old mother managed it because she was extremely determined to enjoy the view. The castle is ancient, part of it was built in the time of Richard the Lionheart who once possessed it and it has undergone a fantastic restoration which enables visitors to see it in all its glory, filled with colourful tapestries, frescoes and fireplaces. Looking out from the castle ramparts you’ll see several other castles close by, a reminder that during the times of the Hundred Years War, more than 1000 castles were built in the Dordogne alone to support the fight against the British.
The Chateau of Beynac has been the setting for several films including Les Visiteurs by Jean-Marie Poiré, (1993), La Fille de d’Artagnan by Bertrand Tavernier (1994), Ever After by Andy Tennant, (1998), and Jeanne d’Arc by Luc Besson (1999).
If you want to learn more about the village, the tourist office runs a free guided tour which is worth checking out (it is in French and English – check with the tourist office for details, link below).
At this time of year there is no one around, the little streets are empty and the photo opportunities plentiful – even the post office is magical (above). The restaurant had a healthy trade of couples out celebrating la Fete de St Valentin but otherwise the village was deserted and if you like to see somewhere without a lot of tourists then an out of season visit is just perfect but be aware that most attractions will be closed. In the summer it makes for the perfect location for an evening stroll, a picnic supper, or even a balloon ride! Flying over this most amazing landscape with its medieval hill top villages, castles and some of the most beautiful villages of France all following on one from another along the river Dordogne. The hot air balloon company, whose offices are next to Beynac town car park, fly at sunrise or just before sunset for optimal conditions and the most spectacular views.
After a good lunch with of course a little of the region’s famous truffle grated onto my dish, a bit of a walk was called for so I headed off to the famous hanging gardens of Marqueyssac – the most popular garden in the south of France (read about my visit here).