“Only it seems to me that once in your life before you die you ought to see a country where they don’t talk in English and don’t even want to.” — Thornton Wilder, Our Town.
Our little misstep with Lascaux….forgetting that we had a tour that morning…threw a wrench in our itinerary. But we made a few adjustments and we decided to see all of the sites east of our home base. It was lunchtime and we quickly found ourselves in the little village of Montignac. We found parking behind what looked like a government building, not necessarily clearly public parking, but it was Sunday, there were lots of other cars parked there….so we took a chance. I would say most towns we’ve visited have ample free parking…and if you don’t speak French, the signage can be useless. We usually check a few cars around us to see if they have a parking ticket in the window or a special tag.
Also, by chance, at the edge of the parking lot was a cute bistro with seating right along the bank of the Vezere river. It was crowded (always a good sign) and they had seating, so it seemed serendipitous. Turns out, the place was called Aux Berges de la Vezere, which translates to “The banks of the Vezere”–so they definitely win the award for the most original restaurant name!
At this point on the trip, I had eaten duck, duck and more duck….it was time for a (temporary) break, so we settled on a nice salad with cheese. Maybe not the lightest salad…but it was very tasty. This was also the first time that we tried a white Bergerac wine. New York City imports wine from all over the world, and if they bottle it, you can probably find it in NYC, but I wasn’t really familiar with Bergerac. It’s really unique and delicious…and I will be searching for it upon our return. This was also when Josette discovered the “café gourmand”. We usually end every meal with a little café (espresso) but we learned that the café gourmand means you get your café plus an assortment of little mini desserts which are usually artfully plated. This would become Josette’s “go to” at the end of a meal.
The Tour de France was set to come to this area in the next few days. So all along the roads you saw welcome banners, flags, decorations, painted bicycles, etc. And while you tend to see cyclists all over France, there seemed to be an influx of amateur cyclists riding parts of the Tour route before the actual Tour de France. Actually, I don’t know of too many professional sports where you can use the same facility (in this case, the roads) as the professional athletes. Anyway…our seats at this restaurant were such that on one side we had the river view, and the other side we faced the the parking lot. Part way through our lunch, a group of about 5 or 6 middle aged men (like late 50’s/early 60’s) in cycling gear pulled up to a parked black van, having finished their ride. That was all fine and good. But then, to our horror, they opened up the doors on the back of the van, and one by one, they took turns climbing into the van–with the doors open–and changed out of their gear (and I mean ALL the way out) into street clothes. This may have been a treat if we were the Golden Girls…but I’m not Blanche and Josette is not Dorothy…and unfortunately, we can’t un-see what we saw that day.
Moving right along, with full bellies and visually-assaulted eyes, we drove out of Montignac and headed to Sarlat. The official name of the town is Sarlat le Caneda, but most tour guides call it simply Sarlat. It is arguably one of the larger and most visited towns in the Dordogne and it lies in the Perigord Noir (recall that I explained the difference in Dordogne vs Perigord in an earlier post). The Perigord Noir (Black Perigord) is where tourists find most of the quaint villages, dramatic castles on top of hills, pre-historic cave paintings and caves with stalactites and stalagmites. But what does all of this really mean? Crowds! Sarlat is crowded (relatively speaking). It’s not Florence or Venice crowded…but compared to other towns in the area, there were lots of tourists.
After we found our paid parking up on a hill behind the old part of town, and after Josette used her first hole-in-the-ground toilet at a public restroom, we began to explore the town.
Sarlat has the same sort of history as almost every town we’ve visited…besides pre-historic settlements, the Romans, etc. around the 9th century, an abbey was built which grew over the centuries as did the town surrounding it. In Medieval times, Sarlat grew even larger and eventually became an important market town in the region. Many of the large homes that still survive were built by wealthy merchants during this Medieval era.
Sarlat was heavily damaged and suffered pretty significantly during the Hundred Years War (1337 – 1453), but was able to bounce back at the end of the 16th century. The town benefited from lowered taxes and became a judicial and political hub. This era, the Renaissance, had its own style of architecture–drawing influence from Greek and Roman architecture, and there are many fine examples throughout the town.
We didn’t take any specific tour of the town, but we used a Rick Steve’s guide book as a general map to know where to find certain places, like the cathedral. We basically wandered down the main artery, the Rue de la Republique, which has very narrow little arterial lanes that twist and wind to new discoveries. In a lot of these medieval towns, part of the enjoyment is just getting lost in the mazes and seeing what you can find. These towns are rather small, so eventually you will find your way back.
