In France’s Dordogne region, a land of castles and caves calls for deep exploration
By TOM SHRODER | Special to The Washington Post | Published: September 1, 2017
When our children were 11 and 9, young enough to still be entirely inside the family circle but old enough to remember, we splurged on a “once-in-a-lifetime vacation” and rented a small farmhouse in Southwestern France outside the village of Saint-Cyprien. Each day, our son and daughter would say goodbye to the donkey that hung around our patio and we’d climb in the tiny rented Renault and drive somewhere in the fairy tale-beautiful Dordogne River region. On one of these excursions, we stumbled on the provincial city of Sarlat.
An accident of history and several centuries of stagnant economy had left Sarlat’s center virtually unchanged architecturally since the days of siege engines and knights galloping over drawbridges. City fathers had wakened one morning in the late 1950s to realize that, leaning above narrow and winding cobblestone streets and alleys, they had one of the largest collections of intact medieval architecture in Europe. The French government subsidized restoration of the dilapidated ancient structures, and the tastefully restored apartments (which half a millennium ago were the residences of wealthy noble families) began, slowly at first, to attract tourists.
Back in 2000, we wandered the town center feeling like time travelers. We bought wooden crusader swords for the kids and hand-spun earthenware pottery that my wife and I still treasure. For dinner, we found a traditional French restaurant whose dining room, to our delight, extended into a natural cavern. Our children, now far-flung and embarked on lives of their own, still remember that day 17 years later.
And so did my wife and I. Searching for a vacation destination suitably celebratory of our 30th anniversary, we thought of the magical moments on that long-ago day trip and put “apartments to rent in Sarlat” into Google. On our first click, we scored: a recently renovated apartment in a 500-year-old building dead in the center of the old town. We instantly booked it, then reverse engineered the rest of the trip, beginning with a flight to Paris and a boutique apartment near the Place de la Republique for that first jet-lagged night. The next morning, after a glorious buffet breakfast that I would estimate at about 4,000 calories, we Ubered to the Austerlitz train station and hopped on a TGV express train to Brive, a relaxing four-hour sprint (average speed: 75 mph) through the unrelentingly interesting industrial and agricultural landscapes south of the capital. In Brive, we picked up a car a block from the train station and drove the final hour to Sarlat.
As soon as we crossed into the department of Dordogne, the landscape took on stunning beauty even fond memory hadn’t done justice. Fields undulated in a green so intense it vibrated. Hilltops provided vistas of sunburst-yellow rapeseed blossoms stretching to the horizon. Every structure, from manor house to farm outbuilding, was made of native golden limestone blocks that seemed to glow in the sunshine. Castles, both ruined and restored, appeared around every curve. Chateaus astraddle vertiginous, cave-pocked limestone cliffs attempted to outdo one another in the beauty and extent of their gardens. It didn’t hurt that the local specialties are foie gras, Bergerac wine and farm-fresh produce, all available in an abundance of roadside markets.
Our apartment, up two flights of winding stone steps, had been stripped to the half-timbered walls, modernized and decorated in restrained Pottery Barn. Large windows looked out over the ancient moss-covered rooftops of layered slate. Just out the front door, a narrow alley opened on a Gothic cathedral and the main plaza, ringed by cafes and restaurants. On Wednesdays and Saturdays, the plaza and the main streets of the town sprouted stalls and became the town market. In the old town, and the typical small French provincial city surrounding it, restaurants were abundant, though somewhat limited in variety. Most provided variations on the theme of classic French cuisine with a local accent. On the outskirts of town (still easily walkable from the center), we discovered a place with absolutely authentic Dutch pannekoeken (a hearty, low-country take on crepes) and a cozy neighborhood pizzeria.
Though it was stimulating to be in the middle of such history, the smallness of the town — its photo-ready back streets could be explored in an afternoon — made us wonder at first about our decision to spend two weeks there. But as we quickly realized, the best thing about locating in Sarlat was leaving it. A 30- to 45-minute drive in any direction brought us to destinations that were each more stunning than the last. Any one of them could have been the highlight of a trip. And forget the destinations — the drives themselves were breathtaking. This part of France apparently has no strip malls, gated housing developments or major highways. All roads are winding, rolling two-lane forays through the pages of a fairy tale. I felt daring driving at 45 mph on these byways while the locals lined up behind me, impatiently waiting to pass. But more often than not, we had the roads to ourselves as they narrowed into single-lane tracks (more than once we had to back up to let another car squeeze past) through increasingly tiny villages and wooded hills. We often found it hard to believe these rustic tracks were leading to major tourist destinations, but we were never disappointed. Thank God we had GPS.
To the south, built into the almost vertical cliffs rising from the lazily curving Dordogne River, is Roque de Gageac, another town of medieval origin whose roads were more like mountain goat tracks. If you have the respiratory fortitude to climb them, you are rewarded with views of birds gliding on currents along the soaring cliffs above and the pastoral river valley unwinding between peaked turrets below.
A line of restaurants runs along the river’s bank, and during spring and summer you can buy passage on an hourlong guided sightseeing trip in a traditional riverboat called a gabarre. The adventurous can rent canoes to paddle down one of the more spectacular river passages in the world, with a half-dozen castles looming on hilltops high above and caves inhabited since prehistory poking into the cliffs cantilevered over the water.
