Heritage & Culture

 

   By Bard Sullenger

UNSPOILED DORGOGNE

Located in southwest France and east of the lush vineyards of Bordeaux, the Department of Dordogne, offers visitors a menu of rustic charm, dramatic landscapes, inspired cuisine and a lack of tourist crowds. Travelers from throughout France and the rest of the European Union often come to the region for the slow pace of life, the soul or âme, that inhabits the landscapes and of course the food.  

Tranquility and beau paysage are easy to find in the Dordogne, the grand museums and bustle of Paris or Lyon are left to the cities, and for visitors this is just the way it should be.  The Dordogne is all about a more simplistic state of life, traditions are strong and ever present in these hidden valleys and stone villages.  Indeed, the region and its inhabitants are little changed since Napoleon’s time, and seem to draw strength from their close association with history and traditional values.  

History has a long reach in this part of France, and habitation can be traced back nearly 17,000 years through the stunning cave paintings of Lascaux, situated near Les Eyzies. The caves of Lascaux contain the best preserved and most vivid representations of life and animals from Cro-Magnon culture. These famous paintings were done with ochre for color and with a detail and perspective well before their time. Discovered in 1940 by four boys who had lost their dog, the caves at Lascaux became a sensation for the sheer number and quality of paintings. Over time and due to the number of visitors, the accompanying humidity and build up of calcium, the caves were closed for their own protection in 1963. However, amid much public outcry, a plan to copy the caves was begun in the early 1970’s, and opened to the public in 1983. Lascaux II is located 200 meters from the original cave and is an awe-inspiring experience for even seasoned travelers and pre-historians. Much of the terrain of the Dordogne rests on a base of limestone and calcareous rock, and over the centuries rainfall and underground rivers have formed the fabulous caverns that ancient man took shelter in and that we enjoy today. One such cavern is, Gouffre de Padirac where it is possible to enter this fantastical subterranean world, thought to be the realm of the devil until the 19th century. 

At Gouffre de Padirac there exist over 13 miles of caverns formed by the slow flow of water into and out of underground lakes and rivers. To fully enjoy this masterpiece of nature you can descend by lift to the bottom, over 100 meters down, where you can tour the lake of the source on foot and by boat, discovering beautiful stalactites and stalagmites, formed over the centuries. Underground caverns or beautiful châteaux and gardens, the Dordogne offers both options. Perched over the river Vézère amid a green estate, sits the Château de Losse, a 16th century building with fine Italian furnishings and 16th and 17th century tapestries. Near the village of Bergerac sits the Château de Monbazillac, imposing as it rises above the valley of the Dordogne, it is surrounded by its own vineyards and offers tours of the property and wine tastings. The Chateau dates from the 1500’s and is owned by the Monbazillac Wine Co-operative, which has restored the property and added beautiful examples of 17th century furnishings and Flemish tapestries. 

A day of touring the pays can build quite an appetite and without a gastronomic experience your stay would not be complete, so forget diets and enjoy those specialties that make Parisians drool - pâté, foie gras and truffles. The delights of the table are taken quite seriously in France and travelers will be hard pressed to find a local establishment that does not feature regional specialties fresh from the market, farm or forest. Dining is a time to relax with family and friends, go over current events or more recently, the World Cup soccer tournament, which always arouses passions. 

Supplying all these restaurants are the local markets, and excitement is in the air as everyone turns out early for fresh produce, socializing or to find that special antique. Markets are a fixture of French life and for travelers it’s a great opportunity to mingle, try regional foods and get immersed in the culture. A specialty of the Dordogne and featured at nearly all restaurants is foie gras and goose liver pâté, wine is of course never far from the mind of a Frenchman either, and not to be left out at mealtime. The vineyards of the Dordogne spread out wherever there is sufficient space and often you can visit for a tasting or to purchase wines. 

While not possessing the credentials of nearby Bordeaux, the Dordogne does produce red and white wines suitable for a fine meal. Wines of the Haut Pays such as Côtes de Duras, Cahors and Bergerac are easily found throughout the region. By noontime the market is packed away and most people head for their favorite restaurant or café. A midday meal usually begins with an aperitif, followed by a starter of pâté or foie gras, next a vin du pays, entrée or plat du jour, cheese, desert and then perhaps a digestif to make sure everything is in agreement. Generally speaking, following the locals or looking for the busiest restaurant is a sound idea and usually leads to interesting stories. Many restaurants will have a set price menu or a plat du jour posted outside and this is almost always the best bet in terms of freshness and economy. You won’t see many locals or Europeans for that matter ordering à la carte. 

