Discovering the Dordogne: France's answer to excellent cuisine and wines, medieval bastides and prehistoric finds

2014-04-13T08:00:00Z 2014-04-16T16:46:15Z Discovering the Dordogne: France's answer to excellent cuisine and wines, medieval bastides and prehistoric findsDon Heimburger Times Correspondent
April 13, 2014 8:00 am  • 

The woman in the airport said she and her husband—on their way to France—had been there a number of times, always visiting Paris at some point in their journey. But they had never visited the Dordogne area, east of Bordeaux in the southwest part of France.

The Dordogne, commonly known as Perigord until 1790, doesn't have an Eiffel Tower, and it doesn't have a 160-foot-tall Arc de Triomphe or the grandiose Champs-Elysees. What is does have, however, is a different kind of feel that's relaxing, satisfying and stimulating all at the same time.

In the United States, New Mexico is called The Land of Enchantment. But in France, that designation goes to the mostly-rural Dordogne.

It’s said that in the 21st century, this region of France has managed to keep the things intact that are important in life: golden sunsets splashing across quaint ochre-colored buildings, the song of a gentle breeze whispering through poplar trees, dabbling your feet in crystal clear waters, family and close friends to enjoy good times with, and a combination of excellent foods and wines to complement the life style of the region.

Romans call it Aquitaine

The Romans named this vast 3,500-square-mile area Aquitaine in the first century B.C. It's the third largest region in France, and today presents the visitor with a vast array of delicious foods, wines and medieval attractions. The cuisine is some of the best in the world, with the region known especially for its sweet and creamy foie gras, its expensive black and white truffles and its nutritious walnuts.

Within its borders, the Dordogne teams with as many as 140 wine growers and wine establishments and 13 different appellations in 93 villages. There are more than 30,500 acres under wine cultivation, with wine growers specializing in Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc and Malbec in the reds, and Semillon, Sauvignon and Muscadelle in whites, with 59 percent of production in reds and 39 percent in whites.

Wine connoisseurs will want to go to the Bergerac area to taste the wines, as only 15 percent of the wines are exported to Belgium, the Netherlands, Germany, Japan and the United Kingdom. The first decision to make at any meal in the region is what wines will be brought to your table. Often there will be a “starter” wine, a main course wine, and perhaps a sweeter dessert wine to end the meal.

Gallo-Romans began vineyards

Wine production began here with the Gallo-Romans, and the grape variety was called the Biturica, after the tribe that inhabited the area. The Bergerac variety was the forerunner of today’s Cabernet Sauvignon.

Wines of the region include Monbazillac called a “golden treasure”; Montravel, which gets its taste from alluvial deposits and limestone beds; Rossette, one of the oldest appellations; Percharmant, which is a combination of Carbernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, Merlot and Cot Rouge or Malbec; and Saussignac, a late harvest sweet wine. It's interesting to note that grapes from this wine cannot be mechanically harvested—all must be picked by hand, according to appellation rules.

Many Dordogne wine chateaus offer tours and programs available from simple wine tastings to complete meals.

Castles and chateaux

Besides fresh food locally grown, as well as wines, you'll want to visit some of the important medieval villages, castles, caves and chateaux. The region, in fact, is said to have as many as 1,000 chateaux, and you'll find chateaux on hilltops, in the river valleys, in the woods—virtually everywhere. They all seem to me to be large, beautiful and extravagant; many have opened as bed and breakfasts, and today attract many leisure travelers, especially from Britain. Castles, by the way, generally differ from chateaux in that they had defensive walls and were fortified; chateaux were used as residences of the lord of the manor, or a country house of nobility or gentry.

With the Hundred Years War between the French and English (1337-1453) taking place in this area, it’s no wonder defensive walls surrounded many Dordogne towns (called bastides), and fortified castles sprung up like mushrooms.

Castles I can recommend you see include Chateau de Beynac, perched on a rocky spur overlooking the Dordogne River. The castle served as the location for more than a dozen films, including Joan of Arc in 1999. The village surrounding the castle features distinctive honey-stoned facades and colorful cascading flowers in the warm months. Chateau de Castelnaud from the Middle Ages, just up the river, is now devoted to the art of warfare, and gives visitors a great view of the castle at Beynac. Other must-see chateaux include Chateau des Milandes and Chateau de Hautefort.

The Cradle of Man

The “Gates of the Cradle of Man” is what some call this area, because of its many prehistoric caves—as many as 250— that dot the countryside. Researching the Dordogne area before I left, I realized the overwhelming significance of this region: a paleontologist would have a field day here.

Some 50 of the caves feature dramatic wall decorations such as animals, as seen at Lascaux, which was discovered in 1940 by four teenage boys. World renowned researchers have been been inspecting the site ever since and claim it to be about 17,000 years old. Lines are long to get into Lascaux II, which is a cave recreated just as the original; popularity of the original Lascaux cave has put it off limits to visitors, but Lascaux II is an exact reproduction, and well worth a visit. The cave shows as many as 364 horses and 90 deer, as well as bison and other animals.

Up the road a few short steps is the entrance to the original cave, but it is now sealed. Lascaux III is a traveling replica of the original cave which has been on display all over the world since 2012, including Chicago.

Village Splendor

A visit to the Dordogne area is well-remembered alone by touring towns such as Sarlat, which was founded in the 9th century and enjoyed great prosperity in the 13th and 14th centuries. After the Hundred Years War, however, the town was devastated and half of its houses were rebuilt or repaired including Saint-Marie Church, Saint Sacerdos Cathedral and many privates residences.

During the Renaissance many of Sarlat’s structures were made from a yellowish limestone, which lessened the chance of fire, and thus many of the historic structures stand to this day. Many other Dordogne towns and villages are picturesque and stunning in their architecture, and you’ll want to map out these before you plan a trip there.

Definitely take in Paris if you decide to travel to France, but remember there’s another whole intriguing region of this country that awaits your personal discovery.

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