Or you can drive another few minutes upriver to the phenomenal town of Domme, a naturally fortified village (bastide) built in the 13th century on a steep-sided hilltop nearly 800 feet above the river. Domme was fought over repeatedly during the Hundred Years’ War between the French and English, and it’s easy to see why when you consider the view. The main part of the village lies at the very top of the hill along the edge of a sheer cliff commanding sightlines along the entire valley. We stopped for lunch at a small cafe across from the town hall on the market square where locals once gathered to watch public executions. A modest-looking tourism office in the middle of the square is built above the entrance to a large cave system where residents hid during the frequent invasions.
A few minutes’ drive to the west brings you to the gates of the Chateau de Beynac, the castle of childhood fantasies and the setting for a raft of movies, including the romance “Ever After” and the epic “Jeanne d’Arc.” There you can tromp around the mostly restored ramparts and imagine barons and counts gathering in the great hall by a fireplace you could torch a redwood in.
East again, another bit farther brings you to the 18th century Chateau de Marqueyssac and its 19th century gardens, restored impeccably at the end of the 20th century and stretching along the cliff top for a kilometer. The garden paths, meandering through varied water features and knockout overlooks, doubles as a hike up and down steep inclines through rapidly changing landscapes - from impeccably manicured shrubs and flowers to romantically wild forest. On one cliff edge, overlooking a wide valley of picturesque farm fields rising to the
Beynac chateau, an outdoor bistro served, among other items, wine and salad of insanely fresh local ingredients and toast topped with melted goat cheese. It was so good we came back twice.
A slightly longer trek just over an hour to the east through countryside unpopulated but for a few farm villages of a half-dozen stone houses brought us to the Gouffre de Padirac, a sinkhole about 10 stories deep that leads into a vast cave system of spectacular stalagmites and stalactites run through by an underground river. The first part of the tour pairs a handful of visitors with their own boatman who poles downriver to the first cataract - a mini falls rushing over the water-smoothed rock floor. There, you disembark to climb through a half-mile of great halls several hundred feet tall and filled with giant mineral formations still growing with each drip of water.
To the north is the town of Les Eyzies-de-Tayac-Sireuil, which bends along the Vezere River, where the 30,000-year-old skeletons of Cro-Magnon man, our first Homo sapiens cousin, were discovered in the mid-19th century. The quaint town is still situated among dozens of caves, many of which have prehistoric wall paintings. The most magnificent cave art is in the Lascaux cave, another 28 minutes up the road in the town of Montignac. When it became clear that endless streams of visitors were causing the paintings to decay, an identical replica of the cave and the art were created for visitors to enjoy, while the real thing remained sealed off to all but researchers. The replica, Lascaux II, appears so authentic that it provoked the same awed reverence and thoughts about the nature of humankind the original would have.
On the way back to Sarlat from Les Eyzies, we noticed a plain sign along the road with an arrow pointing to the Chateau de Commarque. By this point, castles popping up unexpectedly was a common occurrence. In fact, they don’t even always have signs. On the way to the Padirac cave we took a wrong turn and found ourselves on a farm road aiming toward a hill with two ruined castle towers sitting atop it without any commemoration other than a blunt private-property warning.
But here was one inviting us to visit. We turned off the road and followed a series of ever smaller roads until we were sure we’d made a wrong turn somewhere. But just as we were about to give up, we came to a dirt parking lot in a grove of trees with an arrow pointing down a trail through the woods. After about 700 meters, the woods ended at a line of exposed limestone reaching to the sky and stretching away into an open meadow. The chateau rose dramatically to the left, looming atop the rocks, while another chateau, this one private, stood out among the heights on the other side of the valley, not so much as a road between them. We paid a nominal admission and climbed up the escarpment all the way to the top where there was a wide array of ruins, from a stone chapel to a soldiers’ barracks and ultimately to the 12th-century keep. By the end of the 20th century, Commarque was a forgotten ruin, almost entirely toppled, buried or reclaimed by the forest, until a direct descendant of the original lords of the castle began an ambitious private-public restoration of the chateau and exploration of a cave beneath it, filled with prehistoric paintings and sculpture.
Between its bottomless history, its stark beauty and remarkable isolation, that visit to Commarque is something I’ll never forget. Coming on it by accident only made it that much better, and ultimately, those happy accidents defined our stay. On one of our longer day trips, we were heading back to Sarlat but still an hour out and in desperate need of a rest stop. But this wasn’t Interstate 95 we were on - unless we wanted to take our chances going au naturel in a field, we seemed to be out of luck. Then we came to a crossroads and a little town, picturesque but seemingly deserted, of about a dozen two-story, stone-and-stucco buildings shoulder to shoulder along one main street that looked like a set for some World War II movie. At one end was a gothic church spire, and at the other another bland two-story structure with a sign indicating that this was “La Bonne Franquette” restaurant. We parked and peeked in through the open doors to a dimly lit dining room with a handful of tables, all empty but one. We were dubious, but didn’t feel we could ask to use the facilities without ordering something to eat. As we sat, the hostess came over and asked if we wouldn’t rather eat out on the terrace. It was more of a vacant lot beneath a 200-year-old flowering tree whose gnarled trunk and branches had been trained to twine over a trellis. Across the lot, looming above another building, was the church steeple.
A teenage boy, no doubt the son of the hostess, waited on us, obviously excited to serve such exotic customers and blushingly try out a few sentences of English. Though there was only red meat on the menu, our literal gar殮 persuaded the chef to prepare fish, which to our shock came out of the kitchen fresh and flaky, and served in a delicious sauce along with tenderly steamed fresh vegetables and an excellent salad. The sun shone, the church bell sounded, and even though it was midafternoon, we couldn’t turn down the coffee. We just wanted to make the moment last.