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The Dordogne valley

What and where is the Dordogne?

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The Dordogne department Périgord Noir The Lot Corrèze & Limousin
Lot & Garonne Quercy Cantal and the Auvergne

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What and where is the Dordogne, and why is it so popular ?

    For a good many years, British travellers have been fascinated by, 'the Dordogne", an area of France that conjures up an image of a return to rural life at a slow pace; it has even been said that the Dordogne, for the English, is imagined not really as an area of modern France - which it is - but more as an imaginary reproduction of a bygone rural England - which of course it is not - rather like a warmer and sunnier version of the old Cotswolds, where the houses are built of honey-coloured stone, the meadows are green and rich,  the locals all friendly and obliging country folk, and bemused French visitors can actually watch people playing cricket on the green - which indeed they can! Like Tuscany, the word Dordogne has become laden with bucolic symbolism and imagery to such an extent that it is useful to dig well below the surface and clarify what, exactly, the word "Dordogne"  really means, and what this area really is.

      In fact, the word "Dordogne" has two different meanings. In the oldest sense of the word, it is a long river, a tributary of the Gironde, that rises in the Massif du Sancy in the Auvergne and meets the Gironde near Bordeaux.
       The second meaning of the word is a French department (county), the "Département de la Dordogne", surrounding a long stretch of the lower Dordogne between hills and plain.
        Virtually the whole area is attractive hill country, full of old villages, castles, small country towns and plenty of scope for relaxing and enjoyable holidays. While the department of the Dordogne itself is increasingly geared to tourism, much of the area, particularly further into the hills, is very much "off the beaten track", and just waiting to be discovered.

The department of the Dordogne (24)

Historic SarlatOld Sarlat  
       The heart of the "Dordogne" area is, naturally, the department of the Dordogne, centered on its capital Perigueux: the French tend to refer to this area not as "la Dordogne" but as "le Périgord", and in France the area is most famous for its gourmet delights, notably paté de foie gras, walnuts and truffles. For tourists, the epicentre, indeed the epicurean centre, of this Dordogne is an area known as "le Périgord noir", situated in the south east of the department.  Centered on the town of Sarlat and the river Dordogne, this is the classic Dordogne, with its limestone cliffs, castles (such as Beynac or Castelnaud) and picturesque villages such as Domme and Laroque Gageac, and also its world-famous caves with their stalagmites and stalactites, and in several cases prehistoric paintings. The French National Museum of prehistory is at Les Eyzies, while the grotto at Lascaux boasts the world's most famous prehistoric cave paintings. On account of the damage being caused by tourists, the real Lascaux cave, a UNESCO world heritage site,  was closed to visitors back in 1963, but an exact replica has been carved out underground close to the original location, and the visitor experience is totally authentic.
   A brand new authentic reproduction of the Lascaux caves, Lascaux 4, opened in December 2016, offering visitors a new and completely realistic visit indistinguishable in many ways from "the real thing".
   There are other prehistoric caves that can be visited at Font de Gaume and Cap Blanc, and even a prehistoric theme park, Prehistoparc. Perigord Noir is not a mountain region; it is hill country, mostly at an altitude of between 200 and 350, metres.
       West of Perigord Noir lies Périgord Pourpre, the area round Bergerac; this is a low lying area, the limits of the coastal plain, a region most famous for its wines and vineyards. As for the north of the department, this is known as Périgord Vert, Green Perigord, a greener and more undulating region of small villages and farms, streams and rivers.


        It is essentially Périgord Pourpre and Périgord Vert that make up the "Dordogneshire" that has attracted such a lot of British expats. Small towns such as Belves, Mussidan and Eymet have an olde-worlde charm to them that is in marked contrast to the hustle and bustle of urban life in England or for that matter in big towns and cities anywhere. Yet the small towns of the Dordogne are in this respect much like many other small towns in rural France; in actual fact, the Dordogne is just one among several attractive rural departments in France. It just happens to have been singled out for special attention by the British.

         As far as tourism is concerned, the department of the Dordogne has four very popular areas;
Dordogne cliff houses
Old houses built under the overhang of a cliff, near les Eyzies. Men have lived in this area for around 400,000 years  
These areas can be very busy in the summer holiday season.
   For visitors who prefer to avoid the crowds,the Dordogne has several very attractive small towns that are worth visiting, but attract less tourists. These include Brantôme and Nontron, in the north of the department,  Cadouin and Belves, south of Sarlat, and Eymet in the very south of the department. Away from the most popular sites, life moves at a slower speed.
 As for the town of Bergerac, the local hub for this western part  of the Dordogne, it is rather  like any other town of its size in rural France, with its suburban sprawl, its superstores, its parking problems. Its small historic centre is attractive, but is not one of the unmissable sites to visit in the Dordogne area.

