Life is good in the Perigord. You will often hear visitors refer to this region as le Périgord (the name of the old French province,) or la Dordogne (the name of the administrative division it belongs to.) Either way, it is a popular area in the summer. Over 2.5 million tourists descend upon Sarlat and local towns every year. Most visitors are French, or come from England and Northern Europe. We are very lucky, as the big tourist rush will only start at the end of this week. We will be in Spain by then.
For now, we are staying in the central part of the Dordogne river valley and all the area’s hallmarks are around us, everywhere we look: fields of sunflowers and corn, orchards of walnut trees, rock-sculpted villages and dreamy cottages, breathtaking vistas, châteaux, châteaux, beaucoup de châteaux.
Noyers (walnut trees)
Every time you blink, un nouveau château!
I have been dreaming to show Junior how beautiful this part of France is. He is a fortunate boy, as he has been staying in Paris on a regular basis ever since he was born. Yet, there is so much more to France than Paris! His mother is from Toulouse after all, and I wanted him to discover his French southern roots.
Last time we were in Sarlat, we stayed in a wonderful hotel outside of town. This summer, we are right downtown, off of the main street, rue de la République. La Villa des Consuls came highly recommended. Eh bien les amis,la villa exceeds all my expectations! Our apartment, named Mirabeau (after the 18th century French politician,) is incredible. Quiet, clean, spacious, with high ceilings, hardwood floors, a separate bedroom for Junior, a kitchen, and a generous bathroom. I should also mention the friendly and professional gentleman at the reception desk who always, always knows the answers to my questions. The best thing is probably the price, under $200 a night. Other apartments in the stately Renaissance building have private terraces and patios. Le Paradis. Heaven.
Villa des Consuls – Main room
Overlooking Sarlat’s main street and two steps away from the Medieval town
A room with a (French) view
Apartments with private terraces
We have been busy since we got here. Le Périgord is famous for its hearty food and wine so there has been a lot of eating. It is a challenge to stay away from tourist traps in town, but we have done well so far. Local strawberries (our daily breakfast, with an assortment of warm viennoiseries I pick up at the boulangerie around the corner,) are fragrant, juicy and oh, so sweet. We have been on a diet of duck, goose, foie gras (goose or duck liver pâté)and wild mushroom served in many variations. We will worry about our cholesterol later. Besides, nobody comes to le Périgord to diet. There are other French towns best suited for that purpose (ok, not that many, admittedly.)
Les oies: Geese are the local stars!
“Foie Gras road”
Sarlat-la-Canéda (a.k.a. Sarlat) is the ideal homebase. When we are finished sightseeing for the day, we are delighted to return to our comfortable apartment, and it does not take long before I run out to stroll around the quaint medieval streets. We live in the old town: a maze of cobbled streets, small squares and passageways lined with 15th and 16th century houses made of yellow, ochre-colored stone. Sarlat is so beautiful that I can’t help looking up at the old buildings while walking the pedestrian-friendly streets. In Paris, this could prove fatal (at least to my summer sandals) because of the dog poop on the sidewalks. Not in Sarlat. The town is immaculate and somebody must be picking up after all the friendly canines I meet on my walks. Pictures are better than words, they say. This is particularly true here. Illustration:
Roof made with local lauze (flat limestone) tiles
The other day, we started feeling guilty about eating so much and we decided to get a good workout. A popular summer activity is canoeing on either one of the two local rivers, la Dordogne or la Vézère.
This has been the driest spring since the 1950s, and several French regions are suffering from drought. We booked a 9-mile canoe trip on the Dordogne river but did not realize the water level was significantly lower than normal. This means there was little current to push us downstream and we had to paddle hard, for over three hours, in the blazing sun, to reach the town of Beynac at the end of the itinerary. We were very, very tired, and very, very sunburnt when we arrived. Junior still had a blast and I loved hearing him shout: “Regarde, un autre château!” (Look, another castle!) now and then, as we drifted downstream.
