BY KIMBERLEY LOVATO
The Dordogne, a region about an hour east of Bordeaux, weaves beautiful elements together like a French tapestry – ancient cave art, winding rivers, ochre-hued villages, and imposing castles. While locals refer to the area as “the Périgord,” a name used before the French Revolution in the late 1700’s, the monikers are interchangeable. European families have vacationed here for years, but Americans are just discovering its charms. Here are seven ways to make the Périgord your new favorite holiday in France.
Storm the castles.
If you’re in search of a fairytale landscape, look no further: The Dordogne is sprinkled with more than 1,000 castles, ranging from unassuming homes to imposing medieval fortresses, with many open to the public. Among the most popular are Château Milandes, once the home of legendary cabaret star Josephine Baker, and Château de Beynac, perched high on a cliff, with its accompanying village tumbling down toward the river. Near Bergerac, Château de Monbazillac is a Renaissance-style castle with three floors to explore, and a sweet white wine to sip.
Loosen your belt buckles (this is France after all) and indulge in regional specialties such as duck, foie gras, goose, black truffles, and walnuts, found in just about every restaurant, market, and farm. For something different, check out Caviar Neuvic in the village of the same name where you can taste different varieties. Hone your culinary chops with a cooking class at Les Haut de Saint Vincent, where Stephanie will teach you to whip up a perfect Magret de Canard (duck breast) and truffle mashed potatoes. For an elegant meal, book a table at the Restaurant de Bouilhac, where you can share a platter of Perigourdine specialties such as foie gras and prune tapenade. The hotel’s chef and proprietor Christophe Maury can also prepare a meal on the fireplace of the old dining room. Try goat cheese, foie gras and other outstanding ice cream made by artisan Roland Manouvrier, under the name Glaces et Sorbets du Périgord; he also crystallizes flowers, which he uses to flavor his ice cream, and famous pastry chefs use to decorate their cakes.
Brush up on Occitan culture at Felibrée.
The first weekend of July brings La Felibrée, a festival held the first Sunday in July celebrating the region’s ancestral Occitan language that’s hosted by a different village each year. Observe master wood carvers and lace makers, listen to concerts in Occitan, take in parades, hear roving musicians play instruments that look plucked from museum shelves, and much more. Hundreds of thousands of colorful flower garlands (upwards of 400,000) create a striking scene in the streets. Plan to partake in La Taulada, the traditional Sunday feast that brings neighbors and friends together (and yes, even some foreigners) at long communal tables for a local specialties, never-empty glasses of wine, and laughter. La Felibrée celebrates 100 years next July, in Périgueux.
Get on the grid at a bastide.
Bastides – medieval towns built between the thirteenth and fifteenth centuries – are a testament to the heated history between France and England. An important element in the transition from feudal to modern society, they’re noted for their distinct layouts: a central square lined with arcades and a surrounding grid of streets. Early bastides weren’t fortified, but later, as the Hundred Years War between England and France raged, they were walled and often built on hilltops. Several bastides dot the Dordogne, but Monpazier is considered the “model” town, with a perfect orthogonal layout now full of cafés and artisan shops. For a more eerie experience, head to Molières – an unfinished bastide said to be haunted by Queen Blanca, who was poisoned by her husband Pedro around 1360.
Pick up artful souvenirs.
A passion for tradition thrives in the Dordogne, and nowhere is this more apparent than in the local studios and workshops. Coutellerie Nontronnaise is considered the country’s oldest knife maker, known for its wood-handled pocket knives. Created in 1780 and handmade ever since, Girault Pastels, have long been favored by artists; the company’s boutique and art gallery in Montignac opened in 2016.Bring a taste of the Dordogne home with walnut or hazelnut oil made by hand at the sixteenth-century mill, La Veyssière.
Go with the flow.
Waterways criss-cross the region, and the best-known rivers, Dordogne and Vézère, supply endless entertainment, including a ride aboard an ancient Gabarre boat. In Vézère valley, roughly 30 miles between Montignac and Les Eyzies, discover more than 200 paleolithic sites, including the famous painted caves at Lascaux, a UNESCO World Heritage site with drawings estimated to be up to 20,000 years old. For an extra dose of culture, drop by The National Museum of Prehistory. No less wondrous, the Dronne in the north of the Dordogne reveals charms such as the island-village of Brantome with its Benedictine abbey and waterside Michelin-starred restaurant Au Fil De l’Eau.
Attend a summer garden party.
Party in a picture-perfect Dordogne garden, such as the Jardins de Marqueyssac, which attracts more visitors than any other in the area for its exceptional topiary art and clifftop views. Thursday evenings in July and August, candles light the paths and there is live music and family-friendly activities. With more than 25 acres of French gardens and perfectly sculpted greenery, the Gardens of Eyrignac date to the seventeenth century and host “Happy Picnics” every Monday night in July and August with music, dancing, lighted water fountains, and more.
Top photo: Hot air ballooning over the Dordogne. (Photo by L. Druet.)