Traveller's guide: The Dordogne and the Lot
In the third of our six-part series produced in association with Footprint Travel Guides, Dana Facaros and Michael Pauls explore this tranquil region of south-west France
Saturday 29 May 2010
Where and why?
The Dordogne and the Lot comprise a very rural and deeply rooted corner of south-west France. Outside of a few minor revolts and sackings nothing serious has happened here since the Middle Ages. The lack of history (and economic development) made the area a backwater for centuries, but eventually fortune likes to even these things out. Today it's a manicured garden of small farmers, dotted with lovely medieval villages. It's the sort of serene and old-fashioned hideaway that harried folk from Europe's big cities find irresistible.
The two dpartements have plenty of similarities, but on closer inspection there are two tribes focused on two towns. As you begin to notice that some of the inhabitants look suspiciously like the folk in Asterix's Gaulish village, reflect that the two old Celtic tribes that Julius Caesar found here never really died out: the Petrocorii and Cadurcii gave their names to Prigord and Quercy (the traditional names of the Dordogne and Lot departments), and to the two main towns, Prigueux and Cahors.
Get me started
Prigord comes in four colours: Prigord Vert is the green north of the dpartement around Brantôme, the little "Prigord Venice". Prigord Blanc gets its name from the chalky white stone that built Prigueux, a stout-hearted old Roman civitas that still provides the closest thing this sleepy region has to an urban buzz. Prigord Noir is black for the truffles and the chestnut trees. This is where most of the notable castles and gardens are found, along with lovely Sarlat, French film directors' favourite setting for Renaissance costumers. The noble wines of Bergerac put the colour in Prigord Pourpre.
At the heart of the Lot valley, Quercy's capital, Cahors, drifts along in its medieval daydream, with a glorious cathedral and the most beautiful bridge in France. To the west, the Lot meanders back and forth through the refined vineyards of Vin de Cahors. To the east, the wildest and loneliest landscapes of the region attract nature lovers to the upper Lot and the Cl, while out in the furthest corner lies another oasis of medieval urbanity, Figeac.
A little history
It's tranquil enough now, but the Dordogne in particular has a history oozing blood and gore even the Brits are shocked. Of course, it was often the Brits who started it; the all-time biggest commotion here was the Hundred Years' War.
The Middle Ages left the region jam-packed with castles; 1,001 of them (or so they say). Along one romantic stretch of the Dordogne west of Sarlat, you can see four of them at once. One of these, the Chteau de Castelnaud, has been redeemed from decrepitude and made into the Museum of Medieval Warfare (00 33 5 53 31 30 00; castelnaud.com ; open daily). If you're lucky they might crank up their full-size trebuchet (sling catapult) and launch a ball or two over the glacis.
Things settled down after they finally booted out the pesky English, and the local barons went back to the business of squeezing all they could from V C an exceptionally downtrodden peasantry. A lot of the proceeds went to turning draughty old castles into elegant Renaissance chteaux with all the mod cons.
The Dordogne has a collection of these to rival the Loire valley: Biron, Bourdeilles, Jumilhac, Beynac, Monbazillac and, grandest of all, the Chteau de Hautefort, a storybook vision of slate gables and turrets and formal French gardens (00 33 5 53 50 51 23; chateau-hautefort.com ; open March-mid-November).
How do you keep cool?
No problem down in the limestone caves it's a constant 2C, and that is exactly where you'll be spending much of your sightseeing time; the Dordogne's Vzre valley is home to quite a few of the most impressive caves on the planet. Some are glittering stalactite grottoes, such as the Gouffre de Proumeyssac (00 33 5 53 07 27 47; gouffre-proumeyssac.com ; open daily February-December), where for a little extra, they'll lower you into the immense abyss in a precarious metal cage.
In most of the caves the attraction is the fascinating works of art left 13,000 to 30,000 years ago. The Vzre valley has been called the "World Capital of Prehistory". At the most celebrated painted cave, Lascaux, you'll have to be content with a replica, but the jaw-droppingly brilliant and mysterious original Paleolithic paintings of mammoths, bisons and horses can still be seen at Font de Gaume and other Vzre sites, and at Pech Merle in the Lot.
Can I go out and play now?
It's not just about sitting on the terrace with a glass of wine (though millions of visitors can't be wrong). Both the Dordogne and Lot also offer good fun for the outdoors-minded. Many come to enjoy the rivers (see below), but other possibilities abound.
Everyone who comes here notices the positively delightful lack of traffic; that, plus exquisite green landscapes and plenty of pretty villages to stop in for refreshments, makes this ideal country for hiking and biking.
There's a dense network of grandes randones (long-distance footpaths) for walkers, including the GR36, and new bike routes are plotted out all the time. For a hiking holiday with a modern twist, seek out the Voie Verte near Brantôme in the northern Dordogne. This former rail route has beenconverted into a 17km walking and biking trail that passes some beautiful natural areas, along with a cave, a chteau and the medieval village of St-Jean-de-Cole.