When touring in the Dordogne make it a point to take a meal or two at one of the many ferme-auberge establishments that are common to the region. They are normally family run and the chef never has far to go to get his ingredients. For the gourmet minded a nice drive through glorious countryside will bring you to Limeuil, at the confluence of the Dordogne and Vezere rivers. Limeuil is a charming town of stone streets and homes enclosed in thick defensive walls. Your appetite whetted, follow the Route de Cingle to Tremolat, for a luncheon at Le Vieux Logis or Le Bistro, two of the finest restaurants in the area.

Touring the countryside is an exciting and enlightening experience,  with many villages, such as Sarlat or the perched village of Domme retaining the look and feel of their medieval upbringing. Sarlat dates back to the 9th century, when an abbey was founded on a wooded site, by Pepin the Duke of Acquitaine. Today, Sarlat’s medieval heritage has been preserved through the Loi Malraux, a law designed to protect the town  from growth and building. Strolling through the gas lit old section in the evening you can almost see and hear the clip clop of horseman emerging from the mist, perhaps on their way to a battle during the Hundred Years War. Dangerous times these were, and walls, fortifications and the natural landscape were used to protect towns and their valuable markets and goods. Stone, wood beams and more stone were the chief materials used in construction of the homes, public spaces and buildings, giving them the fortitude to survive to the present day. Some of the most intriguing towns make amazing use of the available landscape and materials. 

One example is the village of Rocamadour, which rises from the Alzou canyon and is built up the sheer face of a cliff, to emerge at the top overlooking its surroundings. On my first trip to the Dordogne with my wife, on our honeymoon or Lune de Miel, and we were captivated by the landscape which runs from gentle rolling hills to sudden drops and hidden river valleys. The hanging village of Rocamadour comes to mind as one such village of charm and awe, as it literally clings to the sheer face of a cliff. Originally founded as a stopover and hostel for travelers on the route to Santiago de Compostella, the site itself became a pilgrimage owing to the news of miracle cures. It was once one of the most famous pilgrimage sites in all of Christendom and even today retains some of is former religious fervor. Approaching from the D 32 or the L’Hospitalet road gives a beautiful view over the Alzou river and the village of Rocamadour. Once in the village be sure, if heights are not worrisome, to venture out onto the castle ramparts at the top of the cliff for a vertiginous view out over the edge and into the gorge of the river Alzou. After your visit and if you are looking for something a little different, you may consider the Forêt des Singes, a “Monkey Forest” located close by. It is home to rare Barbary Apes and Macaques that love the popcorn you are invited to feed them.

Though not as well known or traveled as its neighbor Provence to the south, the Dordogne is appearing on the radar screens of travelers seeking a taste of the old France. It matters not whether you come for sightseeing or history or just to relax, the Dordogne is sure to please and just as unlikely to change anytime soon. There is an aura of beauty, charm and intrigue that clings to the landscape, luring visitors back time after time. For these reasons alone, the appeal is great, even more so when you have the time to spend exploring villages and sites off the beaten track, enjoying the fruits of centuries of history, cuisine and culture.  

Photos by Mr. Sullenger

About the author . . .

Bard Sullenger developed a passion and excitement for travel early in life.  Raised in the multicultural suburbs of Washington, DC, he began accompanying tours for his family's tour operation at an early age, with destinations including Europe, Africa, Greece and Turkey. The foreign languages, regional cuisine, sights and smells, and different cultures all opened his eyes to a world waiting to be explored.

Following a stint guiding clients on river rafting tours and Ski Patrolling in Aspen, Colorado he then completed his Bachelors Degree at the University of Virginia, and began leading cultural and hiking tours in Europe and Africa. Bard now runs the family tour business, Bardith Travel Ltd., where he develops and leads tours for small parties and private institutions.  He specializes in small groups and individual itineraries to Provence, Brittany, Normandy, Bordeaux, the Dordogne, the French Alps region, Corsica, Tuscany, Northern Italy, Sicily, Switzerland and the United Kingdom.

Bard enjoys climbing rock and ice and playing soccer in his spare time.  He and his wife, Stephanie, live in Northern Virginia with their three small children and their corgi dog, Barklay.  For further information about Bardith Travel simply use the following . . . . 

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