France's Dordogne

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.

Travel Details

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, elevage.bouyssou@wanadoo.fr)

Cave Paintings
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).

National Museum of Prehistory
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).

Toulouse-Lautrec Museum
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.  

Script

See the Travel Details above for recommendations highlighted in bold, excerpted from Rick's guidebooks.

[1] Bonjour, I'm Rick Steves back with more of the best of Europe. This time we're slowing down for some of the best of small town and countryside France....It's the Dordogne River valley Thanks for joining us!

[3] The Dordogne River Valley — with its dramatic castles, pre-historic cave paintings, and prized cuisine is an unforgettable blend of man-made and natural beauty. Once you get to know the region you wonder why more Americans don't visit.

[4] Along with an idyllic canoe ride, we'll enjoy the highlights of the Dordogne. Visit a goose farm, then savor the foie gras. Wander through a lamp-lit castle, browse a country market, and marvel at the Sistine Chapel of the prehistoric world. Then we cross into the next region to tour one very stern church, admire the art of Toulouse Lautrec, and explore an imposing fortress city.

[5] France, the size of Texas, is made up of many distinct regions — including the Dordogne, defined by a river by the same name. In the Dordogne, we visit Sarlat, Beynac, and the famous caves at Lascaux before heading into the Languedoc region where we'll explore Carcassonne and Albi.

[6] Six centuries ago, this lazy river — so peaceful today — separated warring England and France. Imagine, the French were up in that castle and the English were just across the river. They duked it out for so long that the conflict became known as The Hundred Years War.

[7] Today's Dordogne River carries more holiday-goers than weapons, as the region's economy relies heavily on tourism. For an invigorating break from the car or train, you can explore the riverside castles and villages from a canoe.

[8] Kayaks and canoes are easy to hire. Rental places line the river and are happy to pick you up at an agreed-upon spot downstream.

[9] They're stable enough for beginners and I can't think of a more relaxing way to enjoy both some great scenery and a little exercise. My friend — and co-author of my France guidebook — Steve Smith has joined us.

[10] You can pop ashore whenever you like. There's always a place to stow the canoe, and plenty of welcoming villages...like La Roque-Gageac.

[11] Whether you're joyriding by car or paddling the Dordogne River, this town — a strong contender on all the "cutest towns in France" lists, is a must see.

[12] Back on the river, delights are revealed with each bend. The river's current varies depending on how much rain they've had. It's been dry and today it's slow...perfect for a relaxing glide.

[13] We're finishing our ride in the feudal village of Beynac. With the Dordogne River at your doorstep, a perfectly preserved medieval village winds like a sepia-toned film set to the castle high above. In villages like this, there's nothing to really "tour". It's just plain pretty.

[14] Stone roofs are typical of this region. Called lauzes in French, the flat limestone rocks (gathered by farmers clearing their fields) were a cheap and durable roofing material. The unusually steep pitch of the lauzes roofs — which last about 200 years — helps distribute the weight down through the walls. Small vents provide air circulation. Local farmers are quick to sing the roofs praises.

[16] Beynac's brooding, cliff-crowning château soars 500 feet above the Dordogne River. Its design was state-of-the-art in its day. And it comes with a view fit for a king. During the Hundred Years' War — more than a century of skirmishes between the French and English in the 13 and 14 hundreds — the castle of Beynac was on the front lines. The sparsely furnished castle takes you back. Stone oil lamps light the way; in the knights' mess hall, you almost feel like cooks are just taking a break. And even back then there were manners: park your sword at the end of the table.  

[17] The leading noble family of the Dordogne ruled from this castle. Through the Middle Ages, here in the great room – the closest thing to a throne room — the decisions that effected the realm were made.

[18] During the Hundred Years War the Castle of Beynac flip-flopped several times between French and English control. Negotiations were worked out in this room.

[19] The subjects of the realm would gather in the courtyard to learn their destiny.

[20] Their noble lord would stand here and proclaim "Now you're French" or "now you're English" ... deal with it.

[21] Long before the age of great castles, humbler groups in the Dordogne found refuge in caves. La Roque St. Christophe, a series of river-carved terraces, has provided shelter to people here for 50,000 years. While the terraces were inhabited in prehistoric times, the exhibit you'll see today is medieval. The official recorded history goes back to 976 A.D., when people settled here to steer clear of Viking raiders who'd routinely sail up the river. Back then in this part of Europe, the standard closing of a prayer wasn't "amen," but, "and deliver us from the Norseman, amen."