This was an incredible ride: There were just a few other canoes on the river (by next week there will be “canoe traffic jams” on the Dordogne.) It was peaceful, and the vistas along the way did not disappoint. Canoeing while sightseeing, what a concept!
The Dordogne river valley
Low water levels on the Dordogne…
The Perigord’s most visited Medieval castle: Castelnauld
La Roque-Gageac, frequent winner of the “Prettiest French Village” Award
Another bridge, another castle
The end of the ride, in scenic Beynac, with Beynac castle greeting us
There are hundreds of châteaux in the Périgord, but this specific area is known as “the Valley of the five castles.” Castelnaud, a massive medieval fortress, is the second-most popular tourist site after the Lascaux prehistoric caves, so we started there. The castle played an important part during the Hundred Years’ War between France and England. It was alternately French, English, French, English, over the years. Views from the ramparts are incredible and visiting the square keep and old rooms feels like you are being transported back in the Middle Ages. Junior, as I expected, got a kick out of the weaponry and artifacts displayed. Once again, we lucked out. No crowds.
Castlenaud castle towering over the village, Castelnaud la Chapelle
It must have been easy to see the enemy coming
I’d say Junior enjoyed his visit!
There was another château I was dying to visit, Les Milandes. Built in the late 1400s, the ivy-clad Renaissance estate was once the property of a favorite lady of mine, American-born Josephine Baker, who found fame in her adopted country, France, as an entertainer in the 1920s and went on to have a roller-coaster of a life as a member of the French Résistance during WWII, a civil rights activist next to Martin Luther King in the 1960s and a major philanthropist. Josephine fell in love with le Périgord in the 1930s and rented, then purchased, lovely les Milandes where she lived happily for years with her many adopted children, “the Rainbow Tribe,” until the music stopped, but this is too good of a story to tell in a few lines today. Josephine deserves her own post. I will save it for later if you don’t mind. Here are a few pictures to whet your appetite, though…
Smiling Josephine, at the peak of her music hall career
Josephine’s home during from 1938 to 1968
One of the reasons for visiting southwestern France is the concentration of prehistoric caves that have been found in the area (as well as in Northern Spain.) From 18,000 to 10,000 BC, the Magdalenians, all Cro-Magnon men, painted deep inside limestone caverns using sophisticated techniques. The most famous cave is Lascaux. It happens to be located in Montignac, a charming village where cousins of mine have lived for years. After it was discovered by a group of teenagers (and their dog) during WWII, the site soon opened to the public for about 15 years. The atmosphere in the cave (and the artwork) started deteriorating quickly. To preserve the invaluable paintings inside Lascaux, the French government decided to build an exact replica known as Lascaux II where the public can keep admiring the masterpiece (the original cave is closed today.) Pictures are not allowed inside, but everyone has seen images of the colorful paintings of bisons, horses, deer, reindeer, and mammoths to name just a few.
Long line for Lascaux tickets and it’s about to get worse…
Lascaux is good business for Montignac
“Lascaux” prix fixe meal while tourists wait for their guided tour
Inside Lascaux II
Lascaux was an interesting and a refreshing visit (it was 54F in the cool cave,) but I also enjoyed our outdoor lunch in Montignac, at a quaint restaurant by the Vézère river, and the leisurely stroll we took in the old streets.
La Vézère, Montignac
We have a few more adventures to live in le Périgord before we head out mid-week, including a visit to a troglodyte site (shallow, cliffside caves once inhabited by prehistoric men and later on in the Middle Ages) and a new accro-branche outing (we have all been dying to try this since Junior had so much fun doing it in Paris.)
Time to wrap up our tour. The only thing missing in le Périgord is the ocean. Other than that, there is enough here to keep visitors happy, interested, entertained (and exercised) for several weeks. It is the ideal vacation site — Many have already figured it out.
We will miss you, Sarlat and the Dordogne valley.
Véronique of France with Véro
Vero shares her homeland weekly on social media with virtual tours, photo essays, live events and other publications at France with Vero. Learn more.