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The Dordogne Valley

Perspective and Pause

France’s Dordogne Valley is an enchanting, fairy-tale region of rolling hills, 15th-century villages, forests, farmland, and caves carved into cliffs. Medieval castles rise from the fog blanketing emerald-green meadows, perched high on the same bluffs that house Prehistoric cave paintings. Here in the Dordogne Valley, you feel as if you’ve stepped back in time to the Renaissance, the Middle Ages, or as far back as the Paleolithic era. No wonder the area is known not only as “The Cradle of Man,” but also “The Land of a Thousand Châteaus.” Humankind’s progress, from cave art to castles, lies before you, like an open history book, beckoning you to explore.

 

dordogne valley hot air balloons river chateau

It’s no wonder the Aimee LaCalle team garners such inspiration from the Dordogne Valley. From the landscape to the slow-paced lifestyle, the Dordogne offers visitors a lesson in perspective and a reminder to pause, to give our attention to what matters most for a life well lived: good food, tightly-knit community, devotion to art, and an appreciation of history.

The area is known for its contributions to French cuisine, in particular geese and duck products, truffles, walnuts, and Bergerac wine. Each village and city hosts a weekly market, where local farmers sell produce, charcuterie, fromage, and bread.

The region has inspired intellectual and artistic contributions as well, most notably the fairy tale of Beauty and the Beast (La Belle et la Bête), written by French novelist Gabrielle-Suzanne Barbot de Villeneuve, published in 1740. In the 17th century, the area was the birthplace of Cyrano de Bergerac, the charming character who inspired the 1897 play by Edmond Rostand. Renowned French philosopher Michel de Montaigne, who was born and died in the Dordogne, wrote from his tower in the 16th century, It needs good management to enjoy life. I enjoy it twice as much as others, for the measure of enjoyment depends on the greater or less attention that we give to it.”

Two rivers, the Vézère and the Dordogne, wind through the southern half of the valley, meeting in the town of Limeuil. The Dordogne River played an important role in the region’s history, dividing the land fought over by the French and English in the Hundred Years’ War of the 14th and 15th centuries.

Périgueux, the region’s largest city, was founded in 200 BC by a Gallic tribe. After being conquered by the Romans, the city—renamed Vesunna—included Roman temples, baths, and an amphitheater. The remains of the amphitheater and Vesone Tower are still available to visit. Périgueux and its surrounding area is also known as Périgord Blanc, or “White Périgord,” due to the chalky-white limestone coloring the soil. The limestone—calcified marine fragments like shells, coral, and molluscs—reveals the primordial history behind the area: before the castles, before the cave paintings, the Dordogne Valley was underwater. This calcified limestone provided Paleolithic man with caves to inhabit and decorate with man’s first artist expression.

Sarlat, one of the larger cities in the Dordogne, was founded in the 12th century by monks. It’s the capital of Périgord Noir, or “Black Périgord,” an area of the Dordogne named for its dark, dense oak forests. To the north is Périgord Vert, called “Green” for its fields, meadows, and woods, and to the south is the city of Bergerac, in the Périgord Pourpre, or “Purple Périgord,” named for its vineyards along the Dordogne river.

May through September is tourist season in the Dordogne Valley. Streets are packed with French and international families. A visit in the off-season, October through April, means the towns are pleasantly quiet and free of crowds, which is one reason why early fall is Aimee’s favorite time to visit. There is, however, a catch: the off-season means restaurants, most of which are family-run and small, intimate affairs, may only be open one or two days a week for a limited window of dinner hours. You’ll have to search a bit; you may have to take a pause, and go slow. But discovery—a restaurant, a village, or the inspiration to create art or recreate your life—may be just around the next curve in the road.