Castles and caves - and six more reasons you'll love France's Dordogne region


True confessions: I am a Francophile.

While Americans are fond of denigrating the French, citing their haughty waiters, their enduring disdain for foreigners, and their apparent physical inability to pick up their dog droppings, I remain an admirer of nearly all-things-French.

It likely started with my dear French-Canadian grandmother who spoke a smattering of French to us as kids. I fell in love with the language - although, a half century later, I've yet to become fluent. C'est la vie. But I'm still trying, and to do so it is necessary for me to continue to vacation in France. Quelle horreur!

My latest visit was to the Dordogne region in the southwest of France. DO NOT hesitate to include this area in your French vacation plans. Here are eight reasons why:

You're not in Paris

Don't get me wrong: Paris is not to be missed. It is arguably - in my view, INarguably - the most beautiful city in the world. But in its big-cityness, you may experience some of the brusqueness and indifference that all metropolises are known for. The Dordogne, with its tiny villages and hamlets, is the antidote for all of that Big City Hubris.

The Dordogne region oozes history

Like most of France, there is no end to the history lessons you'll learn here. Two time periods stand out for the Dordogne: The Hundred Years' War and the Cro-Magnon period (see "Prehistoric cave art" below).

For a fun introduction to the former, watch the movie Timeline before you go. While it was apparently a box office bomb, its storyline of French versus British squabbles along the Dordogne may provide you with a historical (and romantic) context as you walk along the river or climb cobblestoned streets to view centuries-old chateaux.

Castles galore

Photo by Marie Sherlock

Many, many tourists head to the Loire Valley for their French Castle Fix. And those castles do not disappoint. They are huge, beautiful and, truly, over-the-top ostentatious.

But the castles along the Dordogne River are much older and, IMHO, more authentic. Unlike their Loire Valley counterparts, which were primarily "summer homes" for French nobility during the 16th and 17th centuries, the Dordogne castles were actually used as fortifications against enemies - most had starring roles in the Hundred Years' War between France and England. My favorite is the castle at Beynac, a 12th century stronghold that exudes real, authentic castle history.

'The most beautiful villages of France'

Photo by Marie Sherlock

In 1982 a group of mayors from small French towns formed an association that selects the most enchanting villages in the country, with a goal of preserving these national gems. That alliance, Les plus beaux villages de France ("The most beautiful villages of France"), now includes 155 towns nationwide. The Dordogne region boasts about a dozen of these enchanting, honey-let's-retire-here hamlets.

Beautiful Beynac


Photo by Marie Sherlock

My favorite of "les plus beaux villages" in the Dordogne is Beynac-et-Cazenac, which sits on the Dordogne River in the shadow of the Chateau de Beynac. This postcard-perfect village might be the quintessential French town. I hummed the theme from Beauty and the Beast while strolling its whimsical, cobblestoned lanes.

Sensational food

The Dordogne region is renowned for its food. Its specialties include foie gras (goose liver), walnuts and truffles as well as confit de canard (duck meat preserved in its own fat). I fell under the spell of all of these delicacies but, particularly, the region's uber-sweet strawberries.

The market at Sarlat

Photo by Marie Sherlock

You can purchase just about anything your heart desires at this extensive, entertaining street fair. Local foods are highlighted along with vendors peddling paintings, wines, clothing, souvenirs and beyond.

Prehistoric cave art

As if romantic castles, gourmet food and enchanting villages were not enough, the Dordogne also boasts the world's most famous cave painting destination, Lascaux, along with half a dozen other sites where the public can view amazing prehistoric art. The original Lascaux caves, which date back approximately 17,000 years, were closed in 1963 when the paintings began to deteriorate. A painstakingly authentic copy of the original caves was created, opening in 1983, called Lascaux II.

I dutifully stood in the rain for what seemed like hours to garner hard-to-get tickets to Grotte de Font de Gaume, the last Dordogne cave with polychromatic art still open to the public. To preserve the art at Font de Gaume (not wanting a Lascaux deja vu) group size is limited to 12 and lighting is dim. It's an otherworldly and humbling experience, well worth the wait and the cost.

Marie Sherlock, a writer and editor from Portland, Oregon, is busy planning her next trip to France.