As we headed towards the Cathedral, we noticed a very odd structure perched up on a hill. Cylindrical and pointed, like a bullet or a stone rocket, but with no obvious purpose. It turns out that it was the 12th century Lantern of the Dead (La lanterne des morts) and is located above the former cemetery of St. Benoit of the Convent of Sarlat. According to all of my research, no one knows for sure what the exact purpose of the lantern is, and there are several similar structures in this particular area of France. The most common theory is that the structures were built near cemeteries as symbolic lanterns–ancient customs included the belief that candles had to be kept near cemeteries…so these structures acted as giant lanterns. They may have also been used in funeral services or even monuments dedicated to Saints. The day we visited, a gentlemen was inside playing classical guitar and the acoustics gave you goosebumps.
From the Lantern of the dead, you can see the rear of the Cathedral and the former cemetery of St. Benoit, the jardin des Enfeus. The cemetery/garden contain Gothic-era sarcophagi and ‘enfeus’, which are tombs built into the wall.
And then just around the corner from the cemetery is the entrance to the Cathedral of St. Sacedrdos. This church, originally built in the 1100’s, began as part of Sarlat’s Cluniac Abbey. In the 1500’s, it was remodeled as it was again in the 1700’s. The oldest existing structures are the belfry and western façade.
No offense to Sarlat, its residents, or St. Sacerdos, but honestly, I think the exterior of the Cathedral is much more impressive than the interior. It is a beautiful structure to be sure, but I think it is better appreciated in context to its surroundings, and the interplay of the scale of the belfry and bulbous towers with the roof lines of the other buildings.
And that was our brief tour of Sarlat. All in all, it is a great size town to visit with an amazing collection of medieval, gothic, and renaissance buildings with many options for eating and shopping, and it is a very walkable city with many of the streets closed to vehicles. We got back into the car and moved on along the country roads to our next stop, Domme.
Domme was not necessarily on our itinerary, and we probably should have allowed more time for it. As we were driving from Sarlat, we saw signs for Domme and upon checking out info from our guide books, it looked worth stopping for.
Domme is considered one of the “prettiest villages in France” and it is known for it’s fortified gates that still stand proudly, 850 feet above the Dordogne River. When this village was founded in the early 1200’s, it was considered impregnable with it’s craggy ramparts following the trapezoidal shape of the hilltop.
The parking can be tricky. There are paid parking lots down below the entrance to the village, outside of the towered gates. You have to hike up a fairly steep road to get to the gate and then it is all uphill from there to get to one of the village squares. So be warned that if you are not in shape, if you have a child with a stroller…are with elderly travelers…consider taking the little white tourist train up the hill or you can risk it and drive through the gates and try to find parking at the top.
Once you make your way up the hillside, you find yourself in the village square where you will find the Notre-Dame de l’Assomption, with its flat bell tower. This church was built in 1622 to replace an earlier church destroyed during the French Wars of Religion. Speaking of which, you should always keep in mind that while many of these French villages are exceedingly lovely and look so peaceful…during the Hundred Year’s War and the subsequent Wars of Religion (1562-1598), they were anything but picture perfect. For Domme, there was perpetual instability… a constant tug of war between the English and the French. For many years this village was controlled by England until the French recaptured it in the 1400’s. And then more volatility for Domme in the Wars of Religion, a 30+ year war fought between the Catholics and the Protestants.
Just down from the church is the Belvédère de la Barre where you are rewarded with an absolutely amazing panoramic view of the Dordogne Valley. This is one of those views that you could savor for hours, and apparently, just under where we were standing were caves that you can visit that have incredible stalactite and stalagmites formations….but I’m not much of a cave person, so even had we known about this, I think we would have skipped it.
As I mentioned before, in hindsight, we should have given more time to Domme, but the weather was being very shifty…one minute the sun would come out, the next, dark clouds would roll in. We didn’t want to be stuck on a hilltop in a storm without any rain gear. I know that we missed seeing more of this beautiful little village, but at least we got a taste of it.
Back down into valley we went….driving along picturesque roads along the Dordogne River. It wasn’t long before we arrived in the tiny cliffside village of La Roque Gageac. Much like Domme, La Roque (as it is called) is another one of France’s “most beautiful villages” (not my proclamation). It is very small (remember that I mentioned that Sarlat is much larger and thus can handle more tourists) and parking was hard to find at first, and then when we did, it wasn’t clear if we had to pay for the parking or not (remember my tip about checking surrounding cars to see if they have a ticket in their window or a special tag).
Surely, the dramatic setting of La Roque on a steep cliffside above the Dordogne is a delight to see. There adorable little houses–like life sized doll houses– mixed in with some more elaborate mansions…all in a striking ochre color. La Roque also enjoys an odd micro-climate that is almost Mediterranean. It has its back to the harsh cool winds and a southern exposure allowing an almost tropical assortment of trees and plants to grow in a garden behind the village (I think this garden was created in the 1970’s).
