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ITINERARY AS EXCERPTED FROM KAREN BROWN’S E-BOOK:
The lazy Dordogne and Lot rivers wind gracefully through some of France’s most picturesque countryside past villages dressed with grand castles, through peaceful meadows dotted with farms, beneath towering cliffs, and into pretty woodlands. However, this itinerary is more than just traveling along river valleys, for the region is France’s prehistoric capital: the Cro-Magnon skull was discovered at Les Eyzies; colorful 15,000-year-old paintings decorate the Lascaux, Font de Gaume, and Les Combarelles caves; and man occupied the terraces on the cliffside of La Roque Saint Christophe as long ago as 70,000 B.C. Visit Rocamadour, an ancient village that tumbles down a rocky canyon, and Conques, a medieval village on a dramatic hillside site.
Recommended Pacing: You could happily spend a couple of weeks in the Dordogne, venturing along the river valley then adding unscheduled meanderings up little side roads to country villages. For the purposes of this itinerary, an efficient pacing would be to base yourself a night or two in the northern region, two to three nights close to the river itself (more if you make reservations at several of the caves), a night or two near Rocamadour, (using Rocamadour as a base for the journey to Turenne for a daytrip loop), and then continue south to the River Lot where you will need two nights to explore this lovely river valley and include a visit to the hillside village of Conques at its eastern boundary.
In the northern region of the Dordogne, Brantôme is a delightful little town on the banks of the River Dronne with narrow winding streets and a riverside park that leads you across the famous 16th-century elbow bridge to the old abbey, nestled at the foot of a rocky cliff. Founded by Charlemagne in 769, the abbey was reconstructed in the 11th century after it was ransacked by the Normans. The church and adjoining buildings were constructed and modified between the 14th and 18th centuries.
Follow the River Dronne for 10 kilometers on the D78 into the very pretty village of Bourdeilles. A little bridge takes you across the river to its 12th-century castle which the English and French squabbled about for years. From Bourdeilles country roads direct you to the D939 and on to Périgueux.
Périgueux changed allies twice in the 100 Years’ War, eventually opting for France. It’s a pleasant, large market town with an interesting domed cathedral resplendent with little turrets. From Périgueux follow signposts towards Brive (D47) and at Thenon take the D67 to Montignac (40 kilometers).
Montignac is a popular tourist town because on its outskirts are the wondrous Lascaux Caves with their magnificent 15,000-year-old paintings. In 1963 these caves were closed to the public because the paintings were being damaged by the rise and fall in temperature as hordes of visitors came and went. It took ten years to construct an exact replica-Lascaux II. Except for the even, non-slip floor you will not know that you are not in the real Lascaux. The bulls, bison, and stags appear to be moving around the cave-so skillfully did the artists utilize every feature of the rocks that bumps appear as humps, cheekbones, and haunches. In July and August the quota of 2,000 tickets a day go on sale at 9 am at the Syndicat d’Initiative (Tourist Office) in Montignac. Tickets are not available in advance. For the rest of the year tickets are sold at the site on a first come, first served basis, so you may arrive at 11 am and find that you are offered a 4 pm tour. Tours are given in English and French.
Leaving Lascaux II, watch for signs that will direct you to Le Thot along the D65. The admission ticket for Lascaux includes admission to Le Thot where you can see a film of the building of Lascaux II and displays of large photos of the many prehistoric paintings found in caves in the valley. The grounds also have a park and a re-creation of a prehistoric village.
Leaving Le Thot, follow signposts for La Roque Saint Christophe. As the road winds by the river, a sheer cliff rises to a deep natural terrace before continuing upwards. As long ago as 70,000 B.C. man took advantage of this natural terrace for shelter and by medieval times it was home to over 1,000 people. The thousands of niches that you see today were used to hold up supporting beams for the houses and the rings you see carved into the rock were used to hang lamps and to tether animals. (Open all year, tel: 05.53.50.70.45.)
Following the winding River Vézère, the D706 brings you into Les Eyzies de Tayac. The caves in the cliff that towers above the town were home to prehistoric man who took shelter here during the second Ice Age. People lived here for tens of thousands of years. Archaeologists have uncovered flints, pottery, jewelry, and skeletons that have been identified as those of Cro-Magnon man found in the cave behind the hotel of the same name. Visit the Musée National de la Préhistoire in the 11th-century castle set high on the cliff beneath the overhanging rock, guarded by the gigantic sculpture of Cro-Magnon man. (Open all year, tel: 05.53.06.45.45.) Fax: 05.53.06.45.
