Rick Steves' Europe: Episode # 502
The Dordogne River Valley — with its dramatic castles, evocative cave paintings, and prized cuisine — is an unforgettable blend of man-made and natural beauty. We'll take an idyllic canoe ride, and then visit a goose farm and savor the foie gras. We'll also wander through a lamp-lit castle, enjoy a country market, and visit the Sistine Chapel of the prehistoric world. Then we head south to Albi, home of Toulouse Lautrec, and the imposing fortress city of Carcassonne.
- Read the script from the show.
The Mazet family
Elevage du Bouyssou, a big homey goose farm a short drive from Sarlat, is run by a couple who enjoy their work. Denis Mazet (the latest in a long line of goose farmers here) spends five hours a day feeding his gaggle of geese. His wife Nathalie speaks wonderful English and enthusiastically shows guests around. Each evening, she leads a one-hour, kid-friendly tour. You'll meet the geese babies, do a little unforced feeding, and hear how every part of the goose (except heads and feet) is used — even feathers (tel. 05 53 31 12 31, firstname.lastname@example.org)
The region's — and the world's — most famous cave paintings are at Lascaux, 14 miles north of Sarlat and Les Eyzies. The Lascaux caves were discovered accidentally in 1940 by four kids and their dog. From 1948 through 1963, more than a million people climbed through this prehistoric wonderland. But these visitors tracked in fungus on their shoes and changed the temperature and humidity with their heavy breathing. In just 15 years, the precious art deteriorated more than during the 15,000 years before that. The original caves were closed. A copy cave— accurate to within one centimeter, reproducing the best 40-yard-long stretch, and showing 90 percent of the paintings found in Lascaux — was opened next to the original in 1983. Guides assure that the original is every bit as crisp and has just as much contrast as the facsimile you'll see.
At impressive Lascaux II, the reindeer, horses, and bulls of Lascaux I are painstakingly reproduced by top artists using the same dyes, tools, and techniques their predecessors did 15,000 years ago. Come here first (taking one of the scheduled English-language tours) for a great introduction to the region's cave art. While it feels a bit rushed — 40 people per tour are hustled through the two-room cave reproductions— the guides are committed to teaching, the paintings are astonishing, and the experience is mystifying. (Forget that they're copies, and enjoy being swept away by the prehistoric majesty of it all.) Unless you're visiting in winter (Oct–March), you must buy your ticket before coming to Lascaux; the ticket office is in Montignac, five minutes away by car (tel. 05 53 51 96 23 for ticket availability and English tour times, reservations possible July–Aug only).
This modern museum houses more than 18,000 artifacts that were uncovered locally. It takes you through prehistory, starting 400,000 years ago. With English info sheets provided along the way, it's a good first stop for learning about the age. While the museum does an excellent job presenting its exhibits, you have to be engaged and determined to learn to follow the museum's complex and serious teaching style. Appropriately located on a cliff that's been inhabited by humans for 35,000 years, the museum has a sleek design intended to help it blend into the surrounding rock. Videos demonstrate scratching designs, painting techniques, and how spearheads were made. Full-size models of Cro-Magnon people and animals stare at racks of countless arrowheads. The first floor sets the stage, describing human evolution and the importance of tools. The second (and better) floor highlights prehistoric artifacts found in France. Your visit ends on the cliff edge, with a Fred Flintstone–style photo op on a porch that some of our ancient ancestors once called home (tel. 05 53 06 45 65).
The Palais de la Berbie (once the fortified home of Albi's archbishop) has the world's largest collection of Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec's paintings, posters, and sketches. The museum displays more than 1,000 of Toulouse-Lautrec's pieces chronologically (tel. 05 63 49 48 70).
Toulouse-Lautrec's bread and butter were his advertising posters, and the room containing these posters is the museum's highlight. Displays show his original lithograph blocks (simply prepare the stone with a backwards image, apply ink — which sticks chemically to the black points— and print posters). Four-color posters meant creating four different blocks. The Moulin Rouge poster established his business reputation in Paris — strong symbols, bold and simple: just what, where, and when.