The area may be short of mountains and gorges to challenge the real adventurers, but those who insist on exerting themselves can try hang-gliding at Douelle in the Lot, adventure sports around St-Cirq-Lapopie, or a new French fad climbing, swinging and gliding through the trees Tarzan-style at what is called a parc aventure. There are a few around Sarlat where you can give it a try. Or if you like your outdoor fun slow and serene, see the countryside in the company of a patient and agreeable donkey (see hikingwithdonkey.com )
Up a lazy river
Messing about in boats has always been a preferred means of passing the time on the Dordogne and Lot, as well as smaller rivers such as the Vzre or the very scenic Cl, east of Cahors.
The boats come in all sizes. Take the tourist cruise past the Dordogne castles from Beynac or La Roque-Gageac on a traditional gabarre, little barges that used to carry wine barrels down to Bordeaux. On the Lot, you can rent a houseboat for a day or a week near St-Cirq-Lapopie (Lot Navigation: 00 33 5 53 84 72 50; lot-navigation.com ). This river is starting to feel the effects of a little revolution in river touring; the departmental council is fixing all the old locks, and soon nearly all of the Lot will be navigable again.
Mostly, though, it's about canoes and kayaks. If you're on the Lot or Dordogne, you'll never be far from someone who will rent you one, and then take you up the river so you can drift leisurely back down.
What's for dinner?
Duck. We oversimplify perhaps, but the fatted duck with its foie gras, maigrets and confits and pats is the unquestioned totem animal of the southwest and most of its restaurants. It's all fantastic.
There are plenty of other culinary delights, from the famous black truffles to delicate little discs of goat cheese called cabcou; the cooking here matches the land itself: hearty, solid and traditional. Restaurants range from refined temples of cuisine to simple ferme auberges places run as part of a family farm that do wonderful things with the old-time recipes. The region's wines complement these well: the excellent, often underestimated varieties of Bergerac and deep red Vin de Cahors. Both areas are strongholds of small vintners who are happy to receive visitors, and lots of people come down just for the wine touring.
By all means, hit the weekly village markets, as much for the atmosphere as the great food; the big Saturday market in Cahors has recently been rated the best in France. And keep an eye out for posters advertising a village march gourmand or march nocturne. It's a great summer idea. You'll find tables set out on the green, and rows of stands selling everything you need for a full-course dinner that's cheaper than anything in the restaurants.
Where's the party?
In summer, it's everywhere, all the time. There is nothing more convivial and fun than a French village fête, with concerts, games and dinners in the open air, and maybe fireworks to top it all off on Sunday night. On almost any weekend, you'll have a choice between several in the vicinity.
The region specializes in big cultural festivals too, They turn up in the most unlikely places: African music, dance and storytelling in Cajarc (late July), or the Rencontres Cinmatographiques de Gindou, an international film festival laid on by a village of 323 people (last week in August). There's often an engaging touch of whimsy in celebrations, as in the Dordogne village of Varaignes, which parades its turkeys through the streets each 11 Nov, or in Vergt south of Prigueux, where folk dress up as strawberries each May for the "Fête de la Fraise".
The Dordogne and Lot have been popular holiday destinations for so long that many people think of them just as familiar homes-from-home, just a place for a placid gîte holiday. Chances are most of them haven't scratched the surface.
Among the sights are surprises such as architect Jean Nouvel's new Gallo-Roman museum in Prigueux, or the lovely chteau near Domme that has become a shrine to Josephine Baker. The ancient religious pilgrimage site of Rocamadour has become a nest of wild roadside attractions for less pious visitors; above the medieval cliffside chapels you can watch giant condors soar and get to know Barbary apes.
The quality of life here attracts a lot of interesting people, and right now they're doing their best to make this corner of the southwest a centre for arts and crafts. You'll find galleries in tiny villages offering everything from designer jewellery to bronze sculptures (Monpazier, and the part of the Dordogne valley around St-Cyprien and Meyrals are full of them).
Travel essentials: Dordogne
By rail, the main approach is on the "classic" line from Paris Austerlitz to Toulouse, which calls at Cahors. The journey starting at London St Pancras takes around nine hours.
There is a wide choice of cheap flights, but the mainstay is Ryanair, with year-round flights to Bergerac from Stansted, and spring-autumn only from Bristol, East Midlands and Liverpool. Flybe will take you to Bergerac in season from Gatwick, Manchester, Birmingham, Edinburgh, Exeter and Southampton. More services are available to the nearby airports at Toulouse and Bordeaux.
Public transport is sparse, but reliable. Besides the main north-south rail line, there are plenty of branch lines though services may operate only every few hours. They are supplemented by buses, which are intended to dovetail with train departures.
Car rental is expensive, especially with the annual summer shortage; expect to pay around 75 per day.
Dana Facaros and Michael Pauls are the authors of Footprint's new guide to the Dordogne and the Lot, which is out now. To purchase any of the Footprint France series at a special rate of just 10 including P&P, visit www.footprinttravelguides.com and enter Inde01 in the coupon code at checkout.
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