A group of six of us decided to take an express visit to the Dordogne valley in south western France. It was a bit like being in the ‘Secret Seven’ but we were one short. We were only going to be there for three days but we wanted to see as much as we could of this stunningly beautiful piece of countryside. We were not going to be disappointed.
We flew from London Stansted airport to Brive la Gaillarde in the Limousin region. The flight was the inaugural service by Ryanair and this now operates twice weekly on Wednesdays and Saturdays. The journey was splendid. The aircraft departed exactly on time and the cabin crew provided a perfect service. We arrived during the late afternoon and set off in our mini-bus to discover Brive.
We had arranged to visit the Denoix distillery in the town centre. We thought that a tasting of the produce here was probably the best way to start any French visit. The distillery also functions as an active museum and the Denoix family has operated the business for four generations and much of their family history of the previous 170 years is presented. Aperitifs and liqueurs are produced from varieties of the regional walnuts just as they always have been from the distilleries inception in the nineteenth century. Our testing of the produce helped us to quickly relax into our new, brief adventure in the Dordogne valley. The Denoix distillery sells 70,000 bottles of the digestive spirit a year in both Paris and the local Brive area. It contributes much to the local character and culture.
Early the next morning we set off for the villages of Turenne and Collonges la Rouge, not very far away. Both of these places are on the official list of France’s most beautiful villages and function as symbolic monuments to the Dordogne valley’s reputation.
Turenne and Collonges la Rouge are built on the local limestone. The buildings though are constructed from the locally quarried sandstone and their red colour blended wonderfully with the green tones of the countryside. These villages are quaint and charming and all survive on their local craft, agriculture and service based economies. Many of the older buildings have access points in their roofs to collect quantities of wild pigeon droppings that are used as fertiliser on the farmland. What a splendid green economy!
We strolled along the narrow lanes of the villages and took coffee in a rather tiny and concealed cafe. Next, we set off towards the town of Beaulieu sur Dordogne. It was approaching lunch time and we wanted to inspect the historic Renaissance House before dining. The renaissance or re-berth represented a significant change of history and culture in France during the fifteenth century. The house contains many symbols of this era, displays of mannequins, antiques, floors and woodwork indicating life style scenes of the Bellocoise nobility. We walked along the banks of the flowing Dordogne before lunch and sensed the peaceful calm of the green Limousin region.
A classic French lunch in a local restaurant with regional wine followed. I tried the locally harvested truffles from under the surrounding chestnut trees. I quickly began to acquire the taste! We were looking forward, I with some trepidation, to a bizarre experience that had been threatened for the afternoon.
We were going to visit the great sink hole at Padirac or the ‘Gouffre de Padirac’. Far back in the mists of time, a large chunk of the Dordogne limestone had just collapsed leading to a vast cavity under the ground. The depths of it were hidden and murky and it was only properly explored about 120 years ago. A vast cavern of underground limestone stalactites, stalagmites and watercourses were revealed over a hundred meters below the surface. We all descended gingerly via steep steps and lifts to the very bowels of the damp and dark depths.
Part of the guided tour took place on a boat along the waterways. There was primitive life in the water – shrimps and snails. It was like being on a strange and faraway planet. The rock formations were strange and eerie; it was dark damp and silent. As we approached the end of the tour, I saw a sculptured bust of the explorer, Edouard-Alfred Martel, emerging from the rancid limestone.
We stayed that night in Rocamadour, a town just a little south of Brive. Rocamadour is literally sculptured on to the side of rock face providing fortification against marauders. It is a remarkable sight and this town really ought to have slipped onto the rocks below centuries ago. It was still here though, full of busy French life and history. Rocamadour is where Christianity came to France and its foundations seem eternal.
The ‘Gardens of Marqueyssac’ were next on the list. These occupy a very carefully tended and sculptured parkland area set on a vast rock outcrop high above the Dordogne countryside. The gardens contain over 150,000 boxwood trees and a mass of aesthetic, hedge based topiary. The area is large and the sweeping view of the terrain, far below, will take your breath away. Take your binoculars! The gardens are privately owned but always open for public visits. They are just perfect for children to play in and enjoy.
We visited the Chateau de Castlenaud and watched a demonstration of ancient trebuchets firing weaponry. We travelled onto La Roque Gageac and took a boat trip along a very amicable stretch of the Dordogne River, the cleanest in Europe. La Roque Gageac village is the third most visited in France. You can see why as it just seems to just sprout out of its supporting cliff like a newly emerging bed of crops.
We moved to a town called Sarlat-la- Caneda for our final night before travelling back the next afternoon. Sarlat for me was the star of the show. The market in the streets was awash with the most vivid of French life. It was a small town that seemed to provide domicile to humanity in its most wholesome form. The greatest and most simple of all human pleasures and experience existed right there, in the streets, in front of our eyes. Sarlat la-Caneda seemed to represent all of our expectations of our visit to the Dordogne valley district.
This was an express view of the very portrait of the French Dordogne, the essence of dearest, rural France and one that will certainly lure me to return to admire the countryside, drink the wine, dine in the restaurants and observe people going about their lives.
Bob Lyons is an ex-pilot and total Francophile who visits France at every opportunity…
Sarlat market day – a foodie fantasy
The most perfect weekend in the Dordogne
Details for places to visit and lots of great ideas can be found on the Sarlat Tourist Office website
See here for details for flights to Brive La Gaillard airport