The Dordogne River rises from Puy de Sancy, in Auvergne, at a 1680 m height, and flows 483 km to join the Garonne and form the Gironde estuary. In its path crosses six departments, giving its name to one of them, a land of castles and medieval villages in a rural and natural surroundings, the French countryside in all its glory. A land to explore at a slow pace, to delight in its peace and quiet and to enjoy its amazing gastronomy.
Uninhabited for 500.000 years, prehistory left a giant footprint in Dordogne, with an invaluable treasure of caves, paintings, and troglodytic sites. The four Gaul tribes which inhabited the area, the Petrocorii, originated the Perigord. The Gauls saw their civilization crashed by the arrival of the Romans and the defeat against Julius Caesar in 51BC, which would establish the Gallia Aquitania, a pretty prosperous region. With the fall of Rome Visigoths, Frankish and Carolingian would follow. It was Charlemagne who founded the kingdom of Aquitaine in 781.
The marriage of Eleanor and Henry, king of England, put this land in English hands. It was a time of prosperity that favoured agriculture and wine production. The fight for the French throne succession would start the Hundred Year War, which ended with the return of Aquitania to France.
Relatively independent from central power, during the 15th and 16th C the area experienced an urban and architectonical development in towns like Perigueux, Bergerac or Sarlat and saw the rise of 1200 castles and mansions, a splendorous heritage for us to discover on our own.
Actually, there are four Périgords: the Green (an area of valleys and rivers), the White (defined by limestone), the Purple (wine territory) and the Black (oak and pine forests spreading into the valleys of Vézère and Dordogne). It is this last one we came to discover, using the charming city of Sarlat as basecamp.
Dordogne is the land of 1001 castles. Our brief sojourn allows us to visit three of them, very different from one another.
Beynac, the fortress of king Richard
Eleanor and Henry had two sons, two kings of England, Richard the Lionheart and John Lackland, two well-known figures in popular culture thanks to the legend of Robin Hood. Maybe the county of Aquitania seems too far from the Sherwood forests to name it in films about the English outlaw, but it was in fact part of the domains of the English crown during that time. With almost 1000 years of history the Beynac castle, on top of a craggy hill, dominated the river and the border with France. The barges sailing down the Dordogne river full of walnuts, chestnuts, firewood and wine from the Périgord needed the safe-conduct of the Lord of Beynac, something that granted him great power during the 12th and 13th C.
It is worth the visit to this impressive fortress, listed as Historic Monument, and located in one of the most beautiful villages in France, Beynac-et-Cazenac. It is a trip back to the Middle Ages, to a convulsed time of conflict between crowns.
The oldest part of the castle is the huge Keep, a solitary square tower with thick walls, from the 12thC. Attached to the keep we find the Guard Room, where we can imagine the lord and his men entering with their mounts. Next to it there’s the State Room, where the four Barons of Périgord (Bourdeille, Biron, Beynac and Mereuille) met during the 15thC to decide the affairs of the country.
Other remarkable features are the 17thC Renaissance stairs – that replaced the spiralling Medieval staircase- and the Oratory, a little chapel with 15thC frescoes-, the armour room, the 18thC kitchen and the Barbican, that protected the entrance to the fortress.
From the 5 points terrace, 152m high on top of the main tower, the view of the area overlooking five other castles allowed the lords total control of the territory. When the Lord of Beynac died without heirs in 1189 the castle passed onto Richard I, who left it in the hands of a trusted friend.
It has been used as a set for movies like Luc Besson’s Jean D’arc of Jean-Marie Poiré’s The Visitors 2.
Puymartin, home of the Montbron House
When you visit a castle that has been in the same family since the 13thC you cannot help but to feel a bit overwhelmed. Especially if you visit with a member of the family, as we had the privilege to do. Everybody they mention is actually an ancestor, even the resident ghost in the tower. Something like that has to change your point of view on history as a person. Suddenly it is not some distant story in a book anymore but it comes to life. A life affecting directly the person you are speaking to.
