The Dordogne owes some of its immense allure to its limestone geology: In the river valley are insurmountable rocky cliffs that helped to defend castles, while the landscape is also chiselled with caves that sheltered the prehistoric humans who created the world’s most celebrated stone-age wall paintings.
Lascaux is the one we’ve all read about, and you can see an accurate reproduction at Lascaux II or see authentic Upper Palaeolithic paintings at Grotte de Roufignac.
During the region’s violent medieval period the Dordogne River was also a strategic boundary, which has left the region with a wonderful set of castles on rocky roosts above the valley.
Lets explore the best things to do in Dordogne:
1. Lascaux II, Montignac
Visitors haven’t been admitted to the original cave complex at Lascaux since the 60s because of the damage caused by carbon dioxide and contaminants.
But there’s no real drawback in opting for the next best thing at Lascaux II: The revered 17,000 year-old paintings have been reproduced down to the finest detail, using identical pigments and techniques to the Upper Palaeolithic originals.
So it gives you a perfect sense of the wonder that must have been felt when the caves were discovered in 1940. You will enter in groups of 40 and will be talked through the images on a multi-lingual tour.
2. Château de Castelnaud-la-Chapelle
Found where the Céou River flows into the Dordogne, Castelnaud-la-Chapelle is a dominant fortress dating to the 1200s.
During the Hundred Years’ War in the 1300s and 1400s it was allied to the English Plantagenets and faced off against the Château de Beynac, just across the Dore and controlled by the French.
It’s recognised as a French Historical Monument for its gatehouse, keep and curtain walls woven with loopholes, all soaring over the river.
You can come for a 45-minute tour in English or French, see a large exhibit of historic weaponry, as well as working replicas of the powerful siege engines used in the Hundred Years’ War.
3. Cathédrale Saint-Front, Périgueux
Before you enter this 12th-century byzantine romanesque cathedral you have to approach it from Pont des Barris, and look across to see its crowd of domes and towers almost competing with each other.
It’s no shock that this magnificent church is a UNESCO site, and with its byzantine-style Greek cross plan and many cupolas it hardly looks like few other churches in France – except, of course, for the Sacré-Coeur in Paris, which borrowed several design cues.
Under each of these five domes is a set of chandeliers that were used in the marriage of Napoleon III and Eugénie de Montijo, and later brought here.
4. Château de Beynac
On the north bank of the Dordogne and a few minutes downstream from Castelnaud-la-Chapelle, is this 12th-century castle built by the Barons of Beynac.
Just one look at it and you’ll understand why attackers might have been put off: It’s on a vertical limestone crag, and even now visitors have a hard time getting up there! If you make it you’ll have the pleasure of a 30-minute guided tour which brings the austere romanesque keep to life.
The residences added to this monolithic structure include apartments from the 1600s, with carved woodwork and a painted ceiling still intact.
See also the Salle des États with its renaissance fireplace and the adjoining oratory with walls entirely decorated with frescoes from the 1400s.
5. Grotte de Rouffignac
An alternative to Lascaux II because you actually get to see the real thing, these caves have 250 examples of Upper Paleolithic art, either etched into the rock or painted.
You enter the caves on a tourist train that follows a one-kilometre course, and if you don’t speak French it’s worth getting the audio guide, which is provided on an ipod.
It’s also a good idea to get there as early as possible as entrance is limited to 550 a day, after which people are turned away.
Dating to around 13,000 years ago, 158 of the representations depict mammoths, but there are also bison, woolly rhinos and if you keep your eyes peeled you’ll also see four humans.
6. Markets at Sarlat-la-Canéda
Shoppers and traders have descended on Sarlat for the famous markets since the middle ages.
There are a few to choose from, including the large Day Market in the city centre taking place on Saturdays selling everything under the sun.
There are also food markets on Saturdays and Wednesdays in Place de la Liberté, a covered market on the square that runs every day and an Organic Night Market open between 18:00 and 20:00 on Place du 14 Juillet.
So needless to say it’s a bit of a treasure trove for shoppers.
especially if you’re tempted by regional delicacies like foie gras.
7. La Roque Saint-Christophe, Peyzac-le-Moustier
These long terraces in the cliffs on the south bank of the Vézère provided a home for humans from 57,000 years ago until the 16th century.
The site stands 80 metres above ground and stretches out for almost a kilometre.
The earliest troglodytes merely dwelled in the natural cavities cut by the river, but over time human hands started to modify the spaces, boring into the soft limestone.
This activity gathered pace from the 5th century onwards when the caves became a fortified shelter during conflict such as Viking raids and events during the Hundred Years’ War.
Reconstructions show how people survived here, and how supplies were hoisted up to the caves with a pulley system in medieval times.
