On the serene Dordogne River, Bergerac is a medieval town of corbelled houses surrounded by green countryside with vineyards and farms. You’re in an eminent wine region here, and have days-worth of châteaux, cooperatives and museums to tour, while the wine council for the entire region meets at a dignified renaissance cloister in the town.
The river should be in your holiday plans, for canoe trips, peaceful walks and cruises in the old barges that once shipped wine along its course. Bergerac is a name that may ring a few bells: Cyrano de Bergerac, the 17th-century musketeer and writer, never actually visited the town, but Bergerac has still adopted him and has put up two statues in his honour.
Lets explore the best things to do in Bergerac:
1. Old Town
On the right bank of the Dordogne, Bergerac’s medieval quarter is an angular jumble of streets sloping down to the river.
You’ll adore the half-timbered houses, like Maison Gaudra on Rue des Fontaines dating from the 1300s.
Down Rue Gaudra is “Le Cadeau”, a stream that once powered the city’s seven water mills and even today runs a disguised little hydroelectric plant on Rue des Fontaines.
Place Pélissière gets its name from the skin and hide traders that used to work on the square and is where you can see the Church of Saint-Jacques, and look up at the wooden perch made for the bell-ringers.
2. Tobacco Museum
Bergerac has one of the last tobacco plantations in Europe.
Whatever your opinions on the industry, there’s no doubting that the plant has an interesting story.
The museum studies how it was first cultivated more than 3,000 years ago, how it was brought to Europe after America was discovered, and the impact it had on 17th and 18th-century society.
There are some well-curated artefacts to see, like a tobacco pouch and a soapstone pipe made by the Sioux native American tribe.
The tobacco museum is in Maison Peyrarède, a mansion built just when classicism was taking over from the renaissance style.
The Bergerac region has 13 appellations, and each one with its own inflections and personality.
Rosé, red, dry or sweet white and dessert wine are all made in this region, and it’s the only one in France with a 50-50 split between red and white.
There are more châteaux and caves than you could hope to incorporate into one holiday.
Many need as much as half a day: Châteaux like Court les Mûts in Saussignac aren’t just about wine tours, meeting the vintner and tasting sessions; they’re equipped with oenology laboratories and have their own wine museums, while the cellars twin as art galleries.
4. Le Cloître des Récollets
The wine council for the Bergerac and Duras regions, which basically means all the local producers, meet in this 17th-century monks’ cellar.
So it goes without saying that this place needs to be in your plans if you’d like to get the lowdown on the viticulture and oenology of a renowned wine-producing region.
The architecture is something too, with a beautiful wooden renaissance gallery above the courtyard.
From there, amble over to the “Vinothèque”, which takes you through the prehistory of this landscape and presents a “sensorial table” so you can experience the fragrances present in Bergerac and Duras wine.
5. Château de Monbazillac
At the top of a slope that rises steadily from the left bank of the Dordogne, the Château de Monbazillac is surrounded one of Bergerac’s most acclaimed vineyards.
The castle was built with a defensive role in 1550 and has a view to die for, out over Bergerac, which is a few kilometres to the north.
You can go inside for a tour of the property, which was bought by Huguenots in the 1600s and has been decorated with period furnishings.
And at the conclusion there’s a complementary tasting of the delectable dessert wines grown in the 25 hectares of vines around the château.
The real Cyrano de Bergerac grew up near Paris in the 1600s on an estate named after this town because its 14th-century owner had helped to liberate Bergerac from the English in the Hundred Years’ War.
So you can see that his connection to this city is tenuous at best.
But Cyrano de Bergerac became a semi-mythic character after Edmond Rostand’s famous play in the late-19th century, and since then has been adopted by the city.
There are two statues of Cyrano: The largest and proudest on Place Pélissière and the other surrounded by timber-framed houses on the pretty Rue de la Mirpe.
In summer you’re missing out if you come to the Dordogne and don’t take a trip on the river.
There are companies all around renting canoes and kayaks for full or half days for just a few Euros.
It’s up to you where to start: Here, to the west of the region the river is wide and placid, and the banks are flat and green, with lots of places where you can pull your vessel ashore for lunch.
But if you want to glide through rocky limestone ravines then you’ll need to drive east upriver and start around somewhere like La Roque-Gageac, where there are steep hills, dark woodland and medieval castles stand like giant sentinels high above the river-bends.
