Your Guide to the Dordogne

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Find out why this idyllic corner of Southwest France has long held a place in Britons’ hearts.

Amongst the rolling hills of the French landscape, down in the southwest corner, lies the eminently charming department of Dordogne. For the British, this region has long held a special place in our hearts and captured our imaginations, and it’s not very hard to see why.

A little history

Dordogne is one of the oldest departments in France, being one of the original 83 created on 4 March 1790 during the French Revolution. The boundaries of the department roughly mirror those of the ancient county of Périgord, which dates back to the days of the Gauls. The name Périgord comes from the Gaulish word for ‘four tribes’, which is how the area was originally split, and Dordogne is still actually divided, in some respects, into four Périgords reflecting this.

There’s the Périgord Vert (Green), Blanc (White, Pourpre (Purple), and Noir (Black). Each is named after a distinguishing feature unique to each region respectively. Périgord Vert is rich with verdant valleys, rivers, and streams. The Périgord Blanc region is white limestone plateaux. Périgord Pourpre is famous for its wine. And Périgord Noir is so named for its woods of oak and pine.

Périgord Vert

Main town: Nontron
Drive from Calais: 756km / 7h 35m

As you’d expect from a region named for its beautiful rolling hills, and lush greenery, pretty much anywhere you go you’ll find yourself surrounded by picturesque scenery. There is no shortage of pretty little towns to visit either. One particular highlight is Brantôme, just 20 minutes’ drive down the road from the main town of Nontron.

The happily situated Abbey of Brantôme
The happily situated Abbey of Brantôme.

Nestled in a wide bend alongside the river Dronne, which is spanned by five elegant briges, Brantôme has earned itself the nickname of ‘the Venice of Périgord’. Hours can be whiled away strolling along the winding streets of the town, or admiring the stunning architecture of the Benedictine Abbey of Brantôme, founded in 769 by Charlemagne no less! The bell tower of the 11th century abbey is notable for being one of the oldest gabled Romanesque bell towers in all of France. There are also caverns below the natural rock foundations that you can visit.

Périgord Blanc

Main town: Périgueux
Drive from Calais: 780km / 8h

Although it may be less visited than the other Périgord regions, Périgord Blanc still has some real gems to be explored. Périgueux, the capital of Dordogne as well as Périgord Blanc, has been in existence since Neolithic times. As you’d expect, the town is rich with history, with sites dating back to Gallo-Roman times, as well as architecture surviving from medieval and renaissance times.

The iconic domes of the Périgueux cathedral
The iconic domes of the Périgueux cathedral.

The most famous landmark in the town is undoubtedly the Cathédrale Saint-Front de Périgueux. Modelled on St. Mark's Basilica in Venice, the towers and domes of the church are iconic, the latter of which were actually resized for symmetry by Paul Abadie in the 19th century. Only the bell tower and the crypts remain unchanged since the 12th century.

Elsewhere in town, you can visit the remains of a Roman amphitheatre, which has been turned into a park, and the Vesunna Gallo-Roman Museum protecting an archaeological site of a Gallo-Roman house, the Vésone Domus, where you can see remarkably well preserved mosaics and wall decorations.

Périgord Pourpre

Main town: Bergerac
Drive from Calais: 882km / 8h 30m

You can’t visit the Périgord Pourpre without sampling some of the famous local wines, and Bergerac makes a great base for exploring the region. You’ll find vineyards all along the river, with the right bank being characterised by terraces with the vines grow on sandy, stony and alluvial soils, and on the left bank many of the vineyards are planted on limestone soils on the sides of hills. The two most renowned wines of the region are Pecharmant red wines with their unique flavour and elegant aroma, and Monbazillac white wines, characterised by their sweetness made from handpicked grapes only affected by ‘noble rot’.

Château Monbazillac in the Périgord Pourpre wine region
Château Monbazillac in the Périgord Pourpre wine region.

If you’re not so into your wines, the Périgord Pourpre region also follows the lower part of the Dordogne River, where it becomes wider and slower, making it ideal for water pursuits such as canoeing or boat trips. There are plenty of places in the region around Bergerac that you can hire a canoe or kayak, and it’s probably one of the most unforgettable ways to explore the rivers and the idyllic towns and villages.

Périgord Noir

Main town: Sarlat-la-Canéda
Drive from Calais: 820km / 8h 10m

Last but by no means least, we have the Périgord Noir region, which is actually the most visited region of the Dordogne. All along the river flowing through the Périgord Noir you’ll find beautiful towns, and captivating castles. This part of the country is as close to stepping into a French fairy tale as you can get. Perched atop a cliff, towering 150m above the river, is Château de Beynac with 900 years of history. Across the river in the distance you can see the medieval fortress of Château de Castelnaud.

The beautiful Château des Milandes, home to Josephine Baker
The beautiful Château des Milandes, home to Josephine Baker.

By far one of the prettiest castles in the area is Château des Milandes. And what is particularly unusual about this castle is that its most prominent time was actually during the 20th century thanks to Josephine Baker, famous music hall talent and agent of the French Resistance. She began renting the château in 1940, later buying it in 1947, and it was here that she housed people in support of the Free French effort led by Charles de Gaulle.

There is so much to see and do in the Dordogne that you’d need a lifetime to explore everything. Well, there’s no time like the present! If this guide has inspired you to set off on your next adventure, make sure you book your tickets with us early to take advantage of the best fares.