Dordogne River Valley

Overview

Introduction

This spectacular river valley has a little bit of everything: dark forests, craggy cliff faces, a majestic river, and medieval castles and villages of honey-colored stone. The river rises in the Massif Central and flows about 310 mi/500 km westward to enter the Atlantic Ocean near Bordeaux.

Among the valley's nicest villages is Domme, a quiet medieval bastide (fortified town) that affords panoramic views of the Dordogne River.

While in the area, don't miss the prehistoric cave sites, the grottes: The most famous prehistoric cave paintings are located at the Grotte de Lascaux, 1 mi/2 km southeast of the village of Montignac. The site was discovered accidentally in 1940 by four teenagers searching for their lost dog. The caves were open for only 15 years from 1948 until 1963, as it became apparent that human contact was causing damage to the paintings. A replica of the most important sections of the original paintings, called Lascaux II, was re-created just a few hundred meters away from the original. Tickets to both Grotte de Lascaux and Lascaux II are sold next door to the tourist office in Montignac from April to October.

Other worthwhile cave sites to visit are the Grotte de Font de Gaume (1/2 mi/1 km northeast of Les Eyzies) and the Grotte de Rouffignac (9 mi/15 km north of Les Eyzies). The latter boasts an electric train running through the maze of underground tunnels and shafts, past prehistoric paintings of pachyderms.

The nearby village of La Roque-Gageac is worth seeing, too. It is built into an overhanging cliff, and its houses, paths and minuscule gardens are nestled in the cliffside, one almost on top of another. There is plenty of parking along the river at the bottom. It's well worth the walk up, but it's steep—take your time, especially if the day is hot. This is a good base for visiting the area, as a launch pad for a canoe trip or river cruise, and a central location to visit some of the region's most famous castles.

Castles of note are Chateau de Beynac (which has an extraordinary view of the valley and a historical park with demonstrations of such traditional crafts as tool making) and Chateau de Castelnaud (an imposing castle particularly popular with children, although beware of steep drops).

Les Milandes, a Renaissance castle, is also worth a visit; it was the home of Josephine Baker, the American vaudeville star who was the darling of Paris from the 1920s through 1940s. She worked with the French Resistance during World War II, used the castle to hide people from the Nazis during World War II and was later awarded the Croix de Guerre.

Abbeys and churches that deserve a visit include Carennac, Souillac and Beaulieu-sur-Dordogne. Rocamadour is an evocative and very popular pilgrimage site set dramatically above the Alzou river valley. Don't forget to taste the succulent local goat cheese, Cabecou de Rocamadour. If you are in the area on a Sunday morning, check out the charming market at the nearby village of St. Cyprien.

This is serious food country—the Perigord cuisine is famous throughout France. Foie gras, duck, wild mushrooms and walnuts are central ingredients, all served with plenty of fresh garden produce. Be prepared to eat leisurely and well. Plan to spend two to three days in the region.

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