Everywhere you look there are great castles and fortified towns and villages. There are forts built into cliff faces, and even fortified churches and farmhouses. The Dordogne river was the front line in the Hundred Years War and the Wars of Religion that followed. This area was at war for more than 400 years between the middle of the 11th century and the end of the 16th - and it shows.
The cuisine is also famous throughout France, particularly as the home of truffles and foie gras, but also for cêpes and for a whole cuisine based on duck and goose. On top of all that, the Dordogne is a beautiful river, draining the Massif Central into the Gironde where it meets the Garonne. The Dordogne isn't a gentle, green river valley. It is a spectacular area full of castles, gorges, cliffs, caves and a history that at times seems barely credible. Everyone should visit here once.
Day 1: However you decide to travel, we arrive in Les Eyzies on Saturday evening. We stay at Le Moulin de la Beune, one of the highlights of our entire tour program. This delightful hotel sits on the banks of the river Beune just upstream from where it joins the Vézère, and the Soulié family really look after us.
Les Eyzies is a little village of 900 people, but it styles itself the Capital of Prehistory - and with some justification. As well as the National Museum of Prehistory, Les Eyzies boasts the settlement of Cro Magnon, where the first example of homo sapiens, or thinking man, was discovered. Nearby is the oldest sculpture in the world, a 20,000 year-old fish at the Abri de Poisson, and the Font de Gaume, site of some of the most important cave-paintings in the world. The paintings of Bison and Deer at Font de Gaume are the only polychromatic paintings still open to the public anywhere in the world, and visits are strictly limited. Thanks to Mme Soulié we can visit if we want to, and I recommend that you do. Locals believe they will close these caves soon, so it is a special honor to be able to visit. Includes: (B), (D).
Day 2: Time to get on your bike. Today we follow the Vézère to Limeuil where it meets the Dordogne. Limeuil is a beautiful bastide town, and where the rivers meet is a great place for a swim. This morning we can visit the Goufrre de Proumeyssac. This cave was uninhabited, and lies up a pretty impressive hill. Not everybody visits, but everybody should. In the afternoon we follow the Dordogne along quiet roads and pass the Châteaux of Beynac and Castelnaud facing each other across the river. Fans of Josephine Baker can visit her old home at the Château des Milandes.
We finish the day at Beynac, a picturesque village beside the Dordogne dominated by its castle set on a cliff 500 feet above. The castle was once the seat of a certain Richard The Lionheart and is well worth a look. You can reach it by an absurdly steep path called the Basketmakers path - but not very quickly, and I dare say not very often if you can help it. At the top, though, there is the chance to see the biggest keys you're ever likely to see. At the Hostellerie Maleville you can meet the Maleville family. The food here is very traditional - a superb introduction - and you'll have the chance to admire Madame's extraordinary Beehive hairdo. Includes: (B), (D).
Day 3: Today we pass La Roque Gageac, an amazing town built into the side of a cliff beside the Dordogne, rated as the third site in France and originally built as a prehistoric fort. We also get our first shot at a decent hill on the way up to Domme. Domme sits 450 feet above the Dordogne and has famous panoramic view of the river. Known as the 'Acropolis of the Périgord', Domme was a key battleground in both The Hundred Years War and The wars of Religion. It is still surrounded by a medieval wall, and is one of the best preserved of all the Bastide towns. It was used to imprison the Knights Templar in the 14th century, and on top of all this is the site of some interesting limestone caves.
From Domme to Payrac we go cross-country on tiny roads and see barely a soul. We pass Domme-Sarlat airport - but don't bank on seeing any airplanes, I've seen about two in four years. We also pass an ostrich and emu farm that sells foie gras - but not ostrich foie Gras unfortunately - and several million tobacco plants. Today is a short day - 25 miles - but the hardest day of the week. The swimming pool and sauna at Payrac are welcome and well-deserved. Includes: (B), (D).
