Driving through the Dordogne, one of the most scenic landscapes in France, is a heady experience. Its splendors range from prehistoric caves to elegant chateaus. The land includes limestone cliffs, dark, opaque oak forests and meandering rivers. The region is home to over 1,000 chateaus, 15 UNESCO World Heritage sites and some of the most elaborate prehistoric cave art in Europe.
Beynac-et-Cazenac is an exceptional village in which to experience this enchanting area. It sits on the craggy limestone bluffs above the Dordogne River. Stone medieval houses with steeply pitched limestone roofs line the sharp, steep cobblestone streets. These lead to the 12th century Chateau Beynac which crowns the village. From this castle can be seen unbelievable views of the chateaus and stone houses built along the Dordogne. The castle, once owned by Richard the Lionheart, changed hands a few times among English and French rulers during the Hundred Years’ War. Battles took place below along the banks of the Dordogne river. It is definitely worth the calf crunching climb to the top (though a rather circuitous road can be driven to the summit).
See A Room With a View for an outstanding place to stay in the village. The house overlooks the river. A walk though this village at twilight is hypnotic and not to be missed. All of the villages mentioned below have excellent places to stay.
Close by Beynac-et-Cazenac is the hilltop village of Domme, listed among “The Most Beautiful Villages of France.” The well-preserved 13th century village boasts impressive architecture and an extensive cave system below the main square. Domme stands 150 meters above the valley floor, and boasts panoramic views, particularly good at sunset, of the neighboring chateaus and the meandering Dordogne river.
One of the most pleasant activities in this area is to rent a canoe and drift by the castles on the Dordogne River (contact http://www.canoerandodordogne.com/index.htm). You can take a long trip from Carsac to Beynac (22 kilometers 4 to 5 hours ) or a shorter trip from Cenac to Beynac (10 kilometers 2 -3 hours). One really scenic village along the river close to Beynac is La-Roque-Gageac.It is postcard perfect!
Also near Beynac is Castelnaud, which can be reached by a nature trail along the river. The trail affords magnificent views of Chateau Beynac above. The Chateau Castelnaud houses the Museum of Medieval Warfare, with its impressive collection of weapons, old armor and furnishings from the 14th and 15th centuries.
Another splendid spot very close to Beynac are the gardens of Marqueyssac. They include a chateau that was built just before the French Revolution as well as exquisite terraced Italian-style gardens.The gardens are most known for over 150,000 hand pruned boxwoods along with the sumptuous views of castles and the Dordogne river valley.
About 30 minutes from Beynac are the river carved terraces of La Roque St. Christophe. These troglodyte caves are believed to have been inhabited for over 1,000 years. In the Middle Ages they served as a fortress. The interiors are restored to reflect Medieval times. This activity is great for children.
Sarlat is a great place to stop for lunch or dinner, or to visit the river valley. Sarlat was rebuilt of stone after the end of the Hundred Years’ War (1337 – 1453). It is especially splendid at night when the gas lights are lit. The lights flicker to great effect against the winding Medieval cobblestone streets and golden stone architecture. Restaurant and shopping opportunities abound and contain the local specialties of foie gras, truffles and baked items containing fresh walnuts The Wednesday and Saturday markets are interesting too. They bring an assortment of products, and vendors along with excellent people-watching opportunities. Parking on market days however can be a bit tricky.It is best to arrive early on these days.
Daytrips from Beynac-et-Cazenac include Rocamadour, a sacred spot where pilgrims for centuries including kings and saints have sought solace, strength or relief from illness or from their fears. It is a center for the devotion to the Virgin Mary. This village, carved of stone, clings dramatically to the limestone cliffs. Few photographs do justice to it’s 3-dimensional brilliance. Our Lady of Rocamadour located in the Notre Dame Chapelle is the main attraction for pious visitors. It is reputed to have been carved by Saint Armadour who chose this spot for his devotions to the Virgin Mary,Another revered site is the Romanesque Gothic Basilica of St Sauveur, along with a complex of spiritual sanctuaries and notable buildings located off the main street.
The hillside village of Saint- Cirque-Lapopie, overlooking the river Lot, is also listed among “The Most Beautiful Villages of France.” It arises 100 meters from the rock above the river. Small cobbled lanes and alleys almost seem to flow downhill. Many of the stone buildings date back to the 13th century. The road to the village is as winding and rhythmic as the Lot River itself, with small, clustered villages, wild flowers and fields with stacked stones fences.
Another short daytrip is to the village of Collonges-la-Rouge it too is designated as one of the “Most Beautiful Villages of France”. There are no particular special sites there it is just a picturesque 14th century village full of turrets and towers, built out of uniquely vivid red sandstone. It is well known for excellent restaurants serving delicious local cuisine. The drive to get there is full of bucolic pastoral scenery with excellent photo opportunities.