When I win the lottery (the power of positive thinking), I am going to rent a chateau in the Dordogne, fly my family and friends to France (business class of course), and introduce them to the delights of France. Because where better to find these delights all in one place but the Dordogne?
Before going there I knew that the Dordogne (“dor-donn-ye” not, as the British seem to say, which makes me shudder every time I hear it, the “dor-doing” rhyming with “boing”) was a popular holiday spot for foreigners, and that cycle tours through the Dordogne were the cool thing to do for a while. I knew that popularity is not necessarily a great recommendation. I kept my expectations low.
We arrived there in May, late spring early summer. Everything was green, lush, verdant, full of growth. The local markets would be brimming over with produce, and I began salivating almost immediately. Driving into the Dordogne, through the vineyards of Bordeaux and St Emilion, I knew that I was in for some culinary treats.
I did not however expect to find such beauty in France, both man-made and natural. We managed about 5 days there, but it would be an easy place to set up a base for weeks or even months. But that will be when I win the lottery.
We based ourselves in Sarlat, a busy town that grew up around a Benedictine abbey founded in the 9th century. Our hotel was right at the gates of the old town, and immediately, despite the rain looming, we set off to explore. Walking into the town square, I was in love … instantly. I was a soppy kid. I loved fairy stories, the drawings of castles and quaint medieval villages, and every Sunday night watching the Disneyland show on TV I hoped we were going to Fantasyland. Sarlat’s central square took me to Fantasyland. I gawked. We walked around, read the guidebook, and I gawked some more. It was pouring with rain by now, and so we found a covered terrace outside a bar, sat down with a kir (it was time for an aperitif after all), and gawked some more.
Daily we jumped into our rental car and explored the region. But it thrilled me that every evening we returned and could walk through the old town, sit in the square, eat in one of the old restaurants in an ancient stone building.
The villages of the Dordogne are simply beautiful, and each one is different.
Everyone tells you to go to Rocamadour. I think it’s because they like to say Rocamadour.
This spectacular little village is set up the side of a cliff face. A pilgrimage site for a thousand years, now a million tourists a year make the trek to this town in the east of the Dordogne. The grand staircase of over 200 steps was apparently once climbed by pilgrims on their knees. These days you can take a lift or climb the stairs taking frequent breaks to look back at the town below, with its narrow alleyways, and the river below.
For us, Rocamadour will always be the place where we met the dog who was afraid of heights. About 2/3s of the way down the staircase, we saw a German couple with their huge, black dog. I’m not really a dog person, but this one was gorgeous. He had however stopped climbing the stairs. He refused to keep going up, sensing the void below him growing bigger with every step. I could relate. He turned sideways and looked down. His owners called to him, tugging on his leash. He whimpered, and hesitantly turned so he was facing down, then tried to walk backwards up the stairs. That proved not to work. He could not however bring himself to continue climbing, despite the exhortations of his owners. He whimpered some more. The owners were embarrassed, probably not helped by people like me standing there saying loudly “ohhhhh look, the poor doggy, he’s so scared.” The dog was taken back down the stairs, his tail wagging immediately he reached flat ground.
Domme was another favourite bastide village, founded around a central market square with covered passages, and the most beautiful houses and gardens. High on a rocky cliff, it had stunning views of the Dordogne valley.
But my favourite village of all was La Roque Gageac. Not just because I like to say it. “La Roque Gageac.” Nestled in under a cliff which drops to a bend in the Dordogne river, the houses of La Roque Gageac are picture postcard perfect. My husband climbed the rickety steps to the troglodyte caves in the cliff, while I sat on the banks of the river, moved by this exquisite view almost to tears, so thankful that I had the opportunity to be there.
Replete with happiness already at the surroundings, it seemed greedy to want to eat dinner. But we were in the Dordogne, and it is the home of some of France’s finest produce. It was here that we discovered how essential the Michelin Red Guide is when travelling in France. It directed us to our hotel, and to several excellent but reasonably-priced restaurants. We ate set menus, where each course is specifically designed and sized to be part of a multi-course menu. We sampled pate de foie gras (to be honest it was too rich for us) and wonderful cheeses from the cheese cart, and many other wonderful, simple but delicious dishes. I still remember the crème brulee in our hotel dining room. Drool.
We stayed a day or two longer than planned, but knew we had to move on to stick to our schedule. So after several days, we woke and prepared to leave. I pulled back the curtains of our hotel room, and grinned with delight. Outside the town wall gate was a large stall, with roasting suckling pigs and chickens. There was a lot of bustling activity. It was market day! The entire old town seemed taken up by stalls selling everything from beds to bread. Our departure was delayed by a few hours, as we explored, and tasted and drooled over the produce. My chopping hands ached to slice into the vegetables and fruit, to buy the cheese and eat it, to bite into the breads and buy all the pastries. We did buy enough for a picnic, but sadly had to leave so much else behind. That’s why I need to return. With or without the lottery win.