The allure of France is legendary. So, if I were to tell you that I got charmed by France in spring, you would probably tell me, “Bah! Tell us something new”. The truth is, that I did find France extremely beautiful and the destination was one of the lesser known places of this classical European nation. It did not take us much coaxing to visit Dordogne in southwest France and we stayed there for three days in the midst of a glorious rural spring. Dordogne was the first pit stop of our pan Europe road trip with baby Akash and a friend of ours offered his French villa for us to stay. His house was in a small village in Dordogne region of France and the countryside oozed a lush tranquil aura.
Dordogne welcomed us with some spring love
Traffic was a slow trickle there, shops remained closed on Sundays, and it was an “everybody knows everybody” kind of a village. The region’s highlight lay in its famed farmed products and from truffles to foie gras, Dordogne is a food lover’s paradise. We arrived there on a rainy dark night and a tangle of two hedgehogs making love welcomed us to the villa gate. These fuzzy creatures in love were so unaccustomed to human interference, that they did not move until sated and we sat in the car listening to the falling raindrops, waiting for them to finish. Needless to say, we immediately fell in love with the place and that spring in Dordogne was one of the highlights of our road trip.
The taste of spring in Dordogne
Dordogne (pronounced as door- don- ye) is one of the most authentic and appealing regions of rural France. Many travel pundits hail it as the new black of France destinations and it is indeed a very charming department. With its prefecture in Périgueux, this department is located in the Nouvelle-Aquitaine region between the Loire Valley and the Pyrenees. It is named after the Dordogne river that flows through and few regions of France sum up the country’s highlights better than Dordogne. According to history, the English fought the French over fertile Dordogne until the end of the Hundred Years War (1453) and one trip to this fantastic region will make you understand why.
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Spring in Dordogne tastes of duck, goose, and truffles
To begin with, the local cuisine is simply sensational due to its generous use of seasonal fruits, duck, goose, and black truffles. The local Bergerac wine is widely accepted as quite good and nothing beats a glass of sweet Monbazillac teamed with foie gras or early summer strawberries. Every goodness about Dordogne smells and tastes of rich earth and it is French countryside at its finest. Thus, it is no wonder that the spring in Dordogne would be a visual delight and we spent our days in the luxuriant slow travelling mood.
A wet lush authentic French spring in Dordogne
Spring is a fantastic time of year to venture outdoors and even though, you might trudge back in with mud-caked shoes, your eyes will sparkle from the dewy freshness. Dordogne and its stunning countryside. tempted us out of the house more than we expected and we drove around the gently undulating landscape in awe. It is indeed a very blessed region and from the dry rocky hillsides to arable farmland, diverse heathlands to riverbanks and wetland, the department seemed to have them all. Here and there dense oak and chestnut forests grew in thick clumps and 13th and 14th-century châteaux loomed over the peaceful pastoral scene. Pruned vineyards romantically spread until the soft green meadows and rustic farmhouses clustered at the foothills of the honey-stone bastides (fortified hilltop villages).
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The joy of slow travel during spring in Dordogne
It rained quite a bit during our stay in spring in Dordogne. Light mists rolling down a woolly grey sky made the soft young grass of the meadows wet and slippery. The rain made the jewel-eyed frogs hop inside the stone floor of our villa and glistening lizards took shelter under the old wooden rafters. The villa where we stayed itself was an old restored 13th-century château and every stone of it was original. Flowering vines draped the old building and there was an old well in the middle of the courtyard. It had a hilltop location and all around magnolias, rhododendrons, cherries, and apples bloomed riotously. A small stream filled with schools of newborn fishes gurgled at the bottom of the hill and at night, we could hear the grunting of the wild boars. Farmhouses nestling at the foothill village were all stone and old timber and the beautiful rustic landscape looked straight out of a period movie. Those farms were noisy places in spring as sounds of newborn animals filled the air and on early mornings, ducks floated quietly on still ponds.