As we’ve seen, the countryside around Bergerac is gentle and green.
What hills there are tend to be rounded and forgiving, like Monbazillac to the south, which sits on a plateau and has a circular route around this tiny village through a landscape fluted with vines.
Bergerac’s tourist office will sort you out with all maps and guidebooks you might need.
Or you could just stay by the river, and there are a few itineraries here by the grass banks with the sheet-like green waters on one side and orchards, meadows and sunflower fields on the other.
9. Gabarres de Bergerac
Source: Nadiia Gerbish / shutterstock
Barges are a tradition on the Dordogne next to Bergerac, and have been shuttling along the river for centuries.
So if you want your trip on the river to be as effortless as possible you can board one of the heritage barges that depart from Quai Salvette in summer.
On a 90-minute cruise your captain will tell you about the busy life of a barge-man in days gone by, when they were crucial for the wine trade, and will give you an insider history of the city.
As you float off into the countryside he or she will point out the kingfishers, herons, turtles and other wildlife on the river.
10. Lac de Pombonne
Bergerac is a long way from the ocean, but if the heat gets too much in summer a picturesque lake can pick up the slack.
There’s an inviting one just north of the city, and from the start of July to the end of August the lake’s beach is supervised by lifeguards.
Lac de Pombonne is in a 50-hectare park, folded into a landscape of meadows, forest and farms where sheep and donkeys graze.
Backing the sandy beach are picnic tables and lawns, there are trails in to the forest for cyclists and walkers, while if you fancy some fishing you’ve got a designated area on the lakeshore.
A bit further on from Monbazillac is this endearing medieval village bursting with renaissance and gothic houses.
Most are half-timbered and many have romantic wooden galleries or corbels that make them look oddly top-heavy . Come on Sunday mornings for all the commotion of one of the area’s best markets, and spend an hour or two trying to find your way around the disorienting streets of the old centre.
Keep your eyes peeled for the Maison des Têtes from the 1400s, with heads carved into the beams, or the plush renaissance castle where the Bishops of Sarlat once lived.
12. Grottes de Maxange
Chances are you’ve never seen caves like these ones an easy drive upriver from Bergerac.
The Grottes de Maxange have all the usual stalactites and stalagmites you’ll know all about, but what people come to see are the masses of almost unearthly crystals on the ceilings and walls.
These sharp, spindly formations are known as helictites and are formed by capillary action over thousands of years.
The cave was discovered by accident in the year 2000 during dynamiting in the adjacent quarry.
Bastides were small, fortified towns built quickly to colonise the countryside during times of conflict between the English and the French.
One of the closest to Bergerac is Puyguilhem, which is little more than a hamlet but still has fragments of its old walls, put up by the English in 1265. Lalinde, around 25 kilometres upriver, was the first English bastide, built in 1260. It saw some fierce fighting in the Hundred Years’ War and so there are only a few clues about its origins, with vestiges of the walls on the riverside.
All the same it’s a very pretty town with a charming riverside setting.
For one of the most complete bastides you need to travel a little further, to Monpazier, around 45 minutes southwest of Bergerac, and founded in 1281.
14. Moulin de la Rouzique
Between Bergerac and Lalinde is an 18th-century paper mill, still functioning and still powered by a water wheel.
Paper at this listed historic monument has been made with a blend of hemp, flax and cotton (known as “rag paper”) for almost 300 years, and the interactive museum will take you through every step.
You can even have a go yourself and make your own sheet to take home with you.
The site goes back to the 1500s when it was a wheat mill, and the paper mill that replaced it was in business right up to the 1980s before it became a heritage museum.
The location and buildings are stunning, and there’s a neat shop selling the specialty papers made in the mill.
15. Food Tours
If you’re curious about the delicacies of the Dordgogne and Périgord region you could fill your day with one memorable food experience after another.
So you might call in at a trappist dairy, sample life on a goat farm making chevre, check out production at an artisanal vinegar mill, tour a family-run Clovis Raymond distillery making brandy and liqueurs.
The exalted Périgord black truffle is a different matter; you can see the fervour (and wealth!) that this precious tuber generates at the truffle market in Sainte-Alvère on Monday mornings in mid-winter.