Built on the 13thC, the castle was located on the border between France and England at the start of the 100 Year War. It was sacked by English mercenaries on January 1357 and left in ruins. Radulphe de Saint-Clar rebuilt it in 1450. From then on, the rivalry between Puymartin and Commarque (property of the Lord of Beynac) would mark the evolution of the castle. During the 16thC Raymond de Saint-Clar, leader of the Catholic citizens of the Périgord Noir, established his seat in the chateau (his battle name was captain Puymartin).
After a failed attempt of assault by a group of Protestants, Saint-Clar rallied the Catholics and expelled the Huguenots from Sarlat, something that brought the Lord of Puymartin a flattering reputation, great fame and riches. But on his return from war he found his wife with a Protestant lover (Oh! The insult!) and had her locked up till her death.
The White Lady of Puymartin
The revenge of a jealous husband can be terrible. Thérèse de Saint-Clar spent 15 years locked inside a small tower with no door (food was handed down through a hole in the ceiling) and the only thing she could see from the barred window was the tree were the body of her lover had been hung – and left to rot… for years. She had to sleep on a matt and cook in a small fireplace. When Thérèse finally died she was buried inside the wall of the room. They say her restless ghost still wanders around the castle. Actually, Xavier the Montbron told us hi father had seen her – although Xavier never had the honour himself. The best chance for you to meet the White Lady is to sleep in the room right underneath her cell in the tower – available for bookings – or maybe to take a night tour. It is actually the room’s bathroom that is built inside the tower space under the cell, so be warned before taking a relaxing bath in the evening.
The castle would see its peace disturbed once more at the end of the 18thC due to a family feud among brothers that lasted 40 years. During the French Revolution, the marquis François Roffignac de Carbonnier de Marzac managed to keep Puymartin and his three other castles (Marzac, Reignac, Lasserre del Dugat) because the lords of Puymartin had always been close to people and were loved.
One of his descendants, marquis Marc Roffignac, de Carbonnier de Marzac, would undertake a big restoration during the 19thC. It was her daughter who married count Jacques de Montbron in 1920, and that’s why the Montbrons are the current owners of the castle. But, at the end of the day, every change in the name was due to marriage (Saint-Clar, La Pleynie, Roffignac Marzac, (Roffignac) Carbonnier de Marzac and now de Chérade de Montbron) and actually the castle has remained always in the family for centuries.
There are two rooms available for rent for a unique experience. You need to contact via website:
Milandes, a song to Josephine Baker
When Angélique de Saint Exupery was tasked by her mother to manage the Chateaux de Milandes (which she had bought in 2001) she didn’t hesitate: It had to become a homage to her most illustrious resident, Josephine Baker.
The castle was built in 1489 by François de Caumont for her wife Claude Cardaillac – as Angélique told us, Milandes had always been a women’s castle since the beginning-. Caumont erected a beautiful Gothic manor with turrets, spiralling staircases and gargoyles.
Milandes would not be spared from strenuous times. The Protestant Jacques Nompart de Caumont survived the Huguenot massacre of Saint Bartholomew’s, on August 24, 1572, after having been invited along with his parents – who were not so lucky- to the wedding of Henry of Navarre (Henry IV of France) and Margaret de Valois. He escaped with their uncles and hid in Milandes. When the Catholics came to take the castle, Henry sent a servant to protect Jacques, who would become his most loyal follower after that. He ended up as lord of the castle after her cousin Anne married a Catholic and was disowned.
After the Revolution is was abandoned. It would be saved from ruin in 1900 by industrialist Charles Augustus Claverie, who restored it with the help of architect Henri Laffillée, adding new towers, romantic balconies, sculptures and restoring the 18thC stained windows. He also added the pretty French style gardens.
Its last resident was Josephine Baker, an artist born in Saint Louis, Missouri, in 1906, into a poor Afro-American family. Her passion for dance would take her to the Paris stages in 1925. There she shocked and delighted in equal parts with her performance – she danced almost naked to the sound of drums mocking the reigning colonial and racist thinking of the time. She signed up for Folies Bergère and in the 30’s she started a career as a singer, with hits like J’ai deux amours. She would donate part of her earnings to hospitals and schools. She married a Jewish French industrialist in 1938 and was an active member of the Resistance, acting as a link for counter-intelligence and helping refugees out of the country. In 1961 she received the Legion of Honour for her services in a ceremony held at the castle, where she lived along with her husband and her 12 adopted multiracial multi-religious children, her “Rainbow Tribe”, as she liked to call them.
