Caves, vineyards and clifftop castles: life along France's Dordogne River

As the Dordogne river meanders through wooded valleys from Saint-Émilion to the border with the Lot region, it passes honey-stoned towns, dramatic clifftop castles an a smattering of rock shelters, where paintings by some of the first humans still adorn.Thursday, 28 November 2019

It was the sheep that welcomed me to the Dordogne. I’d arrived late at night and parked outside the walls of Saint-Émilion. A full moon lit up the vineyards behind me, and I’d stopped to admire grapes dangling from a vine. There was silence as I walked through the 12th-century Brunet Gate, which protected the town during its heyday.

At least there was quiet until I heard a rustle of leaves and a gentle ‘baah’. Two sheep were pressing themselves up against a gate in the medieval wall, thrusting their muzzles towards me.

Saint-Émilion is famous for its wineries. The Dordogne River, meanwhile — shrouded by a thick stripe of woodland, hazy in the distance beyond the Brunet Gate — is best known for its honey-hued stone towns and clifftop castles. They thread along its banks as it runs from the Auvergne region to Bordeaux, where it meets the Garonne River and empties into the Atlantic.

I’ve come here to experience the natural side of the Dordogne, tracing the river from Saint-Émilion to the border with the Lot. Alongside castles are modest country pads with cottage-style gardens; as well as Cotswolds-esque towns and villages. And to really get to know this region, I’ll venture into caves sculpted by underground rivers, walking in the footsteps of some of the first humans.

Saint-Émilion is where I first head underground. Before it was a wine hub, this was a place of pilgrimage, popularised by a monk called Émilion (after whom the town is named, although, confusingly, he was never canonised). He took up residence here in the eighth century; after his death, his tomb drew followers and before long the town was a stop on the Camino de Santiago pilgrimage route. In the 12th century, an enterprising aristocrat who owned the land surrounding Émilion’s tomb decided that by building an underground church — like those in Turkey’s Cappadocia he’d seen en route to the Crusades — he could attract more visitors and stimulate the local economy. He had a huge basilica carved from the soft rock, perched a tall spire on top of the cliff to act as a marker, and sat back. The first tourists were on their way.

And still they come. On a tour, I clamber down into the grotto where Émilion’s bones were kept until they were stolen during the Renaissance. Then we head up into the fan-vaulted chapel; down into the catacombs, where three figures are carved into the domed roof, embracing as they soar from their tombs; and on into a hangar-like underground church, where iron corsets prop up the stout columns — and the town — above our heads. I walk up the aisle, deep into the hillside, to see frescoed faces with almond eyes, and carved angels whose wings seem to flutter around their feet like windblown dresses.

Underneath us there’s water, our guide, Marion, says — a tributary of the Dordogne, trickling 2.5 miles to the river. Leaving town, I follow a line of trees to Saint-Sulpice-de-Faleyrens, Saint-Émilion’s old port, where the river slips thin and dark towards Bordeaux. One field back, a colossal menhir stands in the middle of a vineyard. Erected 4,500 years ago, when it marked the riverbank, I could swear it’s been carved like a hand raised in salutation to river-goers.

The watery heart

The Dordogne is at the heart of its namesake region. In Bergerac, an hour east of Saint-Émilion, I sit on the terrace of Maison des Vins, overlooking the river. The town is a mishmash of cob houses, beamed walls and the area’s famous lauze roofs — flat limestone rocks instead of tiles, pitched as steep as a witch’s hat. A huge fountain in the middle of the Dordogne blows water 50ft into the air. Before me is the cobbled quay, where flat-bottomed gabarre boats were loaded with bottles and sent to Bordeaux.

Maison des Vins is essentially a showroom for Bergerac appellation producers, says Loane, a resident expert, as she talks me through the hundreds of bottles on the shelves. Afterwards, she dispatches me to a nearby vineyard, Vignoble des Verdots, where I’m handed a rucksack packed full of Dordogne essentials — baguette, cheese, tomatoes, confit duck and a half-bottle of rosé — and sent out amid the vines for a picnic.

Two fields later — cicadas providing a background hum — I’m joined by Françoise, from the nearby village of Monbazillac, and her grandson, Charly, for lunch. We chat in broken French and English — about politics, the Dordogne and our meal. “C’était un pique-nique royale!” grins Françoise, as we swap emails. It’s the smaller moments rather than the big-hitting sights I’m enjoying the most.

Instead of hitting more vineyards, I dip westwards to Montcaret, a tiny hamlet where the remains of a small Roman villa sit below a medieval church. It’s a hot afternoon and my only companion is a little white cat, which jumps up on still-standing walls and follows me along fourth-century corridors. I leave it lounging by the underfloor heating system as I do a round of the church’s mosaics that are still in situ: a carpet of whiskered fish and bulbous squid at the bottom of what was once a cold-water pool. Adam and Eve, awkwardly covering themselves, look down from the facade of the church, as the clink of cutlery seeps in from surrounding cottages.

