Day 9: Touring Les Plus Beaux Villages de Dordogne

Note to reader: The Villages of the Dordogne are beyond description.

Those who follow this blog, or simply have a keen eye for publication dates, will likely notice several weeks have passed since my last blog post.

As a writer, it’s difficult to admit a location has me so in thrall I’ve been rendered speechless. It runs rather counter to one’s desire to write about the location. But, alas, here we are.

The tour that took me to three different villages in the Dordogne region of France was through Ophorus Tours, the same company I used for the Saint Emilion Wine Tour when I was in Bordeaux. It’s amazing the experiences our guide was able to squeeze into the four hour tour.

However, on the day itself, all I wrote was this:

Day 9 of 22. Today I did a tour that took me to a few villages of the Dordogne region. It was amazing. All three were built in the 1300s and yet all three were incredibly different from each other. We went to Domme, La Roque-Gageac, and Beynac.

THINGS I LEARNED TODAY: All of the towns are in strong defensive positions, high up in the hills, which you’ll notice in the background scenery. La Roque-Gageac is also of note for it’s troglodyte dwellings, which were used as a shelter by Neanderthal man (50,000 BC) and Cro-Magnon man (25,000 BC). Additionally, the town has it’s own microclimate, which is why you’ll see palm trees in the photos.

It wasn’t nearly enough. I forgave myself for not writing more at the time, under the condition I sit down and describe the day better at some later date.

I have been struggling with this task for weeks.

Each village, or bastide town, has a unique and fascinating history. The challenge I’ve set forth for myself is to both write about my experiences and write a comprehensive piece about three different medieval villages… all within the confines of one blog post.

No wonder I’ve been blocked. That’s a rather ridiculous amount of pressure to put on oneself.

My plan right now is to start writing and see what flows. Bear with me here. This could wind up being a pretty long post.

The Tour Group

The pickup point for the tour happened to be right across the street from my hotel. There were seven of us, plus our tour guide/driver. We loaded all eight of us into the big white van and away we went.

I was the only native English speaker on an English language tour. Our tour guide was mostly fluent in English. The older gentleman from Germany slightly less so, and his wife didn’t speak any English at all. The mother and teenage son were French and knew hardly any English, and our guide was happy to translate a few things for them. I never found out where the elderly gentleman and his very elderly mother were from.

It was an interesting combination of people. More on that later.


Approaching Domme

Our first stop was Domme. We pulled into a parking lot and emerged from the van. About thirty paces away I could see a lookout point, and beyond it, a steep drop all the way down to the valley floor.

We were shown the main town square and given a brief history of bastide towns in general, and Domme in particular. Domme is unlike most bastide towns both in its shape and the fact it includes two town squares. We were told the other was just straight ahead and utterly gorgeous, then set free to explore for a bit.

Perched on a hilltop 150 metres overlooking the Dordogne Valley below, the views from the village of Domme are unrivalled. You can see the valley stretching before you in every direction, the Dordogne River meandering through it and disappearing into the horizon in a stunning panoramic vista.

This is of course, why bastide (fortified medieval) towns were built in such places, in order to see enemies approaching and to have the high ground in case of attack. Constructed in 1281 at the behest of the French King Philip III, Domme was to serve as a key strategic defence in the Hundred Years War between England and France. Eventually captured by the English in 1346 for a time, the town came through the Hundred Years War relatively unscathed and today this walled village is a stunning reminder of this past.

Another note to reader: if you do a web search for “Domme” in order to learn more about the village, I highly recommend specificity in your search. “Domme France” will provide far different results than a search for “Domme”!

I made a beeline for the viewpoint I’d noticed previously. Unfortunately, the photos I took fell victim to an accidental bulk deletion that took place later in the trip. Hopefully, instagram user casey.june won’t mind me sharing the lovely photo they took off the view in place of my own.

After satisfying my need to photograph the surrounding area, I turned around and was ready to see the town itself. I went back to the main square, took a couple more photos, and then started towards the second town square.

Domme’s Place de la Halle (“Market Hall Square”)

I have no idea how I managed to mess up the directions, but mess it up, I did. Somehow in walking “straight ahead,” I took a wrong turn.

My unexpected surroundings were captivating. I was on a road bordered by stone walls interspersed with colorfully painted garden doors. Plants from inhabitants’ gardens flowed over the walls, and flowering trees and bushes were visible everywhere. I was delighted by everything around me.

This photo, which I took during that unplanned stroll, wound up being one of my favorites of the entire trip:

A street in Domme, France

Ultimately, I somehow stumbled upon the other square. It was indeed quite gorgeous, but at that point I was in the midst of racing back to the meeting point. I did not take any photos of my own, which I deeply regret.

Domme is a place I would love to go back to for a lengthy period of time. I imagine a few months there would feel quite restorative.

