When you're in the Dordogne, you’re in the heart of la belle France, complete with majestic chateaux, unspoilt countryside and great cuisine
Mention the Dordogne in certain circles, and you may be met with a slight curling of the lip, or a supercilious sneer. Isn’t the place overrun with the worst sort of Brit tourist? And worse, colonised by dull expats who make no effort to speak French and infuriate the locals by driving the prices of modest houses beyond their means? Well, up to a point. The Dordogne region of France is a major tourist destination - but if you stay off the beaten track, and avoid the peak season, you’ll find it utterly captivating.
Most visitors hit the Dordogne during July and August, when hotels and restaurants start to burst at the seams. Apart from the crowds, there’s another good reason for avoiding the summer: the heat can be suffocating, with temperatures regularly hitting the high 30°s and not a beach in sight. It’s advisable to go in spring or summer – May and September are the best months. But don’t go in the winter: it can get cold and wet and many places close down completely.
This is a region to be savoured at an unhurried pace; there are always sights to catch the eye, some forgotten corner to stumble upon. The great Dordogne river – which flows 500km from the Massif Central to the Atlantic – defines the area and sweeps through some majestic scenery and a heartland that is still steeped in what the French call douceur de vivre, a gentle way of life.
One of the best ways to get a feel for the river – and a very good means of doing some gentle sightseeing - is to hire a canoe. You drift past stupendous mediaeval chateaux looming over the river, and pretty little villages with stone-roofed cottages. Start at the village of Limeuil, where the Vezere and Dordogne rivers meet; the canoe hire company will then drive you and your canoe as far up the river as you want, and down you meander for a couple of hours. You’ll have earned a good lunch.
Even the French – who are notoriously particular when it comes to cuisine and service – migrate to the Dordogne for the food. Many consider the region to be the gastronomic centre of France (and therefore the world?), and it is justly famed for its foie gras, truffles, walnut oil and assorted goodies. Even in the humblest establishment it is almost impossible to eat badly. And there’s no shortage of decent local wines to wash it all down.
If you need a little exercise to work off your culinary excesses, then head off to either Beynac or Castelnaud, two villages both dominated by spectacular chateaux that eyeball each other across the Dordogne river. It’s a decent climb to the top of both, but it’s worth it – the panoramic views from the top are stunning. These mighty fortresses changed hands several times during the Hundred Years’ War, and Beynac was captured and held by Richard the Lionheart for 10 years. When he died from a gangrenous wound in 1189, the heart-shaped keyholes in the castle were fashioned in his memory.
What to do
Go canoeing on the river – it’s a really leisurely way of seeing the sights. Don’t forget to buy some foie gras to take home; goose liver (d’oie entier) is the best. And check out the market at St Cyprien on Sundays – it’s off the main roads and less of a zoo than the big market at Sarlat down the road.
Where to stay
Best bet is to stay at one of the many hotels in the countryside, away from the towns. Choose, for example, Le Manoir de Bellerive, an elegant little 19th-century chateau, which sits right on the banks of the Dordogne river and boasts a Michelin-starred restaurant.
A little further afield (about 20 minutes drive from Sarlat) is the charming Manoir D’Hautegente, which dates back to the 13th century and is run by the same family who have lived there for several generations. It’s like staying in someone’s beautiful home, except the food is superior.
Where to eat
You’ll have earned a good lunch in the lovely little garden of Le Chai restaurant (05 53 63 39 36), tucked unobtrusively just back from the river at Limeuil; the food is excellent and they boast 80 different flavours of ice cream.
Also try and fit in a visit to the bastide of Domme, a frequent winner of the ‘prettiest village in France’. As a result, it’s wholly given over to tourism, so go in the evening, when the day-tripper coaches have all disappeared, and look in at the Cabanoix and Chataignes (05 53 31 07 11) for dinner. It's run by the genial Laurent Secouard – who once cooked for President Mitterrand at the Elysee Palace - and will give you a true flavour of the best local cuisine.