Montcaret sits in a small triangle of lesser-visited sites. Up the road is a castle that once belonged to the 16th-century philosopher Michel de Montaigne. Then there are the Gardens of Sardy — home to a medieval farmhouse that was renovated by Italians in the 18th century, complete with a low-for-the-Dordogne roof and eggshell-blue window frames, giving it the feel of a Tuscan villa.

“You’re going to smell the plants,” says ticket office staff member Malika, whisking me into the flower-filled courtyard and taking me from shrub to shrub, plucking leaves. “What’s this?” she asks, “and this?”, as she thrusts lemon balm, eucalyptus, bergamot and lavender mint at me. There’s an English country garden feel to all this, while the Italian heritage rings out with cypress avenues and a carp-filled pond that springs into life, arcing water from one side to the other, as a mossy statue of Saint Fiacre, the patron saint of gardeners, watches on.

French idyll

Brits love the Dordogne — perhaps it’s in our blood. Henry the Young King, the titular King of England from 1170 to 1183, was the son of Eleanor of Aquitaine, and while king he doubled as the Duke of Normandy. From the time of Henry’s rule until the 15th, the Dordogne was batted between English and French hands. The legacy is still visible in the form of the bastides: fortified towns, often built in grids, whose neat street plans seem more American than European.

I arrive in the medieval town of Issigeac on market day. Unlike other bastides, this is a tightly wound, circular town, with alleyways uncoiling from the centre. The market zigzags through the streets, under lauze roofs and timbered facades, until it reaches the bone-grey church. Tomatoes as big as footballs and forearm-sized cucumbers are heaped outside the chateau-turned-tourist office; a lavender stall sits below the Maison des Têtes (House of Heads), where rictus-grin gargoyles gurn amid gothic arches and crisscross timbers.

Just outside the centre, I join the locals under a vine-shaded bower at Les Crêpes d’Emeline and enjoy a ham, egg and cheese pancake. It’s so good, I ask Emeline herself whether she’s from Brittany, the home of the crêpe. “Oh, no!”, she grins, “I’m from here — I just love crêpes.” Two little boys run in to push a drawing into a waiter’s hand. “Maman told us to give it to you,” says one, blushing furiously.

On Françoise’s advice, I visit the Château des Milandes, the former home of Josephine Baker, the famous American-born French entertainer, which overlooks the river near Sarlat, a busy, macaron-box of a town, further upstream. The 15th-century château’s rooms are filled with cases of rhinestone-covered dresses and exhibits chronicling the singer’s anti-racism campaigning and role in the French Resistance. It’s fascinating, but busy.

I seek refuge on a gabarre ride from nearby La Roque-Gageac, a village etched into the cliffside, its honey houses cantilevered over the Dordogne. We slide up and down the river, five miles there and back, dodging kayaks, passing châteaux. There are said to be over 1,000 of them on the banks of the Dordogne — later, I’ll stay at one of the loveliest, Château de la Treyne, an aristocratic home-turned-hotel just over the border in the Lot.

The water is so clear I can see pebbles on the bottom and tendrils of green floating up from the depths. Laurent, our guide, tells us about the river as cicadas keep a beat. Dragonflies skitter across the water, pigeons swoop in and out of niches in the cliff-face, and a kingfisher perches on a branch, waiting for a fish to break cover. The rock here — sliced diagonally like an upended mille-feuille — dates back 63 million years, Laurent tells us; each layer taking up to 40,000 years to form.
 

Deeper underground

North of Sarlat is the Vézère Valley, through which the Vézère River rushes between high cliffs. Dordogne’s inhabitants use the friable stone to build their houses, just like they have for the past 40,000 years. At the end of the last Ice Age, prehistoric tribes holed up here in caves; only these rock shelters weren’t mere homes, many were galleries too, with the artists often using the shape of the walls to give the paintings and etchings a sense of perspective or depth.

At Lascaux — the most famous of them all, known as the Sistine Chapel of prehistory — an array of paunchy horses and freckled bulls is plastered all over the ‘ceiling’, including a horse mid-fall. It’s bucking its front legs in the air, ears twisting in horror as it plummets into the darkness of the cave, its body curling round the curved wall. Given the jutting angles, the artist wouldn’t have been able to see their work in its entirety, says our guide, Christelle; and yet, the horse is perfectly in proportion.

The skill — still impressive after 20,000 years — gives me chills, even though we’re standing in a facsimile.