8. Les Jardins de Marqueyssac, Vézac
Périgord’s most popular gardens opened to the public in 1997 and are in the grounds of the Château de Marqueyssac, high on a ridge above the Dordogne.
Back in the 1860s the estate’s owner planted boxwood trees in their thousands, and they were trimmed into the kind of outlandish forms that you see now.
The arrangements had been left to grow out for decades until they were restored by a new owner in the 90s.
The hedges have rounded, organic and irregular shapes, subverting the formalism of French parterres.
A maze-like circuit of paths through this magical garden lead to a belvedere 130 metres over the Dordogne, with one of the best views of the valley.
If you don’t mind heights, the Via Ferrata is an adventure course on iron rungs, beams and stairs in the cliff-face.
9. Vesunna Gallo-Roman Museum, Périgueux
Pétrocores, the Roman city on which Périgueux is founded, was one of the most prosperous in Gaul but after its fall most of the stones that made up its monuments were taken and re-used in the city walls.
In 1959 though the remnants of this domus was discovered, and later excavations brought the layout of the building and its surrounding streets to light.
It’s all on show in a bright glass building, in which footbridges give you perfect views of heating systems, a kitchen, baths and dining room.
Marvellous geometric murals adorn the garden and several walls in the home, while there’s a display of artefacts discovered on this site, including precious jewellery, kitchen utensils, mosaics and tombstones.
10. Les Jardins d’Eau, Carsac-Aillac
From May to October this 16th-century park eight kilometres from Sarlat is in full bloom.
The water gardens are on the bank of the Dordogne, cover three hectares and contain waterfalls, streams and ponds that you can navigate via Chinese-style zigzagging wooden walkways.
There’s also a replica of the Japanese ornamental bridge in Monet’s garden.
It’s a very meditative place, where you switch off for a few minutes, surrounded by water-lilies and lotus flowers, as well as koi carp, frogs and dragonflies.
Plant species come from as far away as Southeast Asia and South America, and there are picnic tables under tall shady trees, so don’t forget to bring lunch!
11. Maison Forte de Reignac
Of all the many castles in Périgord this one has to be the strangest and most mysterious.
The Maison Forte is cut from a cliff on the Vézère Valley on a site that had been used for at least 20,000 years.
The castle as we recognise it was built in the 1500s and.
is the only surviving cave castle in France.
It is far grander inside that its tough outer appearance suggests.
There’s a dungeon, bedrooms, chapel, arms room, kitchen, cellar and “Great Hall of Honour”. Period furniture decorates the entire castle, and there’s a grisly exhibition about the Inquisition during the Wars of Religion and the kind of torture instruments they used.
12. Canoeing on the Dordogne (Vitrac)
If you’re in the region in summer you can’t leave without passing at least a few hours floating down the river.
It’s the only way to appreciate the full beauty of the valley’s picturesque villages, cliffs, farms, woodland and castles.
In summer the currents are very light and you can find places to go ashore and have a swim.
The whole time you can sight kingfishers, egrets and herons, and shoals of fish will glimmer beneath your boat.
Vitrac is a good place to start, and there are companies that offer half-day, whole-day or even weekend-long rentals.
13. Château de Commarque
This castle was built some time before the 1100s to defend the intersection of the Périgueux to Cahors and Brive to Bergerac trade routes.
Getting there is a quest of its own, as you have to weave your way up the hillside along a 600-metre woodland path.
What greets you near the top are the magnificent semi-ruined keep and outer buildings, all clinging to a rock.
It’s a thrill to investigate all the nooks and crannies in the ochre-tinted walls, and to climb the donjon tower for stunning panoramas of the green Dordogne countryside.
Beneath the castle there’s also a cave that was inhabited by troglodytes in the Stone Age.
14. La Roque-Gageac
One of “France’s most beautiful villages”, La Roque-Gageac’s splendour lies in its setting, on the north bank of the Dordogne and wedged in a thin strip between the river and rocky limestone cliffs.
These cliffs leave little space for more than a couple of rows of houses, connected by steep stairways, capped with traditional Périgord roofs and built from the Dordogne’s typical ochre-hued stone.
Take a stroll on the riverfront and get an ice cream or cup of coffee to watch the Dordogne roll past.
Later you could board one of the village’s tour boats, which grant the best photos of La Roque-Gageac’s old houses overshadowed by those craggy bluffs.
15. Dordogne Cuisine
There is a foie gras festival in Sarlat in February, and throughout Périgord there are farms who make foie gras and sell it right from their property.
An ingredient that is often used in foie gras preparation is the region’s black truffle, a prized fungus found growing between oak, chestnut and hazel trees.
It is harvested between November and February, and one preparation is to grate it into on omelette.
This is only after the eggs have been stored with the truffle overnight to absorb some of its rich flavours.