Such beauty. Such a yesteryear charm. Such a healthy fertile country living at a sublimely gentle pace. Dreamy villages, deep in the heart of France, with colored stone buildings in keeping with their natural environment. Shutters pronounced with their hues differing from celadon to lilac, from sky blue to burgundy. Proper broad rivers on which to go canoeing. Truffle hunting and hot air balloon flights. Foie gras and weekend food markets.

The Dordogne, a region of Aquitaine, is the third most visited and third largest area of France. For centuries it’s had an abiding appeal to the Brits and it’s forever enduring. The town of Eymet, for example, is 55% British with its own cricket pitch and once even had a British mayor. It certainly feels like the Cotswolds in France or Chiantishire in Tuscany.

The region is fondly broken into areas called Périgord Noir (for its dark forests), Périgord Blanc (white stone), Périgord Vert (trees and ponds), and Périgord Pourple (vineyards). The region is well served by flights from Great Britain to Toulouse, Bordeaux, and Bergerac airports all year round and to the local Brive and Limoges airports in the summer season.

Place Saint-Louis / Perigueux quartier pieton mediavel renaissance  CDT-2021@Déclic&Décolle
Place Saint-Louis / Perigueux quartier pieton mediavel renaissance CDT-2021@Déclic&Décolle

I recommend visiting by car as it’s lovely to drive around and get lost, almost willingly, down its sleepy lanes and through its magical villages which are made for exhibitions in their own right. All are so highly explorable and adorable. I drove to Périgueux. It’s the capital of the Dordogne ‘department’ (region) and its center is divine and like a film set with its misty romanticism. Devoid of traffic and preserved in all its medieval glory, the streets are higgledy-piggledy with their uniquely wonky sandstone buildings, turrets, and doors.

For lunch, I went down a narrow passage in the Old Town to Le Pétrocore restaurant named after the town’s original settlers. It was spacious, minimal, and chic. It felt calm with all its natural colors. There were no pictures. It didn’t need them as the food did all the talking from the confident menu that was both creative and exciting.

Cathédrale St Front à Périgueux@Déclic&Décolle
Cathédrale St Front à Périgueux@Déclic&Décolle

From its exterior, the town’s Saint-Front cathedral had an oriental feel with its minaret-style belltower and its mass of onion-shaped domes allegedly deriving from Istanbul and Venice. I roamed around the interesting artisan boutiques that are infinitely preferable to the cheap tat of typical souvenir shops back home.  I loved walking along the banks of Périgueux’s river L’Isle, a tributary of the Dordogne, from which I spotted L’Eschif, the especially charming 14th-century look-out post of a hut on stilts.

For dinner, I experienced Oxalis restaurant. It’s down another side street and named after the edible flower. It rightfully claims to be a ‘restaurant of experiences’ and within is a small and discreet stripped-bare cavern. You get what you’re given and the highlights of my taster menu comprised the local foie gras, ‘ceviche de bar’ with beetroot, pistachio, and samphire paired with a glass of local red Pécharmant.

En route to my hotel further south I stopped off at Sainte-Alvère home to the best-known truffle market in the Dordogne. I walked around this idyllic village where houses instantly snapped up and entered the cool church with its resounding echoes. It’s bang next door to Dix Restaurant where I met the chef Raphael and his English wife. They have developed an excellent reputation for delighting their customers with their culinary creations and all performed within and without the walls of their house for a truly authentic treat.

elsacyril - Domaine de Rochebois
elsacyril – Domaine de Rochebois

I drove an hour south to my hotel Le Domaine de Rochebois. Located in the heart of Périgord Noir and recently run by Salesian monks as an orphanage, this historic manor was restored and reopened as a family-run hotel in 2022. It has a high-class county club feel as some come to play golf, others to be pampered in the spa. I arrived down a beautifully landscaped drive beside a pond speckled with swans and a rockery cascading with water. The expansive grounds border the river Dordogne in one of her many meandering ‘cingles’ (oxbow bends). Such an invitation to explore and perfect, I discovered, for a romantic circular walk past the local Château de Montfort.

Inside the hotel, past 16th-century tiles and a balustraded stairway, I reached my room. Classic and contemporary it all felt so fresh with the high finish of the décor comprising calm neutral greys and beige as did the chic cement of my bathroom floor. Rooms are from $200 and those at the side have private terraces with views over the pool and terrace where birds twitter amongst walnut and chestnut trees. The Spa Nuxe boasted the latest hydrotherapy pool and hammam for me to relax after a day of sightseeing. With three restaurants soon on offer it’s all very spoiling for dinner. Le Wedge, the brasserie, beside the 9-hole golf course, is a minute’s walk away under the stars and has an excellent menu. A pianist tickled the ivories elsewhere at Josephine Bar. You can’t beat a brand-new hotel.

Jardins de Marqueyssac à Vézac
Jardins de Marqueyssac à Vézac

It’s close to Vitrac, long considered the region’s most expensive area. Legend calls it the 1000 Castle Valley with its 730 chateaux and 200 ‘domaines’ (vineyards). Nearby and perched high up on a rocky spur are the Marqueyssac Gardens. They were the brainchild of a former owner of the accompanying slate-roofed château. This is understandably the most visited garden in the South-West of France. The winding pathways took me through a maze of clipped, immaculate boxwood. Six peacocks stroll around and there’s a cage of divine doves. Six gardeners are employed full-time to trim all the topiary twice a year. From the wonderful vantage points of my walk, I looked down at the valley below and, across the river, at its many châteaux. Such a panoramic view and all so romantic and picturesque.

Château de Beynac / Beynac@Déclic&Décolle
Château de Beynac / Beynac@Déclic&Décolle

The gardens are close to Château de Beynac. Surely the most emblematic castle in the Dordogne with its heavy defensive walls once guarded by illustrious figures such as Simon de Montfort and King Richard I ‘the Lion-Heart’ of England. It’s minutes from La Roque-Gageac, the renowned gorgeous roadside village set in a limestone cliffside beneath a large rocky precipice bordering the Dordogne River. The monochrome stone color of the dwellings blends magnificently and harmoniously with the rock above.

I strongly recommend visiting the former home of Josephine Baker at Château des Milandes. Not only is it an exquisite chateau presiding over the river with beautifully proportioned rooms, broad fireplaces, and a lovely old kitchen but it’s also a permanent exhibition to the American dancer and singer. The gardens are geometric and include a rectangular mirrored pond and the neighbouring chapel has an atmosphere all of its own with its deeply calming simple white altar.

I went to the morning market at Sarlat. Down the town’s long spinal cord that is the Rue de la République it was almost bazaar-like with its mounting stacks of local produce: honey, cheeses, sausages, and, of course, foie gras. The outdoor market people bear typically weathered, rosy complexions. The picturesque nature of its medieval streets has been cleverly preserved with its warm limestone buildings and characteristic roofs of lauze tiles. Everywhere teddy bears were in evidence at this Christmas market.

So much was left to be seen another time. I missed the town of Bergerac with its eponymous Cyrano fame. I must go to Lascaux IV, the brilliantly recreated version of the famous prehistoric art cave, deemed too delicate now for the original to be exposed. I must go back, whenever but soon.