Lascaux was discovered in 1940, opened to the public eight years later, and closed in 1963, after the ensuing influx of tourists damaged the paintings. I’m in Lascaux IV — a modern building at the foot of the hill where the original cave is located. The main event here is a facsimile of the first part of the cave — its contours aping the shape of the rock formations, and the paintings perfectly reproduced.

Fifteen miles away, in the tiny village of Les Eyzies, time wheels right back again. Pigeons swoop in and out of the hollows of cliffs behind the houses, and, outside the village, the undergrowth is so thick that sometimes the stone is no longer visible.

The rock here contains one of the densest concentrations of cave art in the world. In the lee of a forbidding cliff is the Abri du Poisson, where a lifesize salmon has been carved on the roof of a rock shelter, a jaunty smile on its face as it seems to leap from the stone. In the next valley is Cap-Blanc, another rock shelter, where full-scale reliefs of a pack of horses thrust out from the rock.

Close to the village is Font-de-Gaume, where herds of red, tan and black-brown bison file through a cave, rippling across the rockface just as they have for the past 17,000 years. A little further is Les Combarelles, famed for its engravings. The cave is so narrow and the carvings so delicate that only 42 visitors — in groups of seven — are allowed inside each day. Guide Majo takes the lead, as we venture within, dodging column-like stalagmites and ducking pendulous stalactites as we follow the cave’s twists and turns for what feels like a mile, although it turns out we’ve only covered 120 metres. Majo stops and shines her torch on the wall, and we start to make out chiselled lines. “What’s that?” she asks, and we shake our heads, dumbstruck by the gulf in time.

Hundreds of etchings loom into view over the few minutes, and as we walk along, Majo teases them out with her torch: a horse head here, nostrils flaring in the breeze; a mammoth there, hair protruding from its belly, trunk curling round its shoulder. There are mountain goats, prehistoric cows and two reindeers facing off. Deeper in is the head of a lion, jaw taut as it scours for a kill. And at the end of the cave — or, rather, the end of the part open for visitors — next to a dark, damp niche is another reindeer, crouching down with its mouth open. “He’s drinking,” Majo says, tenderly tracing the outline of its tongue with her torch. “But look what’s on the other side.” She shines the light on a human stick figure, spear raised above its head.

Nobody knows why this art was created, explains Majo (her own theory is that it has something to do with an initiation rite). What seems clear, however, is that depicting humans — or at least doing so in a realistic fashion — was somehow taboo. People rarely appear, and when they do they tend to be either cartoonish (a stick figure with a bird’s head at Lascaux, for example); disembodied (as seen with the stencilled handprints at Font-de-Gaume), or caricatures (Les Combarelles, whose exaggerated female figures — cleavage to thigh — have a hint of Picasso).

And then Majo shows us the most incongruous thing of all. “Qu’est-ce que c’est?” she asks, looping her torch round what looks like a hexagon with two circles and a line inside. We stare, baffled, and Majo laughs. “It’s a smiley face,” she says — and suddenly, we see it, an emoji carved into the rock between 12,000 and 15,000 years ago; ancient man grinning at us from beyond the grave.

That evening, I go for a swim in the river at the Plage du Bac de Sors, a pebbly beach near Limeuil, where the Vézère is swallowed up by the larger Dordogne. Afterwards, I sit back with a post-dip rosé, bought from a pop-up cafe on the bank, and watch people rush into the water — some with their dogs. They’re swimming, splashing, and cooling off from the summer heat as I look at the hollowed-out cliffs, and think of that smiley face, carved upstream.

Essentials

Getting there & around
Bergerac is served by Ryanair from Stansted; British Airways from London City, and Flybe from Southampton and Exeter. Ryanair also flies to Brive-la-Gaillarde (an hour from Sarlat) from Stansted. Bordeaux Airport is a 45-minute drive from Saint-Émilion.
   
Average flight time: 1h45m.
 
When to go
July-August is high season, when temperatures can peak in the low 30Cs, while September temperatures can hit mid-20Cs. Winter is the best time to visit the Les Eyzies caves, with tickets assigned at 9.30am. Arrive by 7.30am
to get them in peak season.
 
Places mentioned
Gabarres Caminade.
Cap-Blanc, Abri du Poisson, Font-de-Gaume, Les Combarelles.

 
Where to stay
Château de la Treyne, Lot.
Le Mas de Castel, Sarlat.

 
More info
enjoydordogne.com 
atout-france.fr
visit-nouvelle-aquitaine.com
saint-emilion-tourisme.com
 
How to do it
Responsible Travel has an eight-day self-guided Dordogne cycling tour, including Lascaux and Sarlat, from £776 per person. Includes seven nights’ B&B, five dinners and luggage transfers.

Published in the December 2019 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)

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