La Dordogne, the cradle of civilization in France, a beautiful river surrounded by limestone cliffs and verdant valleys—this is the backdrop for Cro-Magnons, who lived here from 40,000 to 10,000 years ago. Eons later, many French and English folks with taste have vacationed here, or had second homes here for hundreds of years, and there are 1,001 châteaux in the region to prove it. And there are quite a few perfectly preserved medieval towns that you can walk through, miles of sunflower fields you can drive by and superb food to indulge in.
With a pack of girlfriends, I set out to trip the Dordogne this past August in just one day. Obviously this is an impossible task, but we certainly saw a lot, and we all walked away with a real flavor of this charming area. Of course summertime is an ideal time to go, but fall and winter can be less crowded and still charming.
There were several folks who were desperate to see cave paintings. Apparently there are more than a dozen caves in the Dordogne and an additional 10 or so surrounding les Eyzies, but what we didn’t realize is that it’s best to reserve ahead. That’s why we found ourselves knocking and waiting for someone or something to come out of a little hole in a wall in a forest. After quite a few knocks and conversation back and forth, Mr. Gilbert Pémendrant, owner of the Grotte de Bernifal, opened a thick iron door, doing his best to imitate that scene in The Princess Bride.
We charmed him into giving us a trip sans reservation. When he saw so many ladies, he was fast to say yes but insisted on a small kiss on the cheek from my friend Jeanne. There were detractors in the crowd, worried about a slippery damp floor or their claustrophobia, but after an hour in the totally dark cave, save our guide’s large industrial light, and a lot of laughs, we were all glad we had triped the grotto.
To say that we were incredibly impressed by the cave drawings would be false. I’m hoping you’ll be more organized than we were and reserve ahead. While there are many caves and grottoes, Font-de-Gaume is supposed to be the best, because you can no longer see the real Lascaux cave. The prehistoric museum in les Eyzies is worth noting for some of the ancient finds housed there and for being a very well-designed museum.
The towns of Belvès and Beynac-et-Cazenac (a member of the association named Les Plus Beaux Villages de France), with its stunning medieval château/fortress, are not far from one another. They make for lovely stops, a walk around town, a trip in the castle and then lunch or a snack.
But I think our favorite moment of the day was the visit to Josephine Baker’s château. All I knew abut her was that she danced nearly naked at the Théâtre des Champs-Elysées in Paris in the 1920s and that she had adopted loads of children and retired in the Dordogne. Well, the story is much more intriguing than that. She was part of the French Resistance and received a medal of honor for her bravery. She was of course a RAGE in Paris and a national icon, and she did adopt 12 kids from around the world. She had a penchant for spending money, which is why she lost the 17th-century château in the end, but one has to admire her.
Apparently her children continue to come back and even stay at the château, as it is privately owned yet open to the public. There is a museum inside dedicated to her, beautiful gardens and a lovely place for lunch. You feel her presence here and leave realizing that, while she had faults, she was a brave woman (born to an extremely poor African American family in St. Louis), and to make it as far as she did was truly remarkable.
These few stops will give you a quick overview of the area, but it’s best to stay for three or even five days so you can enjoy the wines of the region and many more beautiful towns and villages, as well as truly ancient history.