There isn’t an elaborate history of La Roque for me to share other than that its strategic setting allowed it protection from invading forces like the Vikings…it was the summer vacation spot for the Bishops of Sarlat….and during the Middle Ages, when the population was more than double what it is today, it was a very important trading spot along the river. Lumber was brought out of the forests and sent down to Bordeaux for the making of wine casks, etc. There are flat bottom boats that are replicas of the former shipping boats available for river tours. We really wanted to do this….but there simply wasn’t enough time in the day.
In the picture above, you can see an India Jones-like steep, narrow little wood stair clinging to the side of the cliff. Up until 2010, tourists could climb up the stair to gain an expansive view of the village and the river. However, a series of rock slides occurred, injuring people and structures below and the instability forced local officials to close off access to the cliffs. I like to climb towers…but only when the stair is fully enclosed by walls…so I am all too happy that this stair climb was not an option.
I really don’t want to say anything negative about La Roque, but we had seen the village on a Rick Steve’s Show about the Dordogne and it looked so lovely and we made sure it was a definite stop on our itinerary. But if we thought it such was such a great idea, you can imagine how many other people had the same idea. Also, we happened to be in France during a holiday week when many French families were also sight-seeing…many taking their campers all around this area for the week. So La Roque, as small as it is, seemed very touristy. The cute little structures along the river were mostly trinket vendors, ice cream parlors, pizza places….which is fine, but I suppose we would prefer to see bakeries, cheese shops, wine shops…and a better mix of locals and stores catering to locals.
Our next stop had been on our itinerary all along…Les Jardins (gardens) de Marqueyssac. At some point in researching this trip I came across a photo of these gardens that caught my eye. Insanely shaped bright green boxwoods groomed into varying-sized circles and undulating shapes….I knew that we had to see this in person.
The gardens surround the Chateau de Marquessac, built in the late 1600’s by Bertrand Vernet de Marqueyssac. I’m not necessarily inclined to believe this, but the original garden design is said to be the work of a pupil of Andre Le Nôtre, the man responsible for designing the gardens at the Palace of Versailles. But it was actually a later descendant, Julien de Lavergne of Cerval, who inhabited the Chateau in the 1800’s that would go on to transform the gardens, including the fantastical boxwoods. And finally, in 1996, Kléber Rossillon oversaw a complete restoration of the gardens to incorporate all eras of the garden’s metamorphosis from wild hilltop to manicured fantasy.
It had been a great day so far, and we had seen so many incredible places, but we were getting pretty tired. Remember that we started all the way back with breakfast at the B&B naively unaware that we were scheduled for a tour of Lascaux (see previous post)! Our feet were pretty tired from all of the climbing….and I failed to mention that Les Jardins de Marqueyssac are very vertical….and to reach the top of the garden was quite a climb.
We saved the best for last. Just down the road from La Roque is Beynac….another cliffside town from the Middle Ages. It was probably about 5:30PM, so the vast majority of tourists were gone for the day. The public parking lot was virtually empty (and free). My fellow traveler was a little less pumped about Beynac as I was. I sort of told a fib and said that “if we just walk a little ways up into the village, take a few photos, etc…that we could come back down and eat an early dinner”. But once we started up the hill, it was just too beautiful to turn around.
The Chateau (Castle) at the top of the hill, perched on a cliff, is the Chateau de Beynac. At this point, I don’t want to beat a dead horse with the history of these Dordogne hill-clinging towns. I’m sure you can guess that this was a fortified village…at the top of the village, walls, gates and double moats sealed off the castle. The town benefited from its natural strategic position–it was physically very difficult to penetrate. And Beynac prospered by being along the Dordogne River trade route. And as with most Dorgogne villages, it saw a lot of action in the Hundred Year’s War…in fact, this castle faced its rival English castle just across the river. But I will point out that this castle, for the most part, (Richard the Lion Heart briefly took it over for the English) stayed in French hands. The Lords of Beynac held the castle until the 1960’s, in fact.
At some point, my wife was cursing me out and threatening me with bodily harm for making her walk up to the Chateau. Admittedly, it was very steep and the cobble stones are quite tricky to walk on…I twisted my ankle a few times. But I kept encouraging (lying to) her by reminding her of that rewarding view that we would get!
But the view from just below the Chateau was truly beautiful. It looks cloudy in the picture above, but the light was so painterly that evening.
I can’t exactly say what it was about Beynac that captured me…but it was probably just the fact that there were very few other tourists and you could lose yourself in the moment and it felt like you had stepped back into another time. It was by far my favorite village of the day. And as cheesy as it may sound, it was a magical evening and no better way to end a long day of exploring the Dordogne.
We were too exhausted for a fussy, long meal. We drove back into Trémolat and found a little pizza restaurant across from the church. Simple, delicious food (pizza with french cheese) and wine. And the end to another wonderful day in France.
Tomorrow is our last day in the Dordogne and it will end with dinner at Le Vieux Logis, a Michelen star restaurant!