The stunning rural department of the Dordogne in western France, is situated in the region of Aquitaine and named after the famous river that runs through its heart. Situated between the Loire valley and the Pyrénées, it stretches across the Périgord plateau. Its many rivers such as the Bandiat, the Dronne, the Isle and the Vézère have carved deep valleys into the limestone. The third largest department in France, the Dordogne is also famous for its medieval architecture, in particular its hilltop bastides - or fortified towns.
When talking about the ‘The Dordogne’, the British are often alluding to a much larger geographical area that encompasses parts of the neighbouring departments of Lot and Lot-et-Garonne and corresponds to what the French call the Périgord. The department is also famed for its cuisine and produce, in particular its foie gras, wine, tobacco and truffles.
Primitive flint tools found in the Dordogne are evidence of human presence in the area over 400,000 years ago. The Neanderthals inhabited the many caves of the region, but it was the arrival of the Cro-Magnon people some 40,000 years ago, who were responsible for the department’s astonishing prehistoric paintings.
After being settled by Celtic natives, the area became known as the Périgord. It was named "the Dordogne" after the French revolution in 1789 and was one of the original 83 departments of France; this term, however, is rarely used by its local residents who refer to themselves as Périgourdins.
Major towns and villages
During the summer, the climate is sunny and warm with temperatures commonly ranging from 25 to 35 degrees, though sometimes reaching as high as 40. The winters are mild and most of the rainfall occurs during the spring, including spectacular thunderstorms. The hills, valleys, woods and lakes of the Dordogne, mean that there are many microclimates within the department.
While it is arguable that the biggest attraction of the Dordogne is its countryside, it is also home to many important historic sites and picturesque villages. The famous cave of Lascaux, located near the village of Montignac is a UNESCO world heritage site and contains some of the best examples of prehistoric art in the world. Almost 2,000 paintings adorn its walls, depicting animals and scenes from prehistoric life.
The French Ministry of Culture was forced to close the caves in 1963 due to the carbon dioxide from visitors’ exhalations damaging the paintings. Lascaux II has been open since 1983, where tourists can see replicas of the paintings in the original cave. Limited space means that tickets are in very high demand and should be booked in advance.
The 25 caves containing prehistoric art in the area around the Vézère area has led to the area being known as ‘The Birthplace of Mankind.’The Dordogne’s capital of Périgueux is a good base for exploring the countryside. It has important Roman ruins, including a giant ruined amphitheatre, still visible inside the Jardin des Arènes located near the town centre. Its medieval old town also contains many bars and restaurants.
Bergerac contains several interesting museums including the Musée du Tabac, which documents the history of tobacco production in the area. Just outside the city, the Château de Monbazillac contains a museum demonstrating local crafts and a restaurant, as well as offering tours of its vineyards and cellars.
The town of Monpazier is the best preserved example of a bastide in the Dordogne. Contained within its perfectly rectangular ramparts are four transversal streets and a central market square. Despite the ravages of the Hundred Years War, these remain virtually unchanged since its construction in the thirteenth century by King Edward I of England.As well as bastides, another legacy of the Dordogne’s disputed ownership by the Crowns of England and France, are 1000 castles. The most famous of these are the Chateaux of Beynac and Biron.
Food and drink
With a strong agricultural economy, the Dordogne is renowned for the quality of its produce, in particular its ducks, geese, strawberries, truffles and walnuts. The department’s cuisine is generally country fare, often involving these ingredients as well as locally produced garlic and mushrooms. It is possible to buy a meal in one of its many small family restaurants for under €10, although many restaurants serving haute-cuisine also exist in the Dordogne. Regional specialties include duck confit, pigeonneau (young pigeon) and snails cooked in garlic.
One of the best ways to savour the astonishing scenery of the Dordogne is by foot, and its walking trails offer walkers incredible backdrops of river valleys, woodland, lakes and historic sites. The Grande Randonnée (GR) walking trails that snake through the Dordogne are clearly indicated with signposts and many campsites lie along their routes. The GR36 passes through the department, as does the famous GR65 pilgrimage route on its way to Spain, also known as the Way of St James.
Sports and activities
The abundance of water in the Dordogne provides plenty of opportunity for water sports such as white-water rafting. Canoeing and kayaking are particularly popular in the department with an abundance of rental centres along every river. There are also many artificial lakes where water-skiing is possible and many have sailing clubs from which windsurfers, dinghies and jet skis can be rented. Swimming is possible along the Dordogne’s many river beaches. Rock climbing, golf, horse-riding, pot-holing and fishing are other pastimes which can be enjoyed in the department.
The vineyards of the Dordogne centre around the Bergerac area, which contains 13 different Appellations d’origine contrôlée (AOCs). Bergerac is famed for its hearty reds made from Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot blends that, whilst comparable in quality to the wines of neighbouring St-Emilion, are often half the price. The famed sweet white Monbazillac wines are harvested from grapes grown on the banks of the Dordogne, north of Bergerac.
Ease of access
While the Dordogne is still within a day’s drive of the ferry ports of France’s channel coast, it is more easily reached by air. Ryanair fly regular services to Bergerac from a number of UK destinations, while Bordeaux International airport hosts flights from a number of UK destinations, offering a choice of major carriers.
Lacking the glamour of the Riviera and the fast-pace of Paris, the Dordogne’s charm lies in its relaxed rural nature, abundance of historic buildings and verdant countryside. The department’s traditions have been well preserved and are evident in its proliferation of medieval villages, farmers' markets and seasonal festivals. A holiday to the Dordogne also represents excellent value for money with eating out and entertainment considerably cheaper than in other areas of France.