How to enjoy a delightful spring in Dordogne
Dordogne is one of France’s most iconic and idyllic rivers. Lush meadows and green woods roll out along the meandering banks and in the olden times, the valley served as an important frontier during the Hundred Years War. Dordogne’s hilltops still bear the telltale signs of this historical war and the entire region is dotted with defensive châteaux and heavily fortified towns. Nowadays it is a picture of French tranquillity and a perfect destination to explore by bike or, better still, by paddle. Think a rugged natural landscape filled with dense forests, limestone hills, vineyards, walnut orchards, duck farms, and houses drenched in geraniums. It is the heart and soul of la belle France with its emerald green fields, rich country cooking, turreted châteaux, and medieval villages lining the riverbanks.
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Prehistoric paintings, pate, and fine wine of Dordogne
Cavernous limestone caves hold paintings left behind by pre-historic man and wooden-hulled gabarres (traditional flat-bottomed, wooden boats) slice the waterways. Its farmers’ markets overflow with pâté, truffles, walnuts, cheeses and fine wines and Dordogne is the land of plenty. The best way to enjoy this bountiful region is by slow travelling in spring in Dordogne, when the land is freshly green and the tourist season is low. Choose between the four colour-coded areas: Périgord Pourpre (purple) for the winegrowing regions around Bergerac; Périgord Noir (black) for the dark oak forests around the Vézère Valley and Sarlat-la-Canéda; Périgord Blanc (white) after the limestone hills around the capital, Périgueux; and Périgord Vert (green) for the forested regions of the north.
Dordogne Travel Fact
Dining out at the local taverns on some fantastic truffle or foie gras, wine-tasting, canoeing, and visiting gorgeous chateaux and villages top the Dordogne must-do list. Throw in Vézère Valley prehistoric art caves for the perfect mix or simply sit back, relax, and unwind in the rural charm of spring in Dordogne.
How to Reach
The simplest way is by air and you can fly to one of three airports of Dordogne. These are Bergerac (Ryanair, British Airways), Bordeaux which is 90 minutes from Périgueux (British Airways, Aerlingus, Ryan Air, Easy Jet), and Brive la Gaillarde, an hour from Périgueux (Ryan Air). It is also possible to go to Dordogne by train from London St Pancras to Périgueux (change in Paris and Limoges). For more information, check Voyages SNCF (0844 848 5848; voyages-sncf.com).
Hiring a car is the realistic way to cover longer distances and get around quickly. It is to be noted that public transport is slow, limited and nonexistent in many parts of the rural Dordogne. There are hundreds of kilometres of cycling routes along the quiet country roads of this deeply rural region. Riverside cycling tracks are naturally flat and scenic, though the climbs up to hilltop bastides (fortified villages) can be gruelling. Dordogne is a pristine walking country. The local tourist offices have plenty of information on local walks suitable for all ages and abilities, of many are family-friendly. It is also possible to explore Dordogne by boat. La Roque-Gageac is the main base for seasonal boat trips along the Dordogne River aboard a traditional gabarre, flat-bottomed wooden, riverboat.
When to Go
April to October is the best. Spring in Dordogne brings out warmth, bags of fresh market produce, and beautiful flowers. Summer gets hot and busy with crowds peaking in August when the French holiday-makers arrive. The shoulder season of September or October is better when the crowds and the searing heat mellow down. The grape harvesting also begins at that time. Food lovers should opt for the black truffle season from December to March.
Where to Go
It is difficult to pin down a single place or thing to do in Dordogne in Europe. This department has some of the world’s most brilliant prehistoric art, and fine French food. The Grotte de Lascaux in the Vézère Valley the single biggest unmissable sight no one should miss and foodies should not miss the market town of Sarlat-la-Canéda to the south. The old Roman town of Périgueux north is another gastronomic delight and makes a wonderful base for exploring spring in Dordogne.
