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

Dordogne canoe trip

You can rent plastic boats — hard, light, and indestructible — from many area outfits. Whether a one-person kayak or a two-person canoe, they're stable enough for beginners, and the only whitewater you'll encounter will be the rare wake of passing tour boats…and your travel partner frothing at the views. Many rental places will pick you up at an agreed-upon spot (even in Sarlat, provided that your group is big enough, and they aren't too busy). All companies let you put in anytime between 9:30 and 16:00 (start no later than 15:00 to allow time to linger when the mood strikes; they'll pick you up at about 18:00). They all charge about the same and most accept cash only. You'll get a life vest and, for a little extra, a watertight bucket in which to store your belongings. Of the region's many canoe companies, only Périgord-Aventure et Loisirs (also called Copeyre Canoë) has a pullout arrangement in Beynac.

Château de Beynac

Beynac's sparsely furnished castle is best for its valley views, but it still manages to evoke a memorable medieval feel. (These castles never had much furniture in any case.) You're free to wander on your own. As you tour the castle, swords, spears, and crossbows keep you honest, and the two stone WCs keep kids entertained. Circling up through the castle, find your way to the highest crenellated terraces for smashing views. Just down the river, mighty Castelnaud — which seems so imposing from up close — looks like a child's playset.

La Roque St-Christophe

These five fascinating terraces carved by the Vézère River are simple to visit: Climb through the one-way circuit, where panels show the medieval buildings that once filled this space. Allow at least 45 minutes for your visit.

Elevage du Bouyssou (foie gras farm)

This 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. Each evening, his wife Nathalie leads a one-hour, kid-friendly tour. You'll meet the goslings, do a little unforced feeding, and hear how every part of the goose (except heads and feet) is used — even feathers (for pillows) — before you step into the dark barn where about a hundred geese await another dinner. They raise and slaughter a thousand geese annually, producing about 1,500 pounds of foie gras — most of which is sold directly to visitors at good prices.

Restaurant La Belle Etoile

Régis is third generation of his family to be chef here and he takes his job seriously. Come for a memorable dinner of classic French cuisine with modern accents in a romantic setting. The oeufs cocottes are, well, really good (book a few days ahead).

Cro-Magnon Cave Paintings

While the cave art here is amazing, it can be a headache to strategize. Delicate caves come with strict restrictions on visitors, and many of them are in out-of-the way locations — making it time-consuming to fit a cave visit into your vacation (allow three hours for a typical visit, including transit time). Certain caves are so restricted that getting in is nigh impossible (such as Grotte de Font-de-Gaume) and others require long visits, French-only tours, and detours to reach. But some caves are easier to plan for and well-worth a traveler's time, provided you come prepared. Procrastinators who arrive in the Dordogne without any reservations can show up and take their chances.

If seeing the very best matters, plan way ahead and try in January to reserve at the best cave: Grotte de Font-de-Gaume. If you don't score an entry here, good alternatives are Rouffignac and Cougnac (no reservations, but you can generally show up and get in without too much of a wait — call ahead to see how busy they are). Abri du Cap Blanc is bookable at the Font-de-Gaume office — but it only has carvings, not paintings. Grotte du Pech Merle is easy to book ahead and has good English descriptions but requires a considerable detour, so it's a good option if you're connecting the Dordogne to Languedoc-Roussillon, Provence, or other points south. Determine which cave(s) best fit into your itinerary.

National Museum of Prehistory

This well-presented museum takes you through prehistory — starting 400,000 years ago — and is good preparation for your cave visits. Appropriately located on a cliff inhabited by humans for 35,000 years, the museum's sleek design is intended to help it blend into the surrounding rock. Inside, the many worthwhile exhibits include videos demonstrating scratched designs, painting techniques, and how spearheads were made. You'll also see full-size models of Cro-Magnon people and animals that stare at racks of arrowheads. Some of the most interesting objects on display include a handheld arrow launcher, a 5,000-year-old flat-bottomed boat made from oak, prehistoric fire pits, amazing cavewoman jewelry, and beautiful rock sculptures of horses.