[22] A clever relay of river watchtowers kept an eye out for raiders. When they came, residents gathered their kids, hauled up their animals — as you can imagine with the help of this big recreated winch — and pulled up the ladders. While there's absolutely nothing old here except for the carved-out rock, it's easy to imagine the entire village — complete with butcher, baker, and even candlestick-maker — in this family-friendly exhibit.

[23] Nearby, Sarlat is the pedestrian-friendly main town of the river valley. It's just the right size — large enough to have a cinema with four screens, but small enough so that everything is an easy meander from the town center. It's the handiest home base for exploring the Dordogne.

[23a] There are no blockbuster sights here. Still, it's an inviting tangle of traffic-free cobblestone lanes and handsome buildings, lined with foie gras shops (geese hate Sarlat), and — in the summer — stuffed with tourists.

[27] Sarlat's elaborate stonework recalls its glory century was from about 1450 to 1550, after the Hundred Years' War. Loyal to the French cause — through thick and thin and a century of war — Sarlat was rewarded by the French king, who gave lots of money to rebuild the town in stone.

[28] Sarlat's new nobility built noble houses to match. Sarlat's most impressive buildings date from this prosperous era, when the Renaissance style was in vogue.

[31] It's Market Day and the city is jammed as it has been for centuries of Saturdays. Everything's fresh and local — so seasonal that shoppers can tell the month by what's on sale.

[32] This "Square of the Geese" is a reminder that birds are serious business here, and have been since the Middle Ages. Many question the morality of force feeding geese to make the foie gras. To learn more about this, we are heading into the countryside to actually visit a goose farm.

[33] For generations, the Mazet family has raised geese here. Nathalie — clearly in love with country life — enthusiastically shows guests around her idyllic farm. Each evening, she leads a family-friendly tour explaining the age old tradition of la gavage...force feeding the geese to fatten their livers to make the much loved goose liver pate...or foie gras.

[35] Nathalie explains why locals see the force-feeding as humane (the same as raising any other animal for human consumption). French enthusiasts of la gavage say the animals are calm, in no pain, and are designed to gorge naturally. Dordogne geese live lives at least as comfy as other farm animals that many people have no problem eating, and  they are slaughtered as humanely as any non-human can expect in this food-chain existence.

[37] The region's cuisine is a big draw. We're dropping by a favorite restaurant of Steve's to enjoy the local specialties. Gourmet eaters flock to this region for its goose, duck, pates, white asparagus, and more.

[40] From about 18,000 to 10,000 b.c., long before Stonehenge and the pyramids, back when mammoths and saber-toothed cats still roamed the earth, prehistoric people painted deep inside caves in this part of Europe. These are not just crude doodles. They are huge and sophisticated projects executed by artists  and supported by an impressive culture — the Magdalenians.

[41] The region's limestone cliffs — honeycombed with painted caves — are unique on this planet. Tourists gather nearby at Lascaux, home of the region's — and the worlds — most famous cave paintings.

[42] These caves were discovered accidentally in 1940 by four kids and their dog. Over the next couple of decades, about a million people climbed through this prehistoric wonderland inadvertently tracking in fungus on their shoes and changing the temperature and humidity with their breathing. In just 15 years, the precious art deteriorated more than in the 15,000 years before that. The original caves were closed to the public. Visitors can now experience the wonder of Lascaux by touring an adjacent replica.

[43] When their time comes, visitors are called to meet their guide for a look at the precisely copied cave called Lascaux II. 

[44] The guide explains that this 600 animal multi-cave composition was the work of a complex society, the Magdalenian's whose culture allowed for skilled artists to work over an extended period of time in this sacred place.

[45] The region has many more examples of prehistoric cave painting. And the nearby National Museum of Prehistory provides an instructive background.

[47] This modern museum houses over 18,000 bones, stones, and fascinating little doodads — all uncovered locally. Artifacts are originals and show that while the Magdalenian people lived 15,000 years ago, they were far more advanced than your text book cavemen. Skeletons were discovered draped in delicate jewelry. Stag teeth and tiny shells were delicately drilled to be strung into necklaces. These barbed spearheads and fish hooks would work well today. Finely carved spear throwers show impressive realism for something three times as old as the oldest pyramids. Imagine flickering flames from these oil lamps lighting those art-covered caverns. 

[48] Today, as we ponder the prehistoric caves and artifacts of the Magdalenian people here in the Dordogne we can marvel at how much we actually have in common with them and how sophisticated their culture was so long ago.

[49] A short drive south from the Dordogne takes us into the region of Languedoc.

[50] This region's hard fought past and independent spirit is evident in its old fortifications, fine art, and a culture distinct from the rest of France that survives to this day.