Debt, however, would force Josephine to sell the place in 1968 and she moved to Monaco, where she died in 1975. Her 11 surviving children still visit Milandes, now a museum devoted to their mother.
The visit is completed by a Birds of Prey show, where you can see eagles and owls in action.
La Gouffre de Proumeyssac, the cathedral of crystal
Once upon a time there was a bottomless hole, they called it the Cro (hole in Occitan language) de Promeissat. They said it was a volcano or even the mouth of hell. It had a gruesome reputation: it was the hole where highwaymen threw the bodies of the travellers they attacked on the road from Sarlat to Bergerac. Not only highwaymen: the Lord of Limeul was thrown in by his vassals, fed up with his abuse, around the 17thC.
On March 10, 1907, Gabriel Galou dared to descend with some ropes and could distinguish “a considerable amount of crystal columns up to 6 meters high and two ponds”. From that moment on the cave arouse curiosity up to the point they had to set a basket to get people down. Nowadays the basket has been replaced by a round open elevator holding 11 people that descends the 42 meters into the floor of these huge cave carved by water for 10 million years in the Cretaceous limestone. The first meters we go down in the dark through a rocky chimney which suddenly opens up inside the vast cavity, where lights point to the curious and spectacular formations like the Jellyfish (which I renamed Cthulhu), the Siren, the Waterfall or the Octopus.
The atmospheric show of music and light accompanying the descent is stunning. Once on the bottom, the rest of the cave, with several galleries, is explored by foot. There is a more economic option to visit the cave, by foot from the bottom entrance, but I fervently recommend the elevator experience.
The Dordogne villages
Most of the charm of the Dordogne lies in its medieval villages, some of which are part of the network of most beautiful villages in France, for a reason.
Sarlat-la-Canéda, City of Art and History
The origins of Sarlat go back to a Carolingian Benedictine abbey located between Perigueux and Cahors, which reached its peak in the 13thC. Around it grew the village, which still keeps its medieval structure. It was one of the first to benefit from the Malraux Law of 1962 for the protection of historical buildings, helping to the maintenance of 56 monuments and houses in the medieval centre. It can boast of having the highest density of historical and listed buildings in the world.
Strolling down its streets, day or night, with the illuminated facades, is an exceptional experience. The reason for the extraordinary harmony of the whole ensemble is the blonde stone of the walls combined with the grey of the roofs, made of lauze, more heavy and thick than slate, which requires a solid structure. The art of building with this material is listed as Immaterial Cultural Heritage of France.
The best way to appreciate the compact structure of the Medieval centre, and its narrow streets, is to take the panoramic elevator built by Jean Nouvell, perfectly hidden inside a 40m bell tower in the old church of Saint Mary, today used as a market.
Behind the church, in the small Marché aux Oies square, we’ll find a cute bronze statue of three geese (life size); it is a pretty busy spot for photos. We are in foie land, after all.
Head behind the Saint-Sacerdos cathedral for the curious 12thC Lantern of the Dead, a sepulchral chapel shaped like a pointy tower, which could have been built to commemorate the visit of Saint Bernard to the village but its function is actually unclear. One of the theories claims for it to be a Lantern of the Dead, a sort of lighthouse for the souls of the deceased.
The cathedral is Gothic and keeps the Roman bell tower. Next to it we find the 16thC Maison de Boatie, with one of the most iconic facades in the old quarter. Sarlat is full of charming spots like the Henri-de-Ségogne alley, which gives access to a small square – occupied by the terraces of some restaurants.
On Saturdays the farmer’s market fills the old quarter with local produce stalls, selling food and crafts. The old village is divided by a straight modern shopping street.