Châteaux of Lastours

Ten miles north of Carcassonne, these four ruined castles cap a barren hilltop and give drivers a handy look at the region's Cathar castles. The castles, which once surrounded a fortified village, date from the 11th century. The village welcomed Cathars (becoming a bishop's seat at one point) but paid for this tolerance with destruction by French troops in 1227. Everyone should make the short drive to the belvedere for a smashing panorama over the castles (allow at least an hour for a reasonable tour of the castles — wear sturdy walking shoes).

Ste. Cécile Cathedral (Albi)

The cathedral's imposing exterior and the stunning interior drive home the message of the Catholic (read: "universal") Church in a way that would have stuck with any medieval worshipper. This place oozes power — get on board, or get run over.

Toulouse-Lautrec Museum

This museum inside the Palais de la Berbie (once the fortified home of Albi's archbishop) chronologically displays more than 1,000 of Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec's paintings, posters, and sketches.

Script

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


Bonjour, I'm Rick Steves, back with more of the best of Europe. This time we're exploring some of the best of small-town and countryside France. It's the Dordogne River Valley. Thanks for joining us!

The Dordogne River Valley — with its dramatic castles, prehistoric 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.

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.

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 of Lascaux before heading into the Languedoc region, where we'll explore Carcassonne and Albi.

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.

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.

Kayaks and canoes are easy to hire. Rental places line the river, and they're happy to pick you up at an agreed-upon spot downstream.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

Rick: And how old is this house?
Farmer: Cette construction des ans environs 1760.
Steve: 1760 roughly.
Rick: Is it waterproof?
Farmer: Que le ventiler revient ce ...les bois connais la...
Steve: You want these holes that we can see through here so air comes through and helps dry out the tree trunks that are in here — the oak, etc. But it stays dry.
Rick: Do they build roofs like this today?
Steve: Ca c'est toujours fait les contstructions
Farmer: Oui, ...toujours, mais de...
Steve: They do, but it's people, like, with a lot of money who want to do this; 250 years ago this was a poor man's roof. Today it's a rich man's hobby.

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 the English back in the 13- and 1400s — the castle of Beynac was on the front lines. The sparsely furnished castle takes you back. Stone lamps light the way. In the knights' mess hall, you almost feel like the cooks are just taking a break. And even back then there were manners: park your sword at the end of the table.

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.

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

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

Their noble lord would stand here and proclaim "Now, you are French..." or "Now, you are English ... deal with it."

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."

A clever relay of river watchtowers kept an eye out for raiders. When they came, residents gathered up 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.

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.

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 just hate Sarlat), and — in the summer — stuffed with tourists.

Sarlat's elaborate stonework recalls its glory century,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 king with lots of money to rebuild in stone.

Sarlat's new nobility built noble homes to match. The town's most impressive buildings date from this prosperous era, when the Renaissance style was in vogue.

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.

Steve: This has been going on for a thousand years almost, since the Middle Ages.
Rick: What's this region known for, Steve?
Steve: Well, the Dordogne is famous for three things: walnuts cakes and nuts and…
Rick: So this is walnuts…
Steve: That's the walnut table. Truffles which are a mushroom, you'll find only fresh in the winter so you won't see it in the market today. And the biggie, what people come to this area for: foie gras, which is the luxurious liver of force-fed geese and ducks. In fact people come to this area more I think for that than they do the famous caves or the castles or the river. That's kind of the raison d'être of the area, from a culinary perspective.
Rick: …try some, oui, oui, goose liver, OK.
Steve: Which one is best?
Vendor: The best is the one piece of duck liver, or goose liver, one piece.
Steve: So it's pure? Just that.
Rick: Wow, that's good.
Steve: Hmm, let's taste the difference. This should be stronger right?
Vendor: Voilà. Duck is different. Duck is a strong, goose is a sweet.
Steve: Yeah, that's a good description. One strong, one sweet. Do you notice the difference?
Rick: Um hum, um hum.

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.

For generations, the Mazet family has raised geese right here. Nathalie — clearly in love with the 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 pâté...or foie gras.