The rest of the Dordogne valley area.

Dordogne area mapUpstream from the Dordogne department, the hills get higher and the valley gets deeper. A traveller moving upstream would reach, in succession, the following departments, which are described in more detail below: LotCorrèze, Cantal, and finally the Puy de Dome, in the Massif du Sancy, which is where the Dordogne begins its journey to the sea.

The department of the Lot (46) and the Quercy area
         The river Dordogne just passes through the northern tip of the Lot department; but this is a department that has also become very popular with visitors from Britain, Holland and other parts, and the Lot valley in particular has acquired an attraction of its own. Like the Dordogne, this is limestone country, and until recent years was actually more off the beaten track than the Dordogne.  The department boasts one of France's major tourist attractions, the village of Rocamadour, perched up and down a steep cliff face overlooking the valley of the Ouysse. Like the Dordogne, the department has a number of spectacular underground caves, including the Gouffre de Padirac.
        In the north west of the department, the land is higher, rising to 500 metres; but this is still delightful and soft countryside. The capital of the Lot is the beautiful small city of Cahors, famous for its medieval streets and its unique surviving 14th century bridge, the Pont de Valentré.
           Cahors was once capital of a region known as the Quercy, which is nowadays made up of virtually the whole of the Lot department, plus part of the Lot et Garonne department to the south west. The name Quercy derives from the Latin word quercus, meaning an oak tree, and naturally this is a region rich in oak forests - not the massive oaks of old England, but smaller oaks of southern Europe.  The Quercy is a limestone plateau, cut through by numerous streams and rivers. In the southeast, it extends into the popular Rouergue area and the Aveyron department.  For further details and pictures, see Midi-Pyrenees region

The Department of Corrèze (19)
        Before entering the Lot, the river Dordogne flows through the department of Corrèze, capital Tulle, which is administratively part of the Limousin region. We are now properly in the Massif Central mountains, and apart from the western tip of the department, most of the Corrèze lies between the altitudes of 600 and 800 metres. With higher hills, the climate is not so dry and hot in summer as the areas to the south west, and Corrèze boasts a fine collection of very beautiful small towns and villages, notably Collonges la Rouge  - so named on acount of the red sandstone from which it is built - Curemonte and Turenne.
        Cutting through the south west part of the department, the river Dordogne passes through some beautiful small towns and villages, such as Beaulieu and Argentat; and north of Argentat, the hills get higher and the valley deeper as the traveller enters the higher reaches of this river, the Dordogne gorges. From near its source in the Puy de Dôme, down as far as Argentat, the Dordogne has cut a deep valley through the mountains. Up above, the plateaux of the western Massif Central offer wide areas of upland farm country, fields and forests; this is a very rural area, largely off the tourist trail, and an area which tends to remain green all through the summer, even in the driest of years.

Spontour on the upper Dordogne
Spontour, in the Corrèze department on the border with Cantal. The upper Dordogne is in a deep valley, with a series of dams

The Cantal (15) and the Auvergne
For a distance of some 30 kms, the river Dordogne forms the border between the Corrèze and the Cantal departments, and thus between the Limousin and the Auvergne.  The Cantal, capital Aurillac, really is mountain country, with peaks culminating at over 1800 metres. The Dordogne valley at this point is marked by a series of major dams, such as the Barrage de l'Aigle, providing hydro-electricity to the French grid for over 70 years . Behind the dams, in a steep wooded valley, the long lakes offer plenty of opportunity for water sports. The Cantal is reputed to be one of the coolest departments in France, which is not suprising since most of the department lies at over 800 metres; this is much appreciated by people who want to escape the dry heat of midsummer. The high peaks of the Cantal, consisting of a massive volcanic area, offer proper hill-walking country, as well as skiing in winter.
    The source of the River Dordogne is in the neighbouring department of the Puy de Dome, at an altitude of almost 1800 metres, on the slopes of the Puy de Sancy, the highest peak in central France.  

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Beynac castle - Dordogne
Castle at Beynac in the Dordogne valley

Photo top of page: La Roque Gageac.

The Dordogne is 483 km from its source to its mouth on the Gironde estuary, making it the third longest river in western France. Rising in the department of the Puy de Dome, in the mountains of the Auvergne, it flows down through the areas or regions of Auvergne, Limousin Midi-Pyrénées and Aquitaine.

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Restaurant in old Sarlat
Restaurant in old Sarlat

Prehistoric cave paintings at Lascaux

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