Nearby, the Font de Gaume cave has prehistoric wall paintings of horses, bison, mammoths, and reindeer with colors still so rich that it is hard to comprehend the actual passage of time. The caves are a bit damp and dark and entail a steep 400-meter climb to reach the entrance. The grotto is deep, winding, and narrow in parts. There are some 230 drawings, of which about 30 are presented and discussed. Displayed in three tiers, some drawings are marred by graffiti, others are not clearly visible as the walls tower above the floor of the cave. Entrance is limited to 200 people per day but you can make reservations in advance by calling the tourist office in Les Eyzies (tel: 05.53.06.97.05, fax: 05.53.06.90.79). There is a small additional charge for advance booking. With the closure of more caves each year, it is uncertain how much longer the opportunity to visit Font de Gaume will continue. (Open all year.)
A short distance from Font de Guam is Les Combarelles, a cave discovered in 1901. The entrance is about a 100-meter (level) walk from the car park. The cave is a winding passage with engravings of mammoth, ibex, bears, reindeer, bison, and horses-and man in the last 70 meters. Entrance is limited to 140 visitors per day and the cave is closed every Wednesday. Advance booking and hours of opening are identical to Font de Gaume.
From Les Eyzies follow the scenic D706 to Château de Campagne sitting behind padlocked gates. From Campagne take the pretty D35 to Saint Cyprien, an attractive town just a short distance from the Dordogne. It has more shops and cafés than most small towns in the valley, making it an appealing and interesting place to break your journey.
Through pretty countryside follow the Dordogne river valley, just out of sight of the river. As you approach Beynac et Cazenac, you are presented with a lovely picture of a small village huddled beneath a cliff crowned by a 12th-century fortress before a broad sweep of the Dordogne. The castle, while its furnishings are sparse, is well worth visiting for the spectacular views. (Open all year.) On the water’s edge is Hôtel Bonnet, recommended not for its accommodation, but as a scenic and excellent choice for lunch under vine-covered trellises.
Have your cameras ready as you approach La Roque Gageac. The town, clinging to the hillside above the River Dordogne and framed by lacy trees, is a photographer’s dream. There’s a grassy area on the riverbank with a few picnic tables and an inviting path, following the curves of the river, tempts you farther.
Just upstream, cross the bridge and climb the hill to Domme, a medieval walled village that has for centuries stood guard high above the river and commanded a magnificent panorama. The town itself is enchanting, with ramparts that date from the 13th century and narrow streets that wind through its old quarter and past a lovely 14th-century Hôtel de Ville. At the town center under the old market place, you find access to some interesting stalactite and stalagmite grottos. However, most visitors come to Domme for its spectacular views-the best vantage point is from the Terrasse de la Barre.
Because it is more scenic on the north side of the river, retrace your steps across the bridge and continue downriver on the D703 to Château de Montfort, a majestic castle shadowing a wide loop in the river. Built by one of the region’s most powerful barons, this intimate, restored castle, furnished like a private residence, rises out of a rocky ledge. The Cingle de Montfort offers some delightful views of the river. When the D703 intersects with the D704, take a short detour north to the city of Sarlat. Sarlat has a delightful old quarter with narrow cobbled streets that wind through a maze of magnificent gourmet shops. The church and the Episcopal palace create a roomy space along the narrow bustling streets. Sarlat bustles with activity and color on market day.
After visiting Sarlat, return to the banks of the Dordogne and continue east once again along its shore, this time in the direction of Souillac. When the D703 reaches this lovely riverside town, travel south following the N20 in the direction of Cahors. As you leave houses behind you, turn left on the D43 (rather than crossing the river) and begin a very picturesque stretch of the valley. As you cross a single-lane wooden bridge spanning the Dordogne, take note of the picture-postcard Château de la Treyne, one of our favorite hotels in the region, perched above the riverbank. Lacave is also known for some spectacular geological formations in its caves, which you can tour on a diminutive train. As you climb out of Lacave towards Rocamadour, the fields are filled with bustling geese being fattened for foie gras and you get a picturesque view of a castle sitting high above the distant Dordogne. A scenic country road winds to where the ground disappears into an abyss and the village of Rocamadour tumbles down the narrow canyon.