Day 4: Today we leave behind the lush valleys and climb onto the limestone causses on the way to Rocamadour. The terrain is a real contrast of arid volcanic plateau, and Rocamadour is one of the most spectacular towns in France, clinging to the side of a cliff hundreds of feet above the Alzou Gorge. The town developed around the site of a 13th century hermitage, and is now ranked as the second site in France. Michelin gave Rocamadour 3*** - worth a journey in itself' - and it is unforgettable.
The afternoon is easier than this morning's climb, and we have the chance to visit the Gouffre de Padirac, a massive cavern leading to an underground river and spectacular stalactite and stalagmite formations. Another Michelin 3*** attraction, and although the staff are bad even by French standards of customer service, the Gouffre de Padirac is unmissable. By now it is usually early evening, and a 5-mile ride brings us to the Hotel Lou Cantou in Loubressac, and the tender mercies of the Cayrousse family. Loubressac sits on the edge of the Causses, and we get beautiful views across both the Dordogne and Bavé valleys. Includes: (B), (D).
Day 5: There is an excellent downhill stretch into the small town of St Céré, and two Wednesdays each month there is a great food market here - great for picnic fodder. Out of St Céré we pass the huge and ruined castle at Castelnau and arrive back at the Dordogne. We follow the Dordogne downstream to Carrenac, rated by some as the most beautiful village on the Dordogne, and a great place for a picnic.
After Carrenac the road twists and turns as it follows the Dordogne, we cross the river a couple of times and pass the spot where the underground river from the Gouffre de Padirac enters the Dordogne. We pass several minor châteaux on our way to Gluges, where the pool catches the late afternoon sun and offers a perfect end to the day. Although we cycle more than 30 miles today, it is the easiest 30 miles you're ever likely to see. Just get a decent shove from Loubressac and steer round the corners. Includes: (B), (D).
Day 6: This stretch of the Dordogne cuts right through the limestone causses offering spectacular gorges and cliffs. Our route criss-crosses the river using back-roads to avoid some unseemly hills, but nearly everybody misses the first stretch altogether, opting to canoe downstream to Pinsac. This stretch of the river is home to kingfishers and herons. After lunch we follow tiny backroads from Souillac to Sarlat-la-Caneda, entering the town on a cycle path built on a disused railway.
Our hotel is the Renoir, close to the heart of 'Vieux Sarlat'. Sarlat is so well preserved that it also rates 3*** from Michelin. During this week you could be forgiven for imagining that Michelin give 3*** away like confetti. But if you look at their guidebooks for other regions, you can see that there are hardly any sites awarded 3***. It is just that the Dordogne valley really is that good. Tonight we enjoy probably the finest food of the week - and certainly the finest puddings - at Les Quatres Saison. We've cycled about 26 miles today, and pretty gentle going. Just wait. Includes: (B), (D).
Day 7: This is our last day of cycling, so we've put in a couple of hills - including the hardest of the week - just to show you how fit you've become. Once we leave Sarlat we turn onto tiny country roads that lead to the hilltop town of Marquay and beautiful views across the Vézère and Beune valleys. Descending to the Vézère we've arrived back in prehistory territory. We pass the Abri de Cap Blanc with it's sculptures on the way to the amazing prehistoric fort at La Roque St Christophe.
This village was carved out of overhanging galleries in a 900 metre limestone cliff. It was continuously inhabited from 50,000 BC until the 16th century. There are records of the settlement in Roman accounts - although they never managed to capture it - and also in 16th century government record in Paris where details of the fireplaces were kept to levy 'hearth taxes'. This place is incredible - for me the most amazing site we visit all week. You can identify the church, rings cut in the roofs to hang food, and even safes and water stores. Les Eyzies is another 5 miles, and we may have the chance to visit le Font de Gaume to round off a real prehistory day. Sadly, this is the end of the week, and we have definitely earned a beer or several sat at le Moulin de la Beune on the banks of the Beune. Includes: (B), (D).
Day 8: Transfers and train to return either to Paris of London. Includes: (B).
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