Around the region

The roots of our two regions run deep. Périgord (and Périgueux) take their names from the Celtic tribe that lived here, the Petrocorii. Quercy (and Cahors) get theirs from a neighbouring tribe, the Cadurcii. The French Revolution tried to sweep away the old regional identities, as it chopped the country into homogenous departments named after rivers, but in this area it proved convenient to keep most of the old boundaries. Most of Périgord became the department of the Dordogne, while Quercy was dubbed the Lot. (Both pairs of names remain in common use, which can be a little confusing, especially since part of the River Dordogne flows through the Lot department.) Périgord is one of the biggest departments in France, and it comes in four colours: White, Purple, Green and Black.

Périgord Blanc et Pourpre

White Périgord, the area around Périgueux, is the centre of the department. Périgueux is the biggest and liveliest town in this book, and has a fascinating 2000-year history, a fine museum and just enough ruins and relics to give us a picture of what life in an important Roman provincial city was like.

For the visitor, Périgueux may seem like an oasis in the heart of Périgord Blanc, which is otherwise a hard-working farming region with plenty of corn and sunflowers and ducks, but not much else. For that, there is the area that shares this chapter – Purple Périgord, a land of sunny, vine-covered slopes around the Dordogne Valley that supplies most of the department’s wine.

Bergerac is the centre of the wine trade, and the sailing barges that used to float barrels of wine down to the docks at Bordeaux now take tourists for excursion cruises on the river. Of the many
small wine regions, Monbazillac is a jewel, its pampered and perfect vines draped over the hills beneath a fairytale castle. The southern reaches of Périgord Pourpre were a hotly contested frontier between English and French in the Middle Ages, and to bolster their strength both sides built and settled new towns called ‘bastides’: Eymet, Monpazier and many others. Efficient and modern in the 13th century, today they’re lovely, quaint and full of tourists.
Périgord Vert

Rolling hills covered in chestnut and oak will be the memory you take away from this small region, with sumptuous Renaissance châteaux poking their turrets above the treetops. Green Périgord’s past may be a tale of oppression and troubles, but the greedy barons who lorded it over this land for so long also gave it the gracious, aristocratic air that draws people today.

Brantôme is its centre, a delightful water-girt town in the shadow of the monumental creamy-white abbey where the younger sons of those barons enjoyed their well-endowed leisure. Drive out in any direction from here and you’ll find châteaux nearly as good as those of the Loire: Bourdeilles, Mareuil, Jumilhac, Puyguilhem and best of all Hautefort, where a noble dynasty lived on a scale to rival the kings at Versailles.

Not all the attractions are down to the barons. Périgord Vert is also duck farms and trout streams, Romanesque village churches and any number of good places for country rambles and drives.

Périgord Noir

This is the Périgord that the outside world knows best: black for truffles and dark forests, the heartland of foie gras and all the other dainties granted us by the duck and the goose.

And it draws by far the biggest share of Périgord’s flood of summer tourists. In August, in Sarlat and along the stretch of the Dordogne to its south, you’ll be sleeping in the car and eating peanuts if you haven’t made your bookings well in advance. Sarlat is a wonderfully handsome town, so well preserved that film directors use it to recreate the era of the Musketeers. On the river nearby, castles, fortified villages and châteaux crowd the banks – Beynac, Castelnaud, Les Milandes, Domme – sometimes nearly within bowshot of each other.

Périgord Noir has another river, and this one is just as popular. The Vézère Valley has a unique distinction: it is the home of humankind’s earliest great art, painted or etched on the walls of
Lascaux, Font-de-Gaume, Les Combarelles and the other caves, or carried off to the great museum of prehistory in Les Eyzies. For 40 km, the valley is lined not only with these, but with stalactite caves and fascinating rock fortresses that remained in use for thousands of years, some up until modern times.

Northern Lot

It’s a compact region, but a choice one, with many pretty things packed into a small space. The upper Dordogne, or ‘Dordogne Quercynois’, has as much in common with Périgord as the rest of the Lot, such as the magnificent Renaissance palaces at Montal and Castelnau.

There are only two towns of any size: Souillac, with its Romanesque abbey church, and half-timbered St-Céré. In between there is one tiny, thoroughly charming village after another, each with a rushing stream, a church or a castle and a friendly stone-built inn to take care of your bed and board. There’s a touch of great medieval art at Carennac and Martel, three first-rate caves to visit (Padirac, Presque and Lacave), and any number of exquisite corners where you can sit and dream. One of the best things to do here is just doing nothing at all.

There’s plenty to do at Rocamadour, the Lot’s unabashedly outrageous tourist trap. In an incredible cliff-side setting, the sincere spirituality of a 1000-year-old pilgrimage site often gets drowned out by the host of holiday attractions that has grown up around it, but seen in the right spirit it can be lot of fun.
Lot Valley

The last chapter follows the other big valley end to end: 100 km of lazy river – two or three times this if you could straighten out all the loops and kinks. Right in the middle stands Cahors, a stoutly medieval town with a surprising Italian touch in its old streets, a skyline of elegant towers, 28 secret gardens, a wonderful Saturday market and the most beautiful bridge in France, the Pont Valentré.

Head west, and you’re in Quercy’s big wine region, the land of dark, strong Vin de Cahors. The attractions here are small in scale: pleasant medieval villages such as Puy-l’Evêque, Luzech and Les Arques, frescoed country chapels and the cinematic Château de Bonaguil. The other side of Cahors leads you into a different world altogether: tranquil, beautiful and silent. The rosy cliffs that line the Lot and Célé Valleys provide some of the region’s most dramatic scenery, and the roads on their banks aren’t much wider than when they were towpaths for muleteers. Pech Merle, Quercy’s own Palaeolithic cave, is here, along with the gorgeous, nearly vertical village of St-Cirq-Lapopie. The further you go, the wilder and emptier the valleys get, though they finish with a surprise: an urbane little city graced with the towers and palaces of medieval bankers: Figeac.

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