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France's Dordogne River Valley
Land of "Clan of the Cave Bear," Richard the Lion-Hearted,
Christian Pilgrims, and Bastide Villages

Shadows flickered on the walls of the narrow cavern as we groped and felt our way forward, following our guide's lantern deeper into the Grotte de Font-de-Gaume. Our eyes were still not accustomed to the low level of light and the going was slow. Fifty meters into the cave we encountered the narrow Rubicon, a meter-wide passageway where we squeezed single-file between limestone walls to reach the main gallery.

Cave Painting
Cave painting of male bison, Grotte de Font-de Gaume
Courtesy: Arachnis Perigord Virtual Guide

"Gallery" it was, for here perfectly preserved on the walls and ceiling were 15,000-year-old polychrome paintings of animals that no longer inhabit our earth. Life-size bisons, reindeer, horses, and mammoths, rendered in black, ochre, and red, galloped along the limestone contours. The Magdalenian painters who filled this gallery were inspired emotion-filled artists. Our guide described the succession of friezes and reverentially explained the painstaking process by which these ancient people had captured their world in art. The highlight of the 50-meter-long gallery was a frieze of five bisons, both males and females, perfectly preserved with such excellent detail that we imagined Ayla startling them as she emerged from a cavern in "Clan of the Cave Bear."

Grotte de Font-de-Gaume is just one of a number of caverns housing prehistoric artwork in southwest France's Dordogne region. During a recent weeklong sojourn we visited other prehistoric sites, reveled in the history of medieval cliff-perched castles and bastide villages, and canoed a beautiful section of the Dordogne River. It was a week of true discovery.

Medieval Sarlat

The town of Sarlat was the perfect place to settle down for our explorations. After finding a hotel room we enjoyed an afternoon strolling the cobbled alleyways with their medieval homes dating from the 12th through the 16th centuries. The ancient cathedral with its high tower provided a convenient orientation site from its location in the central square. Just up the hill from the cathedral we encountered an architectural puzzle. A huge cone-shaped stone structure looked like an alien spacecraft. We learned that it was the Lanterne des Morts or Lantern of the Dead, an ancient tomb where the region’s early big shots had the honor of being buried.

The highlight of Sarlat was its Saturday market. All the proprietors of the numerous small farms in the region came to the central square and set up booths with their wares…honey, Cabécou goat cheese, truffles, foie gras, confit de canard (duck meat preserved in its fat), sweet fruits, flowers, wines, and vegetables. Clearly, this was the big regional social event of the week as farmers and townspeople caught up on local news and continued their discussions from the previous week.

 Another advantage of staying in Sarlat was that we were able to choose from a number of restaurants around the main square each evening. After a day of exploration we’d have a relaxing outdoor terrace dinner, sampling the fare for which Dordogne’s cuisine is renown: nuts, cheeses, salads, foie gras, and a repertoire of dishes utilizing duck, pork, and potatoes.

Market in Sarlat's main square

Castles and Pilgrims

Beynac castle, Beynac village, and Dordogne River

The Dordogne Valley held a powerful aura of brave knights and damsels in distress from the middle ages. We felt this most strongly when we visited famous Beynac castle perched high atop a 500-foot-high cliff overlooking the river. Richard the Lion-Hearted captured the castle in 1184 before becoming King Richard I of England. He lived there for a time in 1194 after his release from capture following the Third Crusade. Beynac later became the stronghold of the French during the Hundred Years War with England, 1337-1453. As we toured the castle we marveled at its architecture and its inner castle ramp from where steed-mounted knights rode into battle. Incredible views of the river, countryside, and Castlenaud Castle, stronghold of the English forces across the river, were captivating.

Beynac village sat along the river just below the castle. Known as one of France’s most beautiful villages it was recently featured in the popular film "Chocolat" starring Johnny Depp and France’s own Juliette Binoche. Just upriver from Beynac we also explored the smaller village of La Roque-Gageac. The village of two streets sits at the base of a perpendicular cliff along the river and displays a number of troglodyte homes, or cave dwellings, human abodes for thousands of years.

Definitely worth a day’s excursion was the pilgrimage site of Rocamadour, situated a 1-1/2 hour drive from Sarlat on an upriver tributary of the Dordogne. The pilgrimage cluster of chapels seemed to hang at the mid-way point of a perpendicular cliff. Below was a small village while atop the cliff sat an ancient castle.

Rocamadour became one of Catholicism’s major pilgrim sites in 1166 when a perfectly preserved corpse, believed to be Saint Amadour, was unearthed at the entrance of the village’s first chapel. Other miracles were attributed here, and the clergy started to construct an ever-enlarging complex of chapels and religious shrines for the crowds of devoted pilgrims. A still-visible rusted sword driven into the cliff there was said to be that of Roland, Charlemagne’s famous knight of the 8th century.

Rocamadour, with chapel cluster at mid-level

Bastide Village Circuit

Monpazier's market square

Just prior to and during the Hundred Years War the French and English established hundreds of bastide villages in southwest France. These self-defending walled villages were designed for the war-torn region with a crosshatch of alleyways centered on a central market square. We took a day to make a tour of several bastides, including two exceptional examples, Domme and Monpazier. We approached Domme through the 13th-century arched Tower Gate to the central market and strolled through the village with pale stone houses accented by colorful flower boxes and bright orange-tiled roofs. Domme also provided a unique panorama of the Dordogne River Valley. The village of Monpazier was dominated by its large central square with an inviting array of craft and specialty shops housed in the ancient stone buildings.

Lascaux Cavern

After the incredible Font-de-Gaume we couldn’t resist a visit to the most famous of Europe’s prehistoric caves at nearby Lascaux. Since the actual site has been restricted to only archeologists, France has recreated an exact replica cave site called Lascaux II, accurate down to every rock contour and paint mark. It took millions of dollars and ten years to complete. The large array of cave paintings was even more spectacular than Font-de-Gaume’s. We were most impressed by the "Hall of the Bulls" gallery where the lines and colors of the 15,000-year-old masterpieces told us that the artists held a tremendous respect for these creatures.

Lascaux Hall of the Bulls cave painting (Courtesy: The Cave of Lascaux)

Going With the Flow

We couldn’t leave the magical Dordogne region without experiencing its river firsthand. A number of firms provided single-day and multi-day trips. We chose to rent a canoe for a solo paddle down the Dordogne’s most scenic river section between Cénac and Beynac. The two-hour ten-mile trip provided unforgettable sights of villages and castles, including storied Beynac and Castelnaud. The cool deep river flowed very swiftly, yet safely with no rapids. We "went with the flow" to crest an incredible week of Dordogne region experiences.

Click here for details to plan your own trip to Dordogne.

Les Furnanz
Photos by Rita Furnanz

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