If a Frenchman’s heart lives in Paris, his stomach most definitely resides in the Dordogne. From duck confit and foie gras to tarte tatin and truffles, it’s safe to say – you won’t starve here!
I was first introduced to the Dordogne by my parents, who embarked on a similar trip twenty two years ago. Tales of their adventures – of my mum canoeing down the river six months pregnant, of the wolves baying at night, the resident tame vulture in their hotel and duck confit coming out of their ears – always fascinated us as children (and entertained us as adults). So, this summer I decided to see what all the fuss was about. With tent, mosquito spray, sun-cream, the latest Dan Brown and boyfriend in tow, I embarked on a five week road-trip through France, Italy and Switzerland.
After being completely blown away by some places (Rome) and underwhelmed with others (Milan), the Dordogne will always stand out as a favourite. Of course, fab wine and naughty food are guaranteed to make anyone a happy bunny, but there’s more to it than that. For me, the Dordogne’s je ne sais quoi lies in its captivatingly natural landscape. Dramatically beautiful countryside is set against golden cliffs and ancient caves, while old chateaux rest quite comfortably beside a crystal clear river that hugs the looping green banks and pebbled shores. Endless forests and beautiful villages appear around each corner. Honestly – it’s a magical place.
And it’s not (just) about sitting on the terrace with a glass of wine. The Dordogne offers good fun for those with more active pursuits in mind. Many come to enjoy the rivers, but other possibilities abound. With plenty of pretty villages to stop at for refreshments, it’s an ideal area for hiking and biking. There’s a dense network of grandes randones (long-distance footpaths) for walkers and new bike routes are continually being added. For a hiking holiday with a modern twist, seek out the Voie Verte near Brantôme in the northern Dordogne. This former rail route has been converted into a 17km walking and biking trail that passes some beautiful natural areas, along with a cave or ‘grotte’, a chateau and the medieval village of St-Jean-de-Cole. The area may be short of mountains and really deep gorges to challenge the real adventurers, but those who insist on exerting themselves can try hang-gliding at Douelle in the Lot, adventure sports around St-Cirq-Lapopie, or a new French fad climbing, swinging and gliding through the trees Tarzan-style at what is called a ‘parc aventure’ – just call me Jane! Or if you like your outdoor fun slow and serene, see the countryside in the company of a patient and agreeable donkey (see hikingwithdonkey.com )
However, activities centred around the river still prove to be the most popular. Indeed, messing about in boats was our preferred Dordogne pastime, and they come in all shapes and sizes. You can take the tourist cruise past the Dordogne castles from Beynac or La Roque-Gageac on a traditional gabarre, little barges that used to carry wine barrels down to Bordeaux. Mostly, though, it’s about canoes and kayaks. You’ll never be far from someone who will rent you one, and then take you up the river so you can drift leisurely back down. We opted for a company which allowed us to choose from a range of start and pick up points (see http://www.canoes-loisirs.com). On learning that our chosen route was to be 16km, I momentarily thought of heading back to the campsite to sip a cosmo by the pool. Thankfully however, I bit the bullet and donned the very sexy lifejacket. The route was stunning and not at all arduous due to the downstream current. Serious boaters would probably think it a poor show to place the paddle on one’s lap and lean backwards, eyes closed, letting the current take you. Yet I can state that such fecklessness is one of the best ways to approach the sport (?). Sit back and go with the flow!
So what kind of food will you be eating in the Dordogne? Duck! That oversimplifies matters perhaps, but the fatted duck with its foie gras, maigrets and confits is the unquestioned meat ‘du jour’ of the region. It’s all pretty fantastic. But there are plenty of other culinary tit-bits to delight, from the famous black truffles to a delicate little disc of goat’s cheese called cabcou. The cooking here matches the land itself: hearty, solid and traditional. The region’s smooth and heady wines sit alongside the rich cuisine perfectly. However, while it’s great to eat and drink out – to sample the unlimited ways to serve duck, we found low-key picnics to be a cheaper – lighter on the digestive system – and often prettier alternative. Most days we would head to the local shop or markets and pick up wine, french bread, pate, figs and saucisson before heading to a secluded spot in a forest or along the river. Bliss!
There are so many villages worth seeing in the Dordogne area. Domme, voted one of France’s prettiest, is a picturesque little town along the river and was particularly charming. Head to the stunning look out point at the far edge of the town where you will get unparalleled views of the surrounding countryside. We spent a day strolling through the warm, honeystone labyrinths of medieval streets, passages and stairways leading to unexpected squares, each one lovelier than the last. La Roque Gargeac is another stunner. Golden yellow houses with their traditional Perigord roofs line the river and spread up the hill behind. Our campsite, ‘La Butte’, was a short five minute drive away.
For halcyon days spent drifting along a river – passing medieval chateaux, clifftop hamlets and the ever present Lombardy poplar trees – head to the Dordogne. You may come away feeling as though you have turned, literally, into a ‘canard’. But you will feel refreshed, as though you have gone back to nature, to what’s ‘real’ – and in the fast paced world in which we live who wouldn’t want a bit of escapism.
A la prochaine!
(This article was printed in the October 2013 edition of GBG magazine)