A valley dotted with jaw-dropping medieval towns, castles, gardens and lots more…
If you are in search of old buildings and traditional villages, you will be in your element strolling through the typical narrow streets of our “Most Beautiful Villages in France”, discovering our bastide towns, or visiting Périgueux , Bergerac or Sarlat, which are officially recognised as“Towns of Art and History”.
The Dordogne is famous for its beautiful villages, 10 of which are officially recognized “Most Beautiful Villages in France” – along with the Aveyron, the Dordogne has the largest number of these villages in the country. Situated 20km from Sarlat, Saint-Amand-de-Coly nestles between two wooded valleys and is famous for its 12C abbey. At the other side of the département, in the Périgord Vert, Saint-Jean-de-Côle’s history is linked with that of the Château de la Marthonie which dominates its main square, while the typical small commune of Saint-Léon-sur- Vézère between Montignac and Les Eyzies boasts no fewer than three castles. Other worthwhile villages are Limeuil (overlooking the confluence of the Dordogne and Vézère), Monpazier, La Roque-Gageac, Belvès, Domme, Castelnaud-la-Chapelle and Beynac-et-Cazenac.
The charming stone bastides or “new towns” were built in the Middle Ages as part of a plan to create urban areas in rural surroundings. Built on both sides of the Dordogne river, they played an important strategic role in the Hundred Years’ War between the French and English. Considered to be a perfect example of a bastide town, Monpazier is without doubt the jewel of the Périgord bastides. Founded in 1284 by Edward I of England, it has retained many of its original medieval features, including its ramparts, central square surrounded by arcades, and regular grid-style street plan. Another older bastide, this time built by the French, is the town of Villefranche-du-Périgord, situated on the main route south towards the Lot et Garonne département. An important cep mushroom market takes place in season in the town’s market hall. Whether they were built by the English, like Beaumont-du-Périgord (designed in the form of an H in memory of Henry III, the father of Edward I), Fonroque and Lalinde, or by the French, like Domme, Molières and Eymet, these “new towns” are a charming and quintessential feature of the Périgord.
Périgueux, Bergerac and Sarlat have the label “Ville d’Art et d’Histoire”, with a protected historic center wich is ideal for a walk.
Sarlat is a medieval town which grew up around a large Benedictine abbey of Carolingian origin. The old buildings here, with their traditional façades and lauze stone roofs, have been carefully restored, thanks to a special law governing the restoration of conservation areas. Today, most of these buildings are listed Historic Monuments, including the emblematic Maison de la Boétie. Amid these authentic medieval surroundings, the Saturday morning market brings life and colour to the town centre, with its fine selection of regional products. The old southern-style parish church has been restored by the architect Jean Nouvel (who also designed the Gallo-RomanVesunna museum) and now houses the covered market.
Périgueux, the capital of the Périgord, has a rich history dating back over 2,000 years. From the ancient Gallo-Roman town of Vesunna to the heart of the medieval and Renaissance district, the town has 39 buildings listed as Historic Monuments in one of the largest conservation areas in France. The ancient town of Périgueux is represented in a new museum, the Musée de Site Gallo-Romain Vesunna, designed by the architect Jean Nouvel and opened in 2003. This museum is home to the ruins of the Domus of Vesunna, a large Gallo-Roman villa adorned with exceptional wall paintings. The medieval and Renaissance conservation area extends around the Cathédrale Saint-Front, one of the landmark religious buildings along UNESCO’s Way of St James World Heritage site. Périgueux’s Wednesday and Saturday markets are lively and bustling, especially in winter, when the region’s award-winning foie gras markets are held here.
Bergerac is founded on the northern bank of the Dordogne River, in the western part of the Dordogne department. It is one of the more larger towns in the region .The highlight of a trip to Bergerac is the old center, the area immediately north of the river, signposted ‘vieille ville’. This part of the town has some lovely streets and squares to explore, and a variety of boutique type shops.
The old town centre is near Place Pelissiere which is a lovely square, edged with cafes and restaurants and always full of flowers. At the top edge is the St James church with its attractive bell-tower.
Around Place Pelissiere are a number of lovely medieval streets including Rue St Clar and Rue St James. Rue St Clar in particular is a narrow street with half-timbered houses. Take the time to wander around the streets of the old time and admire the interesting architecture you will see as along the way. Down towards the river is another lovely square – the Place Mirpe surrounded by half-timbered buildings and offering some welcome shade in the summer.
Visit the Maison de Vins de Bergerac in the heart of the old town. It is a beautiful old cloister dating back to the 12th century. If you are a wine enthusiast there is an exhibition showing the history of Bergerac wines and its 13 appellations.
During the summer there are occasional concerts which take place in the cloister. It is a lovely setting for them and worth going if you get the chance. In December there is usually a small but good quality Christmas Market here with products from local artisans, very useful if you are doing some Christmas shopping.
The National Tobacco Museum is based here in Bergerac, and is apparently very interesting. (Tobacco is still an important crop in the region, that you will probably see growing in the fields.)
Up from the old town, there is a newer, more modern part to Bergerac, with more conventional streets and a larger range of ‘modern’ shops.
There are a number of restaurants in both ‘old-town’ Bergerac among the attractive medieval half-timbered streets and in the pleasant newer parts of Bergerac. There are also various open-air cafes where you can pass a very pleasant hour just watching people going about their business.
The market, held on a Saturday, is at the higher end of the town.
After exploring Bergerac you can take an organised boat trip –gabare up the river (start from the car-park at the bottom end of the old-town) to see the town and the nearby countryside from a different perspective. (But be warned – several people we know have done this and said it was a waste of time because the boat didn’t go far enough – I recommend you wait, and take a boat trip from one of the bases further upstream which pass by some of the riverside villages and chateaux).
Note: Any statues of Cyrano de Bergerac can be ignored – he had nothing to do with the town, and quite possibly never even visited!
Bergerac is an important wine area with a selection of good wines. Particularly good Bergerac wines include Pecharmant, Monbazillac and Saussignac.