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The Dordogne Region of France

Mellen Candage

First-time visitors should really plan to spend at least a week. A base in the Perigord Noir area of the departement is wise as it affords you the easiest access to the most places of interest. Specifically, find Sarlat on a map and draw a semicircle radiating out from it to the west - accommodations within that area are preferable. A car is virtually essential to appreciate the area, as so many of its charms are hidden down tiny lanes and forest roads.

Although the Dordogne is beautiful throughout the year, it is most beautiful in the spring, when the many fruit orchards are in bloom, and the fall, when the light is rich and the landscape alive with color. In July and August, it is very crowded, and navigating through the riverside villages in particular can be frustrating. Still, don't skip the trip if you can only go in July or August - it's no more crowded than many other places in Europe. In winter, the region feels like a medieval playground, as rural life goes on while many shops and hotels and restaurants are closed for the season.

Whatever your interests, the Dordogne will suit you. The scenery is magical, and just driving around on the tortuous country lanes through the forest and over the hills and along the rivers is pure pleasure. There are numerous "plus beaux villages de France," including Beynac. La Roque-Gageac, St-Leon-sur-Vezere, Domme, and Belves. The markets are some of the finest in France, with many desginated as "marches de France." The town of Sarlat, the market hub of the region, has been restored to its 17th-18th-century magnificence with such perfection that it is lit at night by gas lamps and is the set for myriad French movies.

The Dordogne is rich in layer upon layer of history, too. There are more than 150 prehistoric sites along the Vezere river alone. The best known prehistoric site is, of course, Lascaux II, which though a reproduction will still give you goosebumps. Others include Font-de-Gaume and Combarelles in Les Eyzies (chromatic paintings); Rouffignac and Bara-Bahau (engravings); and numerous smaller sites with sculpture, dwellings, shelters, and other prehistoric goodies. The Village Troglodytique de la Madeleine and the nearby Roque St-Christophe are sites where man has lived in successive periods of history for as many as 50,000 years or more.

If prehistory doesn't grab you, perhaps the vestiges of the Hundred Years War will. The cliffs overhanging the rivers are lined with impressive castles dating from the 10th to 12th centuries. At Castelnaud you can see a catapult exhibition and watch a video that will teach you how to sack a castle. The Chateau de Beynac has been carefully restored in the past ten years and now houses a nice collection of medieval furniture. The castles on the north side of the river were French; those on the south, English.

Renaissance and later castles litter the hillsides, too. You can visit Josephine Baker's 19th-century chateau, Les Milandes, where she gathered her brood of adopted children.

Canoeing and kayaking on the rivers are popular sports, and there are plenty of rental outfits. One of the nicest ways to spend a day in the area is to pack a picnic, rent a couple of canoes, and glide down the Dordogne admiring the castles looming above you, then stop for a picnic on the riverbank. There are plenty of places to rent bicycles, go horseback riding or spelunking, or play tennis or golf, too.

Of course, one of the big draws of the region is food. The Perigord has been called the gastronomic capital of France with good reason. Here, foie gras and truffles (les diamants noirs du Perigord) are everyday fare, and every town has shops filled to overflowing with these local treasures. Other local specialties are confit of duck and goose, stuffed goose neck (it's good!), walnut cakes, chocolate-dusted walnuts, and walnut wine and liqueur. Local wines include Monbazillac, Bergerac, and Pecharmant.

Restaurants abound, and it's hard to find a bad meal in the Perigord. With very few exceptions, the "cuisine du terroir" reigns supreme here, and meals are hearty.

There are hotels of every description, ranging from tiny B&Bs to the elegant Centenaire in Les Eyzies. In general, prices are very affordable at both hotels and restaurants.

(La vallee de la Dordogne est le sourire de France) :)

Mellen Candage is a writer and editor and has been the owner/president of Grammarians, Inc., a publishing and translation company in Alexandria, VA, since 1978. In her "spare time" she is a travel consultant for France and gives culinary and other specialty tours in the Perigord and Provence. Her articles on travel, food, wine, and other European topics have been published in the Washington Post, Chicago Tribune, International Living, Wine Tidings Magazine, Writer's Digest, FiberArts, and Parenting. krokosbackpack.net/lacoste/

© Mellen Candage, 2002

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