Fantastic French Vacation – Part4 Dordogne

Tall building in the middle is Maison D’Etienne De La Boetie- Built in 1525 by father of poet D’Etienne De La Boetie

Driving through France using a GPS system to navigate, we covered many miles on highways but also went through a lot of back roads. Going through the back road was more interesting for it put us into close encounter with various opportunities, a little village, a vast wheat field, an orchard, a paddock, an unexpected landmark or friendly locals.

Ten minutes out of Nohant on D51 and on route to Dordogne, a formidable, seemingly medieval castle loomed ahead on left side of the quiet road. We pulled over for a better look and to take photos. The castle towers over a large green field, where cows and horses were grazing or ambling, and dwarfs all things around. Impressed and curious, I accosted a small group of sprightly elders who, carrying small backpacks and traveling by foot, had caught up with us. And luckily, one of them spoke English eloquently and was more than willing to chat. That striking structure is Chateau de Sarzay and one of the destinations of their journey, a pilgrimage to visit fifty plus sites in France.

Chateau de Sarzay

Less known than the other mainstream tourist destinations, Dordogne is a hidden gem deep in the forest of south France. It first came to my attention as the shooting location of Ever After. As featured in the movie, its countryside scenery of rivers and lush green, farmlands, manors, chateaus and old towns exudes charming appeal. A little research subsequently cemented its place on my itinerary.

Dordgone and Lot region, correspond to what was traditionally known as Perigord – Quercy region, is prodigiously rich in culinary delights, Bergerac wines, walnut oil, wild mushrooms and treasured truffles, country ham, gourmet duck dishes and foie gras, duck liver paste deeply loved by the locals. It was here in Dordogne, at Le Bistrot in Sarlat, we had the most pleasurable dinner, a three course meal where among others luscious Pecharmant accompanied tasted veal and confit de canard, duck leg that was fried to perfection, its inside tender and its outside golden brown and crispy without a burnt bit. Whatever the secret, everything was heavenly delicious. It was here at Sarlat’s Saturday market that I was offered to sample Huile d’Noix a la Truffle, walnut oil with hint of truffle, and was completely intoxicated by its heavenly aroma.

A place where time seems to have stood still, Dordogne is profoundly rich in its history. It seems that very town has preserved a historic or prehistoric miracle. Sarlat’s medieval town is incredibly beautiful, over Dordogne River feudal castle Beynac and Chateau de Castelnaud perch atop rugged limestone rocks, Le Eyzies and Vezere River are home to multiple prehistoric caves, including Lascaux where 25,000 year old paintings were discovered. While Lascaux has been closed as a protection measure but a precise replica has been open as Lascaux II.

Dordogne could have easy filled our entire two weeks and the one day visit to Sarlat, Grotte du Roc and Beynac has only whetted our appetite for more. Hopefully I’ll return soon.

Les Eyzies

There are several prehistoric caves open to the public in the Dordogne and Lot region, Grotte du Grand Roc, Gouffre de Padirac, Abri de Laugerie Basse, Le Pech Merle, Grotte de Lacaux II and Le Thot. We visited Grotte du Grand Roc, a stunning, millions year old cave of stalactites and stalagmites, and Abri de Laugerie Basse, a marvelous rock formation that sheltered humans in the prehistory time. Both are located right outside of Les Eyzies, which was conveniently on our way to Sarlat. Les Eyzie is also home to National Museum of Prehistory housed in a 13th century castle, outside which the gigantic statue of a Neanderthal man stands guard.

A Chateau 15 minutes before reaching Les Eyzie

A flock of ducks just off the road

Grand Roc – A rocky cliff where Grotte du Grand Roc and Abri de Laugerie Basse are situated

Abri de Laugerie Basse

View of Vezere valley from the entrance to Grotte du Grand Roc

Stalactites and stalagmites’ of Grotte du Grand Roc

National Museum of Prehistory and its Neanderthal sentinel stand above the street level buildings in Les Eyzies town center

Sarlat

The former Perigord province includes four areas colorfully named based on geographic traits and/or agricultural specialties. Black Perigood is rich in its truffle and walnut forest, White Perigord is the grazing ground of veal herds, Green Perigord is famous for its green farmlands and Purple Perigord is home to grape vineyards that produce the famed Bergerac and Monbazillac wines. Sarlat is located in Black Perigord.

The old rampart, which had bounded and protected Sarlat for centuriies, is mostly lost and Sarlat has expanded beyond its old town. Historic Sarlat however stands as it was in the 14th century and remains the heart and primary attraction of Sarlat.

In place of the old city wall, Blvd. Henry Arlet on the east, Blvd. Mesmann on the north, Blvd. Eygene le Roy on the west and Blvd. Voltare on the south surround Sarlat’s historic town, which is mostly car free with the exception of Rue de la Republique, being the widest road in the old town and stretching straightly through dividing it into the western and eastern halves.