Attractions of Dordogne
- Périgueux – An old Roman town, Périgueux is deliciously small and provincial. Foodies should not miss the farmers market on Saturdays and Wednesdays when they set up wooden trestles to sell fruit and vegetable against the backdrop of the pearly-white domes of Périgueux’s Byzantine cathedral. Visit St-Louis from November-to-March as the duck market sees gourmets which include goose hearts, duck livers, and dried-blood pancakes called sanguettes. In December, the heady aroma of the black truffles rule these food markets.
- Ecomusée de la Truffe, Sorges – Just a 30 minutes drive north of Périgueux, lies Dordogne’s truffle museum (ecomusee-truffe-sorges.com). It delightfully unravels the mysteries behind the black Périgord truffle, which are sold fresh the in season for around €900 per kg. You can buy other less expensive local delicacies like the pear and truffle jam, green tomato and truffle chutney, truffle mustard, honey and ice cream in its boutique. The visit ends with a walk along the Sentier des Truffières, a 1.8-mile, a truffle-rich trail which charmingly winds through vineyards, walnut plantations, and meadows.
- Brantôme – A romantic village located 30 minutes west of Sorges, Brantôme is called the “Venice of Périgord”. Though this is a tall claim to fame, it is an impossibly pretty village. The best way to enjoy its beauty is by boating beneath the stone arches of its angled bridge traversing river and adjacent canal, or meandering cobblestones polished smooth by centuries of pilgrims following the way of Saint James through Brantôme to Santiago in Spain. Its vast abbey was founded by Charlemagne in 769 and there are eighth-century cave dwellings, hollowed out by monks, in the cliffs behind.
- Sarlat-la-Canéda – This town is prettiest after sunset when vintage gas lamps light up the medieval streets of Sarlat-la-Canéda. It is a photogenic town and for the most beautiful spots, follow the rue de la Liberté from the cathedral on place du Peyrou to the gracious central square, place de la Liberté, framed with elegant mansions, the town hall and cafe terraces. Its famous food market located in the Gothic church of Sainte Marie bursts into action every morning at 8.30 AM on place de la Liberté’s northern end. Go up the lift inside for a 360-degree panorama of ginger-red rooftops and countryside beyond.
- Grotte de Lascaux – The obvious star attraction of Dordogne, Grotte de Lascaux has an extraordinary tale behind its discovery. In 1940, a couple of teenage boys stumbled upon this monumental work of prehistoric rock art (lascaux.culture.fr), buried in the Vézère Valley and eight years later the cave was opened to visitors. By 1960 up to 2,000 people, a day was entering it when the first deadly stains of green algae appeared on the walls. Three years later, the original grotto was shut and Lascaux II, the replica, opened in 1983. The gallery filled with copies of the original pre-historic art blazed across the rock by man 17,000 years ago was a fantastic idea and visits can be done by guided tours.
- La Roque-Gageac – This is perhaps one of Dordogne’s most beautiful villages. Located on the Dordogne River, the sheer golden cliffs sheltering a 12th-century troglodyte fort are awe-inspiring. Traditional barges called gabarres used for transporting barrels of wine and salt downstream in the 19th century, ply the water for the tourists.
- Domme – A fortified town built on the hilltop during the 13th century, Domme retains its original ramparts and half-timbered architecture. It is also famous as a caving destination and stalactites and stalagmites glisten like jewels in the Grotte de Domme, 500 yards of subterranean galleries and ancient cave art, beneath the central square.
- Monpazier – Only an hour drive from Bergerac, Monpazier lies between chestnut forests and sunny clearings in southern Dordogne. Founded for King Edward I of England in 1284, this is one of the most interesting hilltop fortified towns of Dordogne. Explore its grid-like streets to the fullest, because you cannot simply get lost.
- Bergerac – This medieval river port means wine. Rosette and Monbazillac vineyards cover the hills above the town and family-run estates on its northern fringe take pride in their Pécharmant reds ageing in oak casks. Bergerac offers the region’s 13 different appellations and you can meet local producers at the House of Wines (vins-bergerac.fr), 1 rue des Récollets.
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