Nathalie: In the fall we have 1,000 geese each year. And this one are six weeks old. And during the day they are outside and they come back inside during the night. A goose cannot stay in a small box. She will die. She need to walk, she need to eat grass. These birds are migrating and before doing the migration they eat a lot. They make foie gras. They stalk energy on the liver to be able to fly.
Rick: So it's their natural gas tank.
Nathalie: It's the natural way to stock energy, yeah.

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.

Rick: Does this not hurt the geese to put the tube down?
Nathalie: No, no. The tube can go very easily on the top of the stomach because a goose naturally can eat big stone or a big corn on a cob.
Rick: A goose can eat a corn on a cob?
Nathalie: Yes. So the tube is not very big for a goose. To have good foie gras the geese must have good life outside or in during the force-feeding.

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

Waitress: [in French]
Rick: OK.
Waitress: Voilà. Bon appetit monsieurs!
Rick: Thank you, merci. You're going to have to help me. What are — these are three different foie gras, right?
Steve: Welcome to the Dordogne. Alright, you've got three different foie gras here. This one's confit, which is foie gras cooked in its own fat. This, the middle one, they call it confit au torchon, which means it's cooked with, like, a veil of chiffon around it, and the third one is a straight foie gras.
Rick: Oh you know I can taste a difference. There's a real clear difference. I like this very much.

From about 18,000 until 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 weren't just crude doodles, but huge and sophisticated projects executed by artists and supported by an impressive culture — the Magdalenians.

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 world's — most famous cave paintings.

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

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

Guide: Then we are in the Oxen Room, the most spectacular room of Lascaux. It's a sacred place. We don't live in a church; they never lived in the caves. And it's a huge composition — it's a calculated composition because they have taken advantage of the slip of rock to relate in a circle two groups almost facing each other. And in the center of this composition they have united the three principal animals of Lascaux: horse, ox, and deer.
Rick: Is this a hunting scene?
Guide: No it's not a hunting scene because on the walls the hunter doesn't exist. They never tell the everyday life; the meaning is more complex.
Rick: What is the biggest animal?
Guide: This bull is the largest painting in the cave art: 16 feet from the top of the horn to the tip of the tail.

The guide explains that this 600-animal multi-cave composition was the work of a complex society: the Magdalenians. Their culture allowed for skilled artists to work over an extended period of time in this sacred place.

Guide: They fix maybe on the walls a dream, image…and the image will be able to cross generations; the image becomes the memory of the society. The alta fresco is supposed to be around 17,000 years old. But compared to the beginning of the humanity, which was born in Africa three million years ago, Lascaux it was yesterday. They were like us.

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

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 textbook cavemen. Skeletons were discovered draped in delicate jewelry. Stag teeth and tiny shells were, it seems, lovingly drilled to be strung into necklaces. These barbed spearheads and fishhooks 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.

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

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

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

The fortress 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 midday, it's all yours and evocative as can be early and late.

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.

While the 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 walkways.

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.

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

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.

Back in Paris, the king wanted to tighten his grip on southern France. In Rome the pope needed to make it clear there was only one acceptable form of Christianity, and it was Roman. Both found self-serving reasons to wage a genocidal war against the Cathar people, 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.

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 perfectly clear. The cathedral looks less like a church and more like a fortress — on purpose.

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 deeds, both good and bad, 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 graphic scenes were designed to frighten wide-eyed parishioners into conformity with Church dictates.

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 story.

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

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 would never experience.

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

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

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

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

Toulouse-Lautrec had a self-destructive lifestyle. He died at the age of 37, alcoholic, depressed, and paranoid. He was unmourned and unappreciated by the art establishment. But thankfully his mother and a best friend recognized his genius and saved his work. They first offered it to the Louvre, which refused. But in 1922, the mayor of Albi accepted the collection and hung it here — a wise move.

This corner of France offers a perfect storm of countryside experiences: evocative castles, really 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.

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

Credits:

Feel good! Gut? Hey...

This became a center of the Cathars, a heretical group of Christians. A heretical group of Christians.

Rick: It's more complex.
Steve: Did you hear that?

Guide: One here. One here…

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