SARLAT, FRANCE – Looking down from a parapet high above the lush countryside, it’s easy to see why this commanding spot was chosen to built such an impressive castle.
Down below, the valley of the Dordogne River sprawls out in both directions. To the east the river snakes its way down from the mountains of central France. It flows westward, past the rival Château de Beynac, lying within eyesight just a few kilometres downriver, eventually emptying out into the Atlantic just north of the city of Bordeaux.
The Château de Castlenaud was originally built in the 12th century to watch over this picturesque region, known here as the Périgord Noir, and today it remains a symbol of the importance the region has held for a thousand years. When thinking of a vacation to France, Paris, Normandy and Nice may first come to mind, but there are good reasons why the Périgord Noir draws many thousands of gourmands and history buffs yearly.
Scattered along this scenic rural stretch of the Dordogne River and its tributaries are a series of villages and small towns, many carved right into the rocky cliffs overlooking the river. People have inhabited these sites since prehistoric times. You may have heard of the famous Lascaux Caves, but here the more accessible caves and art of Les Eyzies compete with ancient hill-top castles, sprawling farmers markets and gourmet restaurants for the attention of the spoiled tourist.
The seat of the region is Sarlat, a remarkably preserved medieval market town with narrow cobblestone streets and buildings from as far back as the 12th century. A good way to get your bearings is by taking a tour of the old city, whose ancient wall sits nestled within the middle of the modern city. Guided tours are offered through a variety of agencies, but the city tourist office also offers innovative self-guided tours that use iPod-based audio guides set up with interactive maps, allowing you to create your own tour itinerary.
The best view of the town can be found in the bell tower of the old Église Sainte-Marie, located just off Place de la Liberté. Around the back of the historic church, used otherwise as a wonderful open-air market, is a glass elevator that was just recently installed. This open-topped glass-walled elevator takes visitors up to dizzying heights overlooking the city, while the helpful guide points out the significant sights, including the remaining segments of the medieval city wall. It really helps give perspective and make this historic town come to life.
Each town in the region has a weekly farmers’ market, scheduled helpfully so that you can visit a different one each day of the week if you so desire. The largest and most popular market is found at the centre of Sarlat on Saturdays. Here you can browse the fresh vegetables, breathe in the aroma of stinky cheeses, and gawk at rare giant black truffles. In addition to the weekly markets, special events crowd the calendar all year. “Every month there is a festival,” says Katia Verlayt of the Sarlat Tourism Office. “In February, 200 geese are herded through the streets for the Fête des oies (Goose festival). In May, we have les Journées du terroir,” an event where the streets of the town are turned into a farm.
People in this region have a strong connection to their food and to the farm. The most celebrated item here is duck, whether in the form of magret de canard (duck breast), duck confit or foie gras. Not even side dishes can avoid the influence of this feathered fowl – as seen with the ubiquitous presence of pommes sarladaise, potatoes roasted in duck fat. Even if you wouldn’t normally think to eat duck, this would be the place to do it. Of course, that love of duck can sometimes go too far – I made sure to steer clear of one restaurant offering foot-long foie gras submarine sandwiches.
A brief drive south from Sarlat leads to the aforementioned Dordogne River, which leisurely cuts its way through the hills of southwest France on its way to the Atlantic Ocean. The next closest town is Beynac, one of several medieval settlements dug into sheer rock cliff faces along the river. This picturesque spot is famous among other reasons for having been featured in the Johnny Depp movie Chocolat. At the top of the town perched high up on the cliff overlooking the town lays the Château de Beynac, an imposing structure that has commanded over the town since the Middles Ages.
During the Hundred Years’ War, the region was on the front line of much of the action, and for a time the Dordogne River acted as the border between French and English controlled territory. On the north side the Château de Beynac belonged to the French, while across the valley the Château de Castlenaud belonged to the English (or more specifically, the House of Plantagenet). What seems remarkable today is how close the two castles lie, well within visual range. It’s easy to picture medieval soldiers taunting each other from across this beautiful valley.
Today both castles offer visitors the chance to see what life was like some 600 or so years ago. While both are worth checking out the Château de Castlenaud is the more interesting of the two. It features an extensive medieval museum, highlighted by an impressive collection of full-sized siege weapons out in the courtyard. Some are even functional, although used only on special occasions.
Of course, don’t limit yourself to visiting the top side of these mighty hills – there are wonders to explore inside them as well. The caves of La Gouffre de Proumeyssac, located just outside the town of Le Bugue, are a great half-day trip. Periodic puffs of smoke coming from the mouth of the cavern once led locals to believe it was the entrance to hell, and none braved to explore it until 1907. Since then it has become a busy tourist spot, but has a certain goofy charm. This underground wonder, also known as the “Crystal Cathedral,” can be discovered on foot or by taking a ride on a rickety aerial basket that lowers down from the roof. Enjoy the twinkling of the crystalline stalactites and stalagmites while an over-the-top music and light show sets the mood.
While the region has its share of sights, at the end the day it’s the food and drink that bring people back. Make sure to savour a glass of Bergerac red wine, nibble on some foie gras with fresh bread, and bite into a juicy duck breast. The castles may have been here for hundreds of years, but this food is fresh from the farm.