The Dordogne is a region in the south west of France, just inland from the wine region of Bordeaux, and to me it is FAR less famous than it ought to be. Everybody does Paris & maybe a day in Normandy or the Loire, and then of course Provence and the Cote D'Azure get lots of love, but this region really isn't on many people's radar. Here are four (or more) reasons it really should be!
1) Caves! The Dordogne is home to the highest concentration of prehistoric art maybe in the world. Dotted all over the region are nondescript cave openings that hide art made literally 20,000 years ago (more or less). It is just SO mind blowing to think about how long ago that was, and to think about what these Cro-Magnon men (or women?) were thinking about, exploring their way down deep into the earth to draw different animals and symbols armed with primitive torches and mineral paints. The caves at Lascaux (near the village of Montignac) are the most famous, for good reason, as they were discovered back in 1940 and really launched the search for more caves and art. Sadly, the 15 years that they were first opened to the public completely damaged the delicate paintings, so the original caves are closed. Instead, they built an exact replica cave next door which is still ridiculously amazing. I got a little teary-eyed, even packed in with 40 other tourists in a teeny space, just with the power of these massive & colorful images. Yes, the ones you see are copies, but they used the same techniques as the originals, and are exact down to the centimeter. There are similarly colored images that are original at the Grotte de Font-de-Gaume, but those are pretty difficult to get into. I fell so in love with those caves that I went to three of the others in the area, which were all different. All were impressive in their own way, but the art itself was most impressive at Lascaux II. The Grotte de Rouffignac has a little train that putt-putts down deep to caves with strings of mammoths and horses and such, usually on a smaller sized-scale than at Lascaux. Then, further south the Grottes de Cougnac features two caves, one that is just covered in super cool rock formations, and the second with the same stalagmites and stalactites PLUS amazing art - this time more of deer and antelope, and even a human-like figure. After that one I just couldn't get enough and I went even further south, really almost out of the Dordogne, close to the village of Cahors, to the Grotte du Pech Merle. This was the most developed (with a gift shop, & food and such), and is also the largest caves of any I saw. It also had the most people, and somehow, even though this was the fist place I saw actual human hand prints (again - from 29,000 years ago!!!!), this was the least "secret" or "special" feeling one. It almost felt fake, though there are apparently lots of ways they can date these paintings to prove their authenticity. It really was just the most amazing couple of days driving around the region to connect with cavemen - for real. Tickets for some can be complicated in high summer, and some are just first-come/first-served, so be sure to do your research and plan ahead if you want to see several. The welcome center & museum at Les Eyzies-de-Tayac is a good starting place, or Rick Steves does offer detailed information for all of the caves. Here are just a few shots from the caves, though - for obvious reasons - photography of any sort isn't allowed of the art. These are mostly from the art-free cave at Cougnac.
2) Castles! The second thing you'll find all over the Dordogne is different castles and chateaux. We're talking movie-quality buildings, either towering over the river, or overlooking far-reaching swaths of land - really fairy-tale looking landscapes. That explains why much of the movie "Ever After" was filmed in this region. One of my favorite things I did here was a relaxing canoe float down the Dordogne river, from the village of Vitrac down to the village of Beynac, where I saw just castle after castle. I didn't have enough time to visit them, but that is definitely possible for those with legs eager to climb lots of steps. Those aren't the only options though, as there are also castles dotted through out the region, such as the Chateau de la Felunie (near Lascaux), and even further north, the spectacular Chateau de Hautefort (one of the main settings for "Ever After"). I took the time to detour north to this one and tour it, which might not be worth it for everyone, as the entire central part of the castle burned down in the 1960's. That means that the interior decor isn't what you get in many other castles, but the views out over the gardens are just super impressive. Sadly, I got so enamored by the cave art that I didn't have time to get to the Chateau de Fenelon, which is supposed to be amazing, and is well-located just between Sarlat and the Grottes de Cougnac - so for those not interested in the hour drive up to Hautefort, that would be a much better alternative. These are all medieval to renaissance era, so you get a decent variety of styles to feast your eyes upon. It is also just neat to compare these with the largely renaissance jewelry-box-like chateaux of the Loire. Here are a few shots from all the different ones I saw over my visit:
3) Cliff-sides! Now, something you may have gathered based on the presence of caves and castles is the fact that this is a geologically interesting region with lots of cliff-sides, and several of these cliffs are home to villages perched along those cliffs. The most famous of these is the pilgrimage town of Rocamadour. I'll be honest- I almost skipped this town as it's apparently better at night, once all the tourists are gone, but I decided to give it a go. It certainly is picturesque at all times of the day, and I suppose it's interesting to learn about the history of the town and all the "miracles" that brought pilgrims here in droves back in the 12th-14th centuries, but it didn't light my world on fire. It was really my lunch spot between visiting two caves - but it is historically important and quite pretty, so for some it would be their highlight. I will say that the drive there (and through much of the Dordogne) was full of teensy roads, often right up alongside the cliff-sides, which definitely adds to the adventure.
4) Cute towns! You may have already gathered that all these people visiting caves, castles, and cliffs need somewhere to stay, and luckily there are cute little villages all over. Sarlat-la-Caneda is by far the best town to choose as your home base, as it's well-located among all these sites, large enough to have a variety of options for both lodging and dining, and it's just adorable. Much of the center part of the old-town is car-free, making wandering around a legitimate pre-dinner activity. It is of course not the ONLY option for either staying the night or even eating, as there are just tons of these cute little towns spread throughout. Luckily, since you may have to wait for your cave entrance times, the villages of Les Eyszies-de-Tayac and Montignac are cute enough to offer cafes and museums to help you fill the wait, or if you want to feel like you're truly in a medieval village the village of Beynac right on the Dordogne river, clustered on the hill below the imposing castle, could also be an option. Down south, Cahors is famous for its bridge, though I just couldn't fit that in among all my other explorations, but I know many adore it as well. I somehow managed to completely miss all the market days in the area, but they apparently rival those of Provence, but with far less crowds. Here are some shots from Sarlat and some of the surrounding villages:
It's JUST all so quaint & lovely - from swans floating down the rivers, to sheep blocking the roads, too, oh- the FOOD. How could I forget? The Dordogne is basically ground zero for Foie Gras. There's a statue of geese in one of the main squares of Sarlat for pete's sake! I think I had duck products for about 4 days straight, though I only photographed one fantastic meal, right in Sarlat overlooking a quiet back square. Foie gras followed by a sort of duck breast burrito - delicious. I mean - what more can you ask for? Dordogne is like the best of France all crammed together into one small area. I'm telling you - don't miss it!