We arrived around 6:30PM on Friday under cloudy sky and occasional light sprinkle. And after circling about a couple of times and going through some very daunting intersections, like that one on corner of Blvd. Nesmann and Blvd. Henry Arlet where six or seven streets converge, we located Rue Montaigne, on which La Lanterne, a bed and breakfast that we stayed at, is located. Not knowing we could drive down Rue Montaigne and unload before berthing our car for the night, we parked on Blvd. Henry Arlet near Rue Montaigne and hauled our luggage down. But merely one hundred meters to manage, it wasn’t too bad at all. Parking is to be paid at meters nearby but free after 9PM.

La Lanterne, being in the old town and close to Blvd. Henry Arlet, is very convenient. An iron barred portion on its arch, oversize, wooden French door remains open most of the day revealing a small but pretty courtyard. At time of booking, Wisteria room located on the back of the house looking out to walls of other houses was the only one available. When we arrived, La Lanterne room located on the front of the house looking out to the courtyard and the La Lanterne tower was available as well due to a cancellation and eyeing our luggage, Terri, the inn keeper, considerately offered us the option to switch since La Lanterne room is larger. We gladly accepted.

Rue Montaigne is a small street sloping down to the town center. A few paces past La Lanterne hotel, the slope become a deeper drop and walls lining the street end. As we came to this point, the prospect suddenly opened up and a sea of beautiful honey tone stone buildings, including a large building on the left that must be a church, reminiscent of images of a bygone world, emerge in front of our eyes. I froze and gaped at the mesmerizing sight. Some moments later, I simply followed the impetus that propelled me forward. It was sprinkling and although the restaurants were busy, most shops were closed and not many people were seen on the streets. It was pure joy to wander through Sarlat’s stone paved streets, narrow passages and squares tiny in comparison to others I had seen and to admire a mansion, a house, a street lamp and its bracket, French doors of various sizes and shape, a wrought iron balcony and a tiny tower hanging in the air out the corner of a building. It is a miracle such a town as Sarlat has withstood all vicissitudes and been beautifully preserved.

On Rue Montaigne looking toward town center

Cathedral St. Sacerdos

Tall building in the middle is Maison D’Etienne De La Boetie- Built in 1525 by father of poet D’Etienne De La Boetie

The dish of Confit de Canard with sides of potato, mushroom and French beans and green salad that brought me decadent pleasure

Fresh market is the primary mean for the French to purchase groceries and produce. As a small talk over breakfast with Mr. Bowen, inn keeper, revealed, locals don’t buy a week’s worth of food and store them in the fridge like we Americans do, they buy food fresh daily or at most 2 or 3 days ahead. Being there on Saturday, we were in luck, for Saturday is one of the market days and Sarlat market is an event not to be missed. The fresh market starts from the eastern end of Rue Fenelon and continues through Place de La Liberte, Rue de La Liberte, Place du Peyrou and a few side streets. The variety of goods showed up on the market was amazingly rich, seafood, meat and sausages, cheese, olives, Foie Gras, pastry, flowers, fruits, veggies, so on and on. On Rue de la Republique is another market, of clothing, accessories, souvenirs and many more. During the market, rain came and heavy at intervals but our enthusiasm was not to be damped. Borrowing covers from merchants’ large umbrellas, some indoor stores and an indoor market, we navigated through without getting wet too much. Two hours later, rain stopped, the sky cleared up to gorgeous blue and white and we were able to leisurely finish our walking tour throughout the town.

Fruits

Meats

Market at Place de La Liberte

Former Palace of Justice now a restaurant on Rue Presidial

A pretty corner

Back of Cathedral St. Sacerdos

La Lantern behind Cathedral St. Sacerdos

Turret in the air

A decorated entrance

Beynac

Beynac is a small town set by the north bank of Dordogne River, a short 30 minutes south of Sarlat. The crown jewel of the village is Chateau de Beynac, an imposing fortress built on a rugged limestone rock towering over the river, village and all things around. The history of Beynac is a legendary tale that is linked to historic figure like English king Richard 1st, also know as the Lionheart, who captured it in 1189 and kept it till he was killed during the siege of Chalus. Dordogne River was once the demarcation mark of French and English control and Beynac has witnessed many battles and changes over the centuries. The castle standing today incorporated elements from different time periods. Although not fully restored, the castle is plainly indicative of its former glory and grandeur but most impressive are its location and the spectacular view of Dordogne River, rolling hills and castles on opposite side of the river including its long time rivalry Chateau de Castelnaud.

There are two ways to reach Beynac. Access it from the river side and take a 15 minute walk up or driving to the north of village and take a shorter walk. I preferred the walk up from the river side for the views on the way up.

Chateau de Beynac from the north

Chateau de Beynac from the south

Main entrance to the castle

View from the castle looking to the east

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