[51] The fortified city of Carcassonne is a 13th century world of towers, turrets, and cobblestone alleys. This is Europe's ultimate walled fortress city. While it's packed with tourists mid-day, it's all yours and evocative as can be early and late.

[52] The city's stern ramparts evoke a time when defenses were stronger than offenses...and the only way to beat a place like this was a starve 'em out siege. Charlemagne laid siege to this place...and after several frustrating years, he ran out of patience.

[53] While the outer ramparts seem mighty enough, moats added to a fortified city's defenses. While not really filled with water and alligators, moats were generally just a dangerous no man's land designed to expose attackers. Small square holes on the inner wall once supported timbers which supported defensive walk ways.

[54] Modern shops fill buildings that date from Carcassonne's golden age — the 1100s, when troubadours sang ballads of ideal love, chivalry was in vogue, and a pragmatic spirit of tolerance pervaded everything.  

[55] This became a center of the Cathars — a heretical group of Christians who thrived around here from the 11th through the 13th centuries. Cathars saw life as a battle between good (the spiritual) and bad (the material). The Cathars considered material things evil and of the devil. As France consolidated its central power, it clamped down on feisty regions like this...especially if they were sympathetic to heretical groups like the Cathars.

[56] The region is dotted with evocative and remote castle ruins which provided places of desperate last refuge for Cathars and remind of bloody struggles. When driven out of Carcassonne, many Cathars hid in the nearby castles of Lastours.

[57] Back in Paris, the king of France wanted to consolidate his grip on southern France. In Rome the pope needed to make it clear that the only acceptable Christianity was Roman-style. Both found self-serving reasons to wage a genocidal war against the Cathars, who never amounted to more than 10 percent of the local population. After a terrible period of torture and mass burnings, the Cathars were wiped out. In 1321 the last Cathar was burned.

[58] The Cathars were also called Albigensians — named after this nearby town, Albi. Its massive Roman Catholic cathedral was the final nail in the Cathar coffin. Big and bold, it made the Church's zero tolerance policy towards heretical thinking clear. The cathedral looks less like a church and more like a fortress — on purpose.

[59] The interior looks essentially as it did in 1500 — and its art comes with a stern message. In the Last Judgment Painting, the dead come out of the ground with an accounting of their good and bad deeds printed in ledgers on their chests. The saved look confident and comfortable. And those whose ledgers don't add up look pretty nervous. A wide selection of gruesome punishments awaits the sinners. These were designed to frighten wide-eyed parishioners into conformity with Church dictates.

[60] Next to the church, the former home of Albi's archbishop contains the world's largest collection of art by Henri Toulouse-Lautrec. The museum displays his work chronologically, letting you follow the evolution of his art with his fascinating life's story.

[61] Toulouse-Lautrec, born here in Albi in 1864, was crippled from youth. Because of this, Henri was on the fringe of society, and therefore had an affinity for people who didn't quite fit in.

[62] He made his mark painting the Parisian underclass with an intimacy possible only by someone with his life experience. His subjects were from bars, brothels, and cabarets. Henri was particularly fascinated by cancan dancers — whose legs moved with an agility he'd never experience.

[63] In the 1890s Henri frequented brothels and befriended many prostitutes. He respected the women, feeling both fascination and empathy towards them. The prostitutes accepted Henri as he was. They allowed him into their world...and he sketched candid portraits.

[64] Eventually Toulouse-Lautrec established his unique style: colors — garish, subject matter — hidden worlds, moralism — none.

[66] Toulouse-Lautrec's advertising posters were his bread and butter. He was an innovative advertiser, creating simple, bold lithographic images for posters.

[67] Posters, such as this one advertising the famous Moulin Rouge, established his business reputation in Paris. Successful as he was, his career was short.

[68] Toulouse-Lautrec had a self-destructive lifestyle. He died when he was 37, alcoholic, paranoid, and depressed. He was unmourned and unappreciated by the art establishment. Thankfully his mother and a best friend recognized his genius and saved his work. They first offered it to the Louvre, which refused. Finally, in 1922, the mayor of Albi accepted the collection and hung it here. A wise move.

[69] This corner of France offers a perfect storm of countryside experiences — evocative castles, realy old art, well fed geese, all with a chance to hike through history, savor some rich food, and then work it off with a little exercise.

[70] I hope you've enjoyed our Dordogne adventure — and our quick sidetrip to Languedoc. The more I understand France, the more I appreciate this complex and fascinating culture. Thanks for joining us. I'm Rick Steves. Until next time, keep on traveling. Au revoir.

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