The Dordogne Valley – the ideal place to relax

By | Category: Travel destinations
a typical Dordogne village

a typical Dordogne village

The area has more than its fair share of designated pretty villages, villages that have some historical significance as well as being pretty.

Food plays an important part in the way of life in France and each area has its own regional specialities and, in the Dordogne, fois gras served in a variety of ways is on virtually every menu.

The valley is carved out of chalk cliffs with roads that twist and turn. Through it runs the Dordogne River which, although at one time was a means of commercial transport, is now used for recreation. It is clean enough to swim in, has a large variety of fish so is a great attraction for fishermen and is also used by canoeists.

The local airport is Brive, proper name – Brive-Dordogne Valley and there are direct connections from London City and Stansted. Public transport is scarce when you arrive, but fortunately some hotels have a service to collect you. Bicycling and hiking, if you don’t have a car, are also popular ways of getting around as are tour buses.

Jean Marie Denoix

Jean Marie Denoix

For a fair amount of my visit, we followed the nut route with fields covered with trees bearing the fruit, which is harvested in October. Walnuts are another delicacy of the area and, as well as eating them straight from their shell, they are used to make an alcoholic drink. In Brive, we visited the distillery Denoix where tastings are held, and learnt from Jean-Marie, who is responsible for distilling the drink, how he adds both cognac and Armagnac to create their secret recipe.

In the area, the preserved medieval town of Sarlat (see Frederic’s story) with buildings dating back to the tenth century is a ‘must-see’ to be included on any itinerary. On Saturday they have an open-air market which virtually takes over the whole town and is teaming with people. Colourful stalls brim with virtually anything you could want to buy. I bought a pair of ready-reader glasses for a third of the price in the UK. Stalls selling enticing looking clothes, and local food delicacies, made me wish I had brought a larger suitcase!

At the market in Sarlat

At the market in Sarlat

Out of the main towns, and hidden away, there are lots of villages with buildings dating back to the medieval period. At Martel, the city of seven towers, we stayed at the romantic Relais St. Anne which was once a ladies school and has a chapel, no-longer consecrated, in its grounds. If in the area on a Wednesday evening, there is dancing in the main square.

Two hundred and twenty metres above sea-level, the red sandstone buildings of Collonges-La-Rouge are one of the must-see villages. Girolle (bright yellow with long spindles) mushrooms were in season during my visit in July and Le Cantou, the main restaurant in the village produced an enormous fluffy omelette filled with them. Learning the local cooking tips is the best way to copy a dish. The secret, I was told, was because it had been made with duck fat. Not usually a dessert eater I however had to try another of the local specialities the nut tart, which was moist, as it had been baked with cream! The recipe can be found by clicking here.

In France, particularly in the countryside everything stops for lunch and it is unlikely that any shops, apart from the restaurants, will be open between midday and 3pm.

I had misguidedly thought that truffles were only grown in Italy. These, as well as saffron, are grown on an organic farm Cab-Anes à Truffes in Loubressac. The owner, Laurent Dureau, has tours lasting an hour of his farm with his dog Gokyo who sniffs out the mushrooms, white in summer, and black in winter. Laurent also has six donkeys, which children under five are allowed to ride, but which can also be hired for carrying picnics or just to amuse children by allowing them to hold the donkey’s reign while going for a walk.

Arnold at Les Jardins d'Eini Sarl

Arnold at Les Jardins d’Eini Sarl

Sometimes while exploring I come across places that I would never expect. This happened in the pretty village of Autoire, which encompasses two villages with architecture from the 10th and the 16th centuries. In this quiet village, we stumbled upon a shop Les Jardins d’Eini Sarl that specialises in mushrooms. Arnold, the owner, took great delight in letting us smell some of the varieties. Not just selling mushrooms, on display and for sale were also paintings and sculptures from local, well-known and extremely talented artists. If, in the area, it’s worth stopping by after 6pm when Arnold cooks truffle omelettes for visitors. Here while admiring one of the medieval houses, we were told that part of it could be rented as a holiday let.

At La Rogue Gageac, we picnicked on benches by the side of the Dordogne before taking a 55-minute ride on one of several converted boats that are used to transport commercial goods on the Dordogne. Our commentary was in English but they also supply audio guides when the commentary is in French.  the boats operate between April and October only.

the Chateau Castelnaud

the Chateau Castelnaud

The countryside is littered with castles some privately owned and some open to the public. On this six and a half kilometre ride, we passed five including Chateau Beynac which gave us a good idea of how people lived in the twelfth century. On the other side of the river Chateau Castelnaud, we were informed, was more of a fortress.

In the town of Terrasson-Lavilledieu, Les Jardins de l’imaginaire (Gardens of the Imagination) are unique. Covering an area of six hectares, visitors are taken on a guided tour of terraced gardens. The designers, one of which is the English architect Ian Ritchie, have used and integrated into the landscape flowers, fauna, water, sculpture and perspectives. (Open April to September.)

Jardins de l'imaginaire

Jardins de l’imaginaire

Near the entrance the restaurant, Aux Saveurs des Jardins is not to be missed. The owner uses edible flowers to decorate her food, and cooks with them wherever possible. We had a tasting of six brightly coloured ice-creams, two of which were made from poppies and lavender. Our tea, served in individual teapots was green tea flavoured with cherry and mimosa, which for my taste was delicious. So much so, that I immediately bought a packet which, every time I drink, transports me back to an area where the pace is slow and the food good.

The Stansted Express is the obvious way to get to Stansted from central London but do consider National Express which has air-conditioned coaches, many with free wi-fi, going from 38 different pick-up points around England.

For more information about the Dordogne, click here.




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