La Roque Gageac – barges and Castelnaud
Embedded at the foot of a cliff at the shores of the Dordogne, the village of la Ròca Gajac /Roque Gageac has been inhabited since prehistory. It has seen the arrival of Romans, Normans and even Vikings, who sailed up the river with their longships and are actually the reason why the village became a defensive fortress, something that would come in handy during the 100 Year War. Classified as one of the most beautiful villages in France with the ochre facades lined sheltered under the rocky wall and close to the water it enjoys a microclimate that allows even for the existence of a tropical garden.
It is the starting point of the barge tours, the gavarres, replicas of the traditional 18thC boats, that take the tourists to Castelnaud-la-Chapelle, to enjoy the views of the village from the water, of the Marlartrie château, of the rocky outcrop hosting the Marqueyssac gardens, or Castelnaud and his castle.
Another more dynamic option, and perfect in a hot day, is to rent a kayak and explore the river yourself.
Limuèhl / Limeuil
Already in the Purple Périgord, at the border with the Black and the confluence between the Vézère and Dordogne rivers, we come across this hilly village that has maintained the medieval feel with winding streets climbing up toward the panoramic 19thC garden located on the old castle grounds. Also listed as one of the most beautiful villages in France it is a member of the Land of Truffle community.
Cultural heritage: dry stone houses -cabanes de Breuil
The dry stone building technique is common to all humanity, we could say. The Cabanes de Breuil, 9km away from Sarlat, are an example of this art which take us back to the old country life of the Périgord. Declared historic monument, their owner, Claude, keeps an ensemble of round dry stone structures he inherited from their grandparents in the 70s and decided to save from destruction. To help restore them he has undergone an exhaustive research on the technique, which he uses to create new structures. He offers workshops to those who want to learn this ancestral art. He is fully committed to keep the country culture and heritage alive.
The herd of geese wandering among the pointy roofed round buildings adds to the pastoral and rural atmosphere.
The castle that Bertrand Vernet de Marqueyssac built himself during the late 17thC on top of a cliff rising over the Dordogne in Vezac was surrounded by a French style garden with terraces, trails and a cooking herbs garden. During the 19thC, the owner Julien de Cevel, started planting thousands of boxwoods which he sculpted in fantastic shapes, mostly round. He also planted linden, cypress, pines and cyclamens and built rustic structures, trails and flower beds. They were abandoned for 50 years before being restored in 1996, adding waterfalls and other features, and opened to the public. The result is a 22HA natural space with 6km of trails under the trees which take us to the spectacular viewpoint (192m high) over the Dordogne river and the village of La Ròca de Gajac. Included in the list of Remarkable Gardens of France they are one of the most visited attractions in the Périgord. The 150.000 boxwood shrubs still sculpted in a round shape are one of the most peculiar and original features, catching our eyes among the trees. And the views from the rim are simply outstanding. Take your time, sit and watch the light change over the landscape.
We find elements like sculptures, a hanging rope tunnel, children areas or a via ferrata and we can join night walks or enjoy concerts during the summer. An App will help us navigate around the gardens. https://marqueyssac.com/?lang=en
The Périgord is so rich that there is never time enough to explore all the castles, the gardens, the caves, the villages, the forests, the river and the prehistoric sites.
We slept at Hôtel Le Mas de Castel. A quite rural hotel on the outskirts of Sarlat, with a swimming pool.
Route du Sudalissant – 24200 Sarlat-la-Canéda. Tel: +33 553590259 https://hotel-lemasdecastel.com/
The gastronomy of the Dordogne summarized in a few words: Foie, duck confit, truffle, strawberries, walnuts and cabécou (a small goats cheese), among other local delicacies. Some places where we ate:
Les 3 Sens.
15 Rue Fénelon 24200 Sarlat-la-Canada
Tel +33 553301959
Rue Gabriel Tarde- 24200 Sarlat-la-Caneda
Tel +33 553289250
Les Jardins d’Harmonie
Place André Malraux – 24200 Sarlat-la-Canéda
Tel : +33 553310669 – http://www.lesjardinsdharmonie.com/
Château des Milandes
24250 Castelnaud la Chapelle
Tel: +33 55593121 – https://www.milandes.com/
Marqueyssac Gardens. Salads and cold dishes of very good quality. Open from April to November.
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