Our preference is to park in the large car park adjacent to the castle, but if it is full, head for the valley floor and park in one of the grassy car parks. A stairway leads down, from beside the castle to the chapels, houses, and narrow streets that cling precipitously to the rock face, to the little chapels and the large basilica that incorporates the cliff face as one wall of the building. From the 12th century onwards Rocamadour was a popular pilgrimage site. There are lots of tourist shops and, thankfully, cafés providing a spot to sit and rest after climbing up and down the staircases. If steep climbs are not for you, buy a ticket on the elevator that goes up and down the hillside. From Rocamadour you can either travel directly on to the Lot river valley to the south or take a scenic detour of approximately 100 kilometers north to some enchanting and picturesque villages.
For a scenic loop north from Rocamadour travel east on D673 for just 4 kilometers, cross the N140, continue on D673 as it winds through the village of Alvignac, and then travel on to Padirac.
At Padirac, detour off on the D90 to Gouffre de Padirac. A gouffre is a great opening in the ground, and this wide circular chimney of Padirac was formed by the roof of a cave falling in. This impressive grotto leads over 100 meters underground to a mysterious river where the visitor can negotiate a stretch of some 500 meters by boat to discover the sparkling Lac de la Pluie (Lake of Rain) and its huge stalactite in the immense Great Dome room with its vault rising up 90 meters. The roof lies quite near the surface and it is almost inevitable that it too will one day collapse to form another chasm. (Open Apr to Oct. Allow approximately 1½ hours for a guided tour, tel: 05.65.33.64.56.)
Retrace your trail back to Padirac and then wind along the D38 traveling east and then north in the direction of Autoire. This scenic drive winds down a hill to reveal the beautiful village of Autoire set in a rich green valley shadowed by majestic, towering limestone cliffs. Autoire is lovely with its old stone houses topped with slate roofs clustering together along the narrow alleyways. Windowboxes overflow with flowers to provide a profusion of color against the mellowed stone of the buildings.
From Autoire, travel the few short kilometers to the picturesque village of Loubressac. Crowning the mountaintop, Loubressac appears dramatically on the horizon-another charming village, with a picturesque main square.
From Loubressac you enjoy gorgeous views across the river valley to the medieval fortress of Château de Castelnau on the opposite bank in the town of Bretenoux. Impressive from a distance, the long façade of the fortress dominates the village skyline. Colored in the rusty red of the regional rock, the castle is remarkably preserved and impressive from the massive wooden portal to splendid interior furnishings. (Open all year, closed Tues Oct to Mar, tel: 05.65.10.98.00.) Crossing back to Loubressac, wind down to the river and then detour east to the Renaissance Château de Montal. The château is beautifully furnished and definitely worth a visit. (Open Easter to Nov, closed Sat, tel: 05.65.38.13.72.)
From the Château de Montal, it is a short distance farther on to the pretty market town of Saint Céré whose square comes alive and is particularly colorful when the commodity for sale is livestock. Worthy of a visit on the outskirts of Saint Céré in Le Tours de Saint Laurent is a tapestry museum, the Atelier Musée Jean Lurçat. (Open mid-Jul to Oct, telephone number for the tourist office in Saint Céré: 05.65.38.11.85.)
From Saint Céré journey back along the D30, once again following the path of the Dordogne to the pretty village of Carennac, set just above the river. This idyllic little village is even more picturesque because of the river that weaves through it, in the shadow of the lovely old timbered homes and a handsome church sheltered behind an arched entry.
From Carennac, cross the river and travel north to Turenne. This charming, picturesque village is surrounded by a patchwork of farmland. Narrow, cobbled streets wind steeply up to a crowning church and castle. (Open Apr to Oct.) Views from the top of the castle are very peaceful and pretty.
From Turenne, according to the map, there is a road that appears to cross almost directly over to Collonges la Rouge (the D150 to connect with the D38, just 5 kilometers west of Collonges) but it is extremely difficult to find-I never discovered how to access it from Turenne. It might prove easier, as I found, to detour north on the D8 to just north of Monplaisir and then turn east on the D38 and on to Collonges la Rouge, a lovely village favored by local artisans, with cobbled streets winding through a maze of stone buildings all rich in a hue of burnt red. Probably the regional town most geared for tourists, it has a number of interesting craft shops to tempt you indoors. Collonges la Rouge is most beautiful on a clear day when the sun washes the stone in a rich, warm red against a backdrop of blue.
From Collonges la Rouge, return west on the D38 in the direction of Brive; and then just past Maranzat, jog south on the D8 and then almost immediately west on the D158 to Noailles and the junction of N20. Traveling south on the N20 at the town of Payrac, you will pass the junction of D673 which travels the rocky valley east to Rocamadour where you begin this scenic northern loop. From Payrac it is another 50 kilometers on to Cahors and the magical Lot River Valley.
