by Walt Ballenberger
The Dordogne Valley, or the Perigord as it is also called by the locals, is home to many of
the “Most Beautiful Villages of France”. This area is not as well known as others in the
country, but it is certainly one of the most beautiful. These 5 venues are among the top
sites in the region, and a visit to the Dordogne is not complete without seeing them all.
1. Domme- Domme is a village situated at the top of a rocky cliff overlooking the
Dordogne valley. From the lookout area, the view embraces the valley
from the Montfort meander in the east, to Beynac in the west. The view of the tranquil river
and fields of crops belies the violence that took place here in the middle ages.
Domme is a bastide village that was founded by Philip the Bold in 1283, so it is actually
newer than other villages in the area. People at the time were encouraged to go to newly
founded towns, called bastides, most of which were planned around a central covered
market area. There are numerous bastides in France dating from this general period.
Although worth a visit any time, Domme is especially nice on market days when one will find
homegrown and homemade fruits and vegetables, sausages, olives, cheeses, cured hams,
and of course a staple of the Dordogne, foie gras. Check any of the local Offices of Tourism
to find the schedule for markets at Domme or other villages.
2. La Roque Gageac- This charming village is huddled against a cliff which drops vertically
to the river Dordogne. It features attractive little streets with interesting homes, churches,
and other buildings, including the Manoir de Tarde, a manor house of the once locally
famous Tarde family. One stretch has semi-tropical plant life in abundance, as the
protection of the cliff is such that the flora there can survive even in the winter months.
A walking path runs behind the buildings at the foot of the cliff and provides great views and
pictures. The Troglodyte caves are to be found along here as well, and they are worth a
3. Beynac- About 2 miles down the road is beautiful Beynac. The Chateau de Beynac
stands on a remarkable site, rising from the top of a rock as it overlooks the
valley spotted with hills crowned with castles. The castle was once captured by Richard the
Lion Hearted, and over the years and during numerous wars it was destroyed and then
rebuilt. There is a sheer drop of almost 500 ft. from the chateau to the river, and the view is
spectacular. The panorama includes the nearby castles of Marqueyssac, Castelnaud, and
Fayrac. The village, tucked at the foot of the cliff adjacent to the river, is where the motion
picture "Chocolat" was filmed. A steeply sloping footpath known locally as the Caminal del
Panieraire (basket maker's path- this was seen in the opening scenes of the film "Chocolat")
leads from the bottom of the village, through rows of renaissance houses dating from the
15th to the 17th centuries, to the castle and the church on top. This walk is definitely
recommended, but it does get steep toward the top. Tours of the chateau are normally in
French, but English language tours are available some mornings. Check with one of the
local tourism offices for availability.
4. Castelnaud- This “chateau fort”, or fortified castle, stands only about 2 kilometers from the
chateau de Beynac, and it was between the two that the battle front between the English and
the French shifted during the Hundred Years War. The chateau changed hands between
the two sides numerous times. There were several periods of restoration after the middle
ages, the last starting recently in 1969. The castle provides superior views of the Dordogne
valley, and it also houses a museum of medieval and siege weaponry. One can see several
catapults in the courtyard, even from the valley below. There are also two films, one relating
to the weapons museum and another about the history of the castle. The surrounding
village is quaint, but be prepared for a steep climb on foot to reach the chateau.
5. Sarlat- A bustling town today, Sarlat grew up around a Benedictine abbey founded in the
9th century. The abbots retained their power until the 13th century when internal strife and
corruption caused their downfall. The 13th and early 14th centuries were a prosperous time
for this busy market town, but the Hundred Years War left it weakened and depopulated.
After this came a period of reconstruction, and most of the town houses to be seen today
were built between 1450-1500. This has created an architectural unity in renaissance style
which is very attractive. If possible, have dinner in one of the many restaurants in the old
town and see the village at night as well, as it is attractively lit up. Sarlat's old village has a
number of interesting places to visit including the Cathedrale of St. Sacerdos; the Maison de
la Boetie, where Etienne de la Boetie, a famous writer and friend of Montaigne, and who also
influenced Rousseau, was born; the Hotel de Maleville; among others. There are many
charming shops, galleries, and restaurants.
The Dordogne region hosts a number of other interesting sites in addition to the 5 described
above. As these sites are within about 10 kilometers of each other, one can visit all of them
comfortably in two days. If you have more time to spend in the area, there are other
chateaux and gardens to see, as well as canoeing, kayaking, and other activities. The area
is very popular among the British and Dutch, many of whom either have second residences
in the region or have moved there full time. In my opinion this is one of the prettiest and
most pleasant parts of France. The food is excellent, and you cannot visit here without
trying confit or magret de canard, duck confit or duck breast. It goes without saying that
sampling some foie gras is practically mandatory.