France like it used to be

Hotels in Sarlat la Caneda

The Dordogne, in southwestern France, is a treasure trove full of stories and culinary art. And yet, only friends of Martin Walker’s crime novels seem to be familiar with the region. But that is about to change. As first reported in Austria’s

The limestone walls rise steeply upwards: the museum’s golden-yellow stone house nestles against the rock like a swallow’s nest. The idyll is green overgrown, with purple wisteria and chirping birds. Nobody disturbs the peace that nature created here. Over steps in the rock wall, our little group climbs up a bit and enters the interior of the mountain. The wheel of time is spinning back many millennia. “For me, it is the most beautiful, because it represents the most intimate Stone Age cave in the Dordogne,” raves Martin Walker. The well-known Scottish thriller author chose the Dordogne many years ago as his adoptive home, and he honors this extraordinary area in the southwest of France throughout his books.

The main character in the Walker thrillers is “Bruno”, the sympathetic police chief. His love affair with his colleague Isabelle began right here in the Grotte du Sorcier. It is indeed a magical place. Together with an English-speaking guide, we squeeze ourselves into the narrow cave and marvel at the scratches of “a prehistoric Picasso,” as Walker describes it. They represent horses, bison and ibex. Even more impressive is the sense of beauty of our ancient ancestors in the famous Grotte de Lascaux. It is one of only three prehistoric caves in the world with multicolored rock paintings. Vivid and lively, huge black bulls, red cattle, power-hungry horses and small ibexes jump off the walls of this “Sistine Chapel of Early History.” Natural terrain forms such as rock humps are skillfully used for the plasticity of the animals, creating a three-dimensional impression. What was created here 17,000 years ago is rather overwhelming . The fact that Lascaux 2 is a copy of the infinitely precious and delicate original does not diminish its fascination whatsoever.

The namesake of the department of Dordogne is its eponymous river: it winds 490 kilometers from the Massif Central to the Atlantic in Bordeaux. The side valley – la Vézère – is the prehistoric epicenter of France and has been inhabited continuously for over 70,000 years.

Celts, Vikings and Romans

There are 147 caves in total, 25 of them with murals and 15 of them are designated UNESCO World Heritage Sites. The region is infinitely rich in history. Celts, Vikings, Gaels, Romans, Visigoths, Arabs, religious wars and humanism left their lasting mark. In the Middle Ages, the Périgord, the historic name of the Dordogne was, after long periods of war under English rule for three centuries. During the Hundred Years War, the river Dordogne marked the front line. Fortified villages and castles are witnesses of these times. In the Dordogne, it is almost impossible to leave without a visit to a castle. Alone along the river, more than 1000 châteaux are preserved, and each one has its own characteristics. In the Château de Commarque, we are greeted in person by the man of the castle, Hubert.

He proudly leads us through his mighty complex, which comes recommended as an authentic medieval destination thanks to extensive renovations it underwent. Regionally fitting animations, such as archery or prehistoric painting courses, are part of the program. Other typical features of the region are picturesque bastides and medieval stone villages. Bastides were built as weir villages starting in the 13th century, always following the same pattern.

The market hall has always been the center of the village. Among the most beautiful medieval towns are Bergérac and Sarlat-la-Canéda. The contemplative places of Beynac, La Roque Gageac or Domme have even been used repeatedly on movie sets.

And yet, hidden in the hinterland of Bordeaux, the Dordogne is still largely undiscovered by tourism. “The rich history characterizes the country,” enthuses Martin Walker, “here time has stopped and France is still in order!”

The hidden paradise of plenty

Martin Walker isn’t the only one to cover the many culinary benefits in his cookbook; every visitor swiftly raves about the southwestern French cuisine. It is the region of duck and geese. The famous goose liver, the valuable truffle and the walnuts find their origins here. Other delicacies are provided by the fish-rich and clean rivers: here, salmon and sturgeon cavort, from which caviar is extracted. The walnuts are refined in the delicious nut wine, which is often served as an aperitif. The popular weekly markets in the Dordogne are particularly lush and authentic.

Try the cheese Trappe d’Echourgnac: this aromatic monastic cheese matures in walnut liqueur – a wonderful but rare delicacy! If you want to immerse yourself in the secrets of the gourmets, then a visit to truffle grower Edouard Aynaud and his border collie Farah is a must. An extremely entertaining man, Edouard – on his delightful family estate at Saint-Cyprien – explains all about the precious mushroom and invites you to an exciting truffle search, an unforgettable experience on the journey of discovery of the “black gold.”

Of course, in the Dordogne, the wine should not be missing, because we are, after all, in France. A total of  thirteen “appellations of origin” are known alone in the wine town of Bergérac. In the last twenty years, the quality of these wines has increased enormously, and is now comparable to the noble drops of Bordeaux. Only the prices are still below those of their Bordeaux counterparts.

Bathing fun in crystal clear water

Not only history and gourmet buffs find in the Dordogne a cheap, uncrowded paradise. Water rats get their money’s worth as well. The rivers here are very clean and highly inviting to canoe and kayak tours.

A sunbath on the sprawling pebble beaches is followed by a dip in the Dordogne, the second-cleanest river in Europe. 

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