Although it appears to be a large city, Cahors, in reality, is an enchanting, medieval city set on the bend of the River Lot. I would definitely recommend that you take time to venture into the city. Embraced by the banks of the river the city is famous for its architectural richness: the dramatic Pont Valentre Bridge built in the 14th century, the Arc de Diane, a remnant of a vast Gallo-Roman thermal establishment, the Saint Etienne Cathedral from the 11th and 12th centuries, the tower of Pope John XXII, and the Saint Barthelemy Church. Not to be missed at the heart of the city is the old core with its houses, mansions, gates, lanes and squares. There are lots of restaurants, sidewalk cafes and interesting shops. With lots of character and a quiet pace, this is a city to explore on foot, or take advantage of the bike paths that follow the banks of the river Lot. Cahors serves as an excellent focal point for exploring the region and sampling its wonderful wines.
A destination in its own right, and dramatic in terms of a landmark, just a few kilometers west from Cahors, towering over the river is a magnificent château-hotel, the Château de Mercuès.
From the outskirts of Cahors travel east, following signposts for Figeac along the north bank of the river. This portion of the Lot River Valley can be driven in half a day on roads that wind along a riverbank that is narrower and quieter than that of the Dordogne. The River Lot winds along the curves of the wide canyon, cutting into its chalky walls. At some stretches the route follows the level of the river and at others it straddles the clifftops. Vistas are dramatic at every turn although the restricting narrow roads will frustrate the eye of any photographer because there is rarely a place to stop.
Cross the river at Bouziès and take a moment to look back across the bridge and see the medieval buildings constructed into the walls of the canyon above the small tunnel. This is also the departure point for many boat trips as evidenced by the many tethered rental boats. Just outside Bouzies, the road (D40) climbs and winds precipitously to the top of the cliff and rounding a bend, you find Saint Cirq Lapopie clinging precipitously to the sheer canyon walls and cascading back down towards the river. Drive around the village to one of the car parks and walk back up the hill to explore. Many of the buildings have been restored and only a few of the houses are lived in. It’s most enjoyable to wander the quiet streets without being overwhelmed by tourist shops.
Travel down to the Lot and cross to its northernmost bank. As the river guides you farther, it presents a number of lovely towns and with each turn reveals another angle and view of the valley. La Toulzanie is a small, pretty village nestled into a bend of the river, interesting because of its houses built into the limestone cliffs. Calvignac is an ancient village clinging to the top of the cliff on the opposite bank. At Cajarc be careful to keep to the river road (D662). A short drive brings you to the village of Montbrun, a village that rises in tiers on jutting rock by steep cliffs. It looks down on the Lot, up at its ruined castle, and across the river to Saut de la Mounine (Jump of the Monkey). Legend recalls that to punish his daughter for falling in love with the son of a rival baron, a father ordered daughter to be thrown from the cliffs. A monkey was dressed in her clothes and thrown to its death instead. Father, regretting his harsh judgment, was overcome with joy when he discovered the substitution. Set on a plateau, the Château de Larroque Toirac is open to visitors and makes an impressive silhouette against the chalky cliffs and the village of Saint Pierre Toirac.
Less than 10 kilometers to the north of the Lot on the River Célé is the larger market town of Figeac. A wonderful example of 12th-century architecture, Figeac is an attractive river town and it is fun to explore the shops along its cobbled streets and alleyways.
Continue on to Conques, a bonus to this itinerary that requires that you journey farther along the winding Lot (on the N140 signposted Decazeville and then D963 and D42 signposted Entraygues). The route weaves through some beautiful farmland and attractive little villages. At La Vinzelle leave the Lot river valley and climb up the D901 to Conques, a tiny medieval town on a dramatic hillside site. Tucked a considerable distance off the beaten track, it is a delightful, unspoiled village that was once an important pilgrimage stop on the way to Santiago de Compostela in Spain.
Conques’s pride is its 11th-century Abbaye Sainte Foy whose simple rounded arches give it the look of a Gothic cathedral. The carving of the Last Judgment in a semi-circle over the central door shows 124 characters-the grimacing devils and tortured souls are far more amusing than the somber few who are selected to go to heaven. The abbey’s treasure is the 10th-century Sainte Foy reliquary, a statue sheathed in gold leaf and decorated with precious stones.
If time allows, linger in the town into early evening, when evening light plays on the wonderful old stone and cobbled streets. It is magical to hear the melodious bells as their sound echoes through the town.