Viewpoint in Domme, France

La Roque-Gageac

From Domme we drove on to La Roque-Gageac. Whereas Domme is high above the river valley, La Roque-Gageac is nestled within cliffs directly on the river. We were given a couple minutes to walk around before we boarded a boat for a river cruise.

La Roque-Gageac is arguably one the most beautiful places in Périgord Noir, or at least one of the most photographed in south-western France. Listed as one of France’s most beautiful villages, the riverside town is built along the right bank of the Dordogne River against a towering limestone cliff. This unique setting of narrow, peaceful streets and cliff-dwellings also enjoys a subtropical microclimate.

I raced halfway up the cliff to see the exotic garden next to the Romanesque church, and managed to get this shot (and others, which also fell victim to the deletion incident that occurred days later) before running back down to meet back up with the tour group:

The exotic garden at La Roque-Gageac

It was then time to board the Gabare for our river cruise along the Dordogne.

A river cruise along the Dordogne

The guide for the cruise spoke French, and there was audio available in several other languages.

It was one of a few times during my three week long adventure in France when I desperately wished I spoke French. I felt very much alone on that cruise.

The audio guide was a very monotonous computerized voice. Those who were listening to a live person experienced an animated presentation. They laughed together and enjoyed themselves far more than I, as I sat with my little headset on, trying to pay attention to an audio recording that did very little to hold my interest. Even though I wanted to know more about the surrounding area and its history, my mind wandered during most of the cruise.

Additionally, the German gentleman was sitting in front of me and kept standing to take photos whenever anything of note was pointed out, thereby blocking everyone behind him from seeing whatever might have been of interest.

It was not my favorite part of the day. Were I to visit La Roque-Gageac again, I would probably forego the cruise in favor of learning more about the village and the troglodyte dwellings. Plus, it would have been amazing to spend more time in the exotic garden.


After the cruise, we loaded back into the van and drove to Beynac-et-Cazenac. Beynac-et-Cazenac is another hilltop bastide town, like Domme. Winding narrow streets lead up through the medieval village’s steep hills to the top, where one finds Chateau de Beynac and amazing views of the river and surrounding area.

From one spot, one is able to see the buildings and grounds of the nearby chateaux. It’s quite easy to see how effective Beynac must have been as a defensive stronghold.

The castle was built in a strategic location dominating the Dordogne valley. In fact, the Dordogne river then marked the border between the French and English territories. Beynac Castle and Marqueyssac Castle were closely observing those of Castelnaud and Fayrac (on the English side).

Our tour guide gave us a lift to the top of the village. We got out of the van and she showed us a lookout spot with views of three nearby chateaux, and provided a brief history of the town. She then set us free to walk through the village, down to the bottom of the hill, to meet up with her at the main road.

A view from right next to Chateau de Beynac

This was where some problems ensued. Firstly, not everyone understood the plan. There was confusion about whether we were to walk all the way down, or walk a little bit and explore and then meet our guide back at the top.

Since I was the only native English speaker, one might think the others would have some faith that I understood our mission. The German couple and the older mother and son team did, and we proceeded downward. The younger mother and son did not, and despite our concerns about not being able to find them later, they left the rest of us and turned around.

Secondly, the descent was extremely steep. Even I, with legs much stronger and younger than my companions, struggled a bit. I sympathized greatly as the older folks inched their way down, trying their best to use the walls bordering the walkway for support as they navigated their way over uneven ancient cobblestones.

The steep walk down from Chateau de Beynac. Also, if you look closely, a woman and a toddler petting a cat. His giggles echoed loudly off the stone and were completely contagious.

There was nothing in the tour description warning anyone of these physical demands. Attendees were advised to wear comfortable walking shoes, and that is all.

The views, however, were tremendous. I kept half an eye on my fellow travelers, and as they were generally behind me and moving quite slowly, I was able to take many photographs during the descent.

The Dordogne River as seen from Beynac

Everyone safely reached the meeting point, except the mother and son team.

Our tour guide was at a bit of a loss about what to do. My companions had eagerly entered the air-conditioned van, presumably congratulating themselves and each other for making it there in one piece.

I offered to wait at the meeting spot in case our lost lambs were on their way down the hill, while the tour guide drove back up to the top to see if they were waiting for her there.

She found them quickly, although I’m not sure where. I wasn’t sitting by myself for long. I did rather feel like the hero of the hour, though.

And that was the end of the tour. We drove back to Sarlat-le-Canéda and were dropped off at the same meeting point, directly across the street from my hotel.

Thus, my time in the Dordogne wound to a close. I relaxed in my hotel for a bit and curated the photos I’d taken that day, wandered into the old city for dinner and strolled around a bit, then went back to the hotel and packed up my things in anticipation of the next morning’s departure.

Next stop: Carcassonne.

Series Navigation<< Solo Travel: Crushing LonelinessDay 10: An Evening of Tears in Carcassonne >>

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