What’s the Dordogne all about anyway? That’s what I thought and I find that so many eager travelers ask me the same. What is the draw of Dordogne and how should you best enjoy it?
I want to share some of the keys that will unlock the mystery of the Dordogne.
When I think about the Dordogne, a department in Southwest France (France is divided into 94 departments, just so you know), I think of it as an area that has it all! It offers something for everyone and does it with a quiet and serenity that refrains from splash, glitz, and noise. The Dordogne oozes a particular atmosphere with a very peaceful and calming appeal.
In my discovery of the Dordogne, I unlocked the treasures with the touring opportunities that open the doors to the region. A boat ride on the Dordogne River was serene and the scenery along the river was not like anything I’d seen. I mean, to see castles strategically perched in their grandeur and to see troglodytes in the rocks gave me an inkling of the very ancient area I was exploring.
When I visited Lascaux Cave II, it defied imagination. To think that it’s a replica of the original caves that are more than 17,000 years old and that cannot be visited due to the fact that the human beings were destroying it (unintentionally) by exhalations around the paintings. Still, when you’re visiting the replica, it is so well done that you feel as if you’re in a prehistoric art museum of ancient horses, cattle, and bison birds, a bear, and even a rhinoceros. While the Lascaux tour unlocked some of mystery of the ancient caves, much remains a mystery and I find that an intricate part of the region’s charm.
Another destination that called us was Rocamadour. Like the Mont Saint Michel on the border between Normandy and Brittany, Rocamadour is a pilgrimage spot as part of the St. James way, one of the most famous Christian pilgrimages since medieval times ending in Santiago de Compostela in Spain. The buildings in Rocamadour are built on the cliffs and it’s a sight that you cannot imagine until you visit. The visit unlocks the key to the town.
Markets are pure magic in France and this is very much the case in the Dordogne. My favorite market was in Sarlat (Saturday). As much fun as it is to shop for regional treasures, it’s the smells permeating the market’s food that feeds the soul! The cheeses are, of course, ones from the Dordogne. Rocamadour is my personal favorite! (Yes, it is a cheese named after the village of the same name!) The Rocamadour cheese is a family of goat cheeses and is sold after only aging some 12-15 days…but I must stop talking about cheese, or I’ll never unlock the Dordogne! (I will return to my thoughts on cheese…another day and another blog!). Along with cheese, there are beautiful breads of every sort, fruits, vegetables, and walnuts!
The Dordogne is walnut country! Oh yes, I must not forget foie gras (okay, so some are totally against the concept of foie gras. I am not. I love the stuff and am unapologetic about it). The Dordogne is the home of this delicacy and produces the finest foie gras imaginable. (In my experience, there are those who love it and those who have feelings about it that are stronger than dislike…but that’s okay! As the French say: C’est la vie!!!)
We unlocked the serenity doors of the Dordogne by taking several hikes during our stay in the area. Since we were there a week, this allowed us some time to explore on our own. My favorite hike was a loop we did beginning in the village of Domme. I’m a Pacific Northwest girl and while I hike some incredible trails in Washington State, they just don’t begin from a fortified village with an archway from the 13th century and while I do get to see deer and elk when I hike in my state, I don’t get to meet wild boar hunters. Yes, we met up with five men who were hunting wild boar. We bantered with them a bit and I wished them une bonne journée and they wished us “une bonne randonnée”/a good hike.
Their joie de vivre and enthusiasm for their sport (I understand they’re not very successful, but they sure do have fun!) made us feel as if we’d had a real Dordogne encounter of the truest kind! (Fortunately, we neither saw any wild boars or heard any shots!)
The paths are very well marked (the signage throughout France is excellent…on trails and highways!). This hike took us along country roads and past a statue to Jacques de Maleville (a local who was born in Domme in 1741 and who was one of the founders of the civil code. Who knew!!!). We passed an old priory, chestnut woodlands, and little villages where time has done even less than stand still.
We unlocked many mysteries about the Dordogne and continue to return since there’s more to be discovered around every corner. If you love picturesque villages each with a charm of its own, the Dordogne is a good place for you to visit. If you like rivers to kayak or canoe or just to admire, the Dordogne has these, too. If you like delicious food (did I mention foie gras?), then you’ll like the Dordogne, and as everywhere in France, you’ll find welcoming locals who are happy that you’re there to discover the secrets of their region and to better understand what makes it so very special!