Make sure to escape boring holidays, go to Black Périgord- Meanderings through France n° 124
By Annick Dournes & Frédéric de Poligny
Have you already taken a one-week summer vacation on a beach and get a strange feeling of boredom with little to remember once back home? Sometime active holidays are the best way to “recharge” and create nice memories that will help you go back to your day-to-day routine. There is plenty to do in beautiful Black Perigord and you will have plenty of selfies to share with your friends and family every day. With amazing villages, castles, food and landscapes, every road will take you to unique places.
Sarlat undoubtedly is the iconic town of Black Perigord with an amazingly well preserved town centre where there are no less than 66 historic monuments. Founded one thousand years ago around an important Benedictine abbey, Sarlat quickly expanded and was a very prosperous town all through the Middle Ages and the Renaissance. This Golden Age came to an end after the French Revolution and the town slowly declined. Paradoxically this decline was its luck. Without any money to replace old buildings by new ones the medieval and Renaissance mansion-houses, churches, the city-hall or the bishop’s palace look the way they did centuries ago. Completely restored in the 1960’s and 70’s this architectural ensemble is one of the most important one in the world.
Guided tours in English are organized all summer long to help you find your way in the maze of narrow streets and see the main places of interest. Most houses were built using a local beautiful blond limestone that takes golden shades in the sunshine. Mullioned and gothic windows, atriums with elegant outside galleries and staircases, typical stone roofs of Perigord, half-timbered façades, finely worked doors with sculpted frames… Sarlat is like a living historic book.
Twice a week, on Wednesdays and Saturdays’ mornings, the market attracts people from the whole area and tourists as well. Located in a former church restored by Jean Nouvel, one of the most prominent contemporary French architects, the market is a victim of its own success! The former church is not big enough for all and stands invade the square next to it. It’s pretty crowded but you will find there authentic local produce such as truffles, foie gras, walnuts, cheeses, honey, ducks and gooses… A nice way to meet local producers!
You can go up the former church tower using the elevator to get a great view over the city and the surrounding countryside. But don’t forget to pay a visit to the impressive Cathedral Saint Sacerdos and to the unique La Boétie’s Mansion that only are a few steps away.
Ten kilometres (6 miles) South of Sarlat, La Roque-Gageac, is a small village built on a narrow piece of land between a high cliff and the Dordogne River. It is one of France most beautiful villages and well deserves this award. South-facing it enjoys a special microclimate that allows exotic plants to grow in the village: palm, banana, agave, lemon, olive or fig trees, cactus, bamboos… have found here an unexpected place to flourish. From the half ruined, troglodyte fortress you will get a wonderful view over the village, its castle flanked by a typical square tower and the Dordogne River.
Close to Sarlat there are many other places to visit, picturesque villages, medieval castles and botanical gardens are open all year round. Beynac’ streets are so narrow that you will have to leave your car in one of the car parks to visit this village that is also listed France Most beautiful Village. Its 12th century fortress once was Richard the Lion Heart’s castle. It proudly overlooks the Dordogne River 150 metres below and has been standing guard for 900 years. The castle is in very good condition and visiting it you will be able to climb up its dungeon and get an amazing view over the Dordogne Valley and the other castles nearby.
All summer long Castelnaud Castle relives its medieval glorious times. This fortress that also overlooks the Dordogne Valley is a perfect example of medieval architecture and is today intending to popularize Middle Ages way of life. Going from room to room, from terrace to terrace, you will discover an impressive collection of ancient weapons and armours while guides and actors dressed in period -costumes will perform weapon handling, shooting with siege machines, forgery work or the crossbowmen’s skill.
Only a few miles away from Castelnaud you can go to one of the most spectacular French botanical garden. Marqueyssac Gardens are box tree gardens set on a high terrace offering a 360-degree view over the Dordogne Valley and 5 nearby castles. The bicentenary box-trees are carefully pruned twice each year to create dreamlike landscapes surrounding the small castle and it impressive stone roof.
Another beautiful garden awaits you. Eyrignac Gardens are only 12 km (8 miles) North of Sarlat. They are a superb setting for the charming Artaban Manor and besides the 300 different sculpted plants that made the gardens famous you will discover rare and ancient botanical species in the orchard, the vegetable garden, the formal garden or the Chinese pagoda.
On your way back to Sarlat make a side trip to Puymartin Castle where its owner the Count of Montbron will welcome you for a guided tour of his family home. With a keen interest in history he will make your visit a lively one. After driving on a small road through the woods you will distinguish a fairy tale like castle where the legend of the White Lady is still vivid. In the 15th century Thérèse de Saint Clar was imprisoned in the Northern tower by her jealous husband and she died there years later. Her ghost is said to roam the castle’s rooms and suddenly appear in front of “lucky” visitors.
But even if you don’t meet the White Lady the visit is very interesting. The castle is entirely furnished and still looks like a family house. The “mythological room” is the highlight of the visit with its wooden walls completely painted in grisaille, a grey monochrome motifs made in the 15th century. It took 20 years to Philippe Lemaire a French artist of the time, to complete this chef-d’oeuvre.
Back to Sarlat the hotel “La Couleuvrine” is a very nice place to stay at. It is set in a typical stone house of Sarlat and leans back against an ancient city rampart. The building was restored by an architect, Serge Lebon and later his wife Annick, created the hotel. Today their two granddaughters take care of the hotel guests. One of them, Marion, is the hotel chef and she makes a very tasty and inventive cuisine using the wonderful local produce. Everything is homemade with fresh ingredients: duck breast kebabs, Sarladaises potatoes -a traditional local recipe made with potatoes, duck fat, garlic and parsley-, walnut cake or ice cream… There even is a vegetarian menu for those who don’t want to even think of foie gras or duck confit! What a pity!
More about Sarlat: http://www.sarlat-tourisme.com/en
More about Dordogne: http://www.dordogne-perigord-tourisme.fr/
Related article about Marqueyssac gardens: http://b-c-ing-u.com/2017/04/20/footsteps-prehistoric-ancestors-perigord-meanderings-france-n-114-n-112/
Related article about prehistoric sites in Dordogne: http://b-c-ing-u.com/2017/04/20/footsteps-prehistoric-ancestors-perigord-meanderings-france-n-114/
Text ©Annick Dournes
Photos ©Frederic de Poligny & Annick Dournes