Many of Aquitaine’s villages have been certified as Les plus beaux villages de France. This is no accident. Often situated in the valleys and on the cliffs surrounding the Dordogne River, the medieval towns in this region have a distinct look and a unique history.
Here you will find many bastides, fortified planned towns from the 13th and 14th centuries, each with distinctive architecture: limestone bricks and pointed, tiled roofs, frequently overlooked by cliff-top fortresses. These towns’ populations rarely exceed 500, adding to their quaint charm.
Larressingle: a tiny walled village with fewer than twenty houses to its name. Here you will experience the sweet smell of Armagnac, the brandy-producing plants of the region. Larressingle’s best-known attractions include a 12th-century church, Saint Sigismund, and a camp from the middle ages that hosts demonstrations of siege weapons for kids and families. In Saint Sigismund, you will be awed by the vaulted ceilings and historic icons. This town, too, boasts a bridge on the Dordogne: the Pont de l’Artigue, made of limestone with four unequal arches. It replaced an ancient Roman bridge on the road to the Pyrenees.
Monpazier, a 13th century bastide, was at one time the home of Eleanor of Aquitaine and Richard II. This town’s claim to fame is its very well-preserved market square, the Place des Cornieres. The square boasts vaulted stone archways and open porticos as well as a covered marketplace. Be sure to visit on a market day for the full experience. In the Bastideum museum, you can learn about the history of the town and of bastides in general. Nearby you’ll find the parish church Saint Dominique. Built in the 13th century and added to throughout the following three centuries, the church possesses stunning vaulted ceilings and stained glass windows. In the summertime, the town hosts many activities including a cycle race, a medieval festival, and Kermesse (a festival honoring the patron saint).
Another town along the Dordogne, Castelnaud-la-Chapelle features both a 15th-century manor house as well as a fortress that towers above the town. The manor house Chateau des Milandes was once home to American entertainer Josephine Baker. Inside, you will find an exhibition on her life, including many of her glamourous costumes. You can also view the aviary, where experienced bird-handlers will demonstrate the power of some of nature’s fiercest winged predators. In imposing Chateau Castelnaud, a historic rival of Beynac Castle, you will find a museum of medieval warfare including several life-size trebuchets. Pass through the village to the Dordogne and traverse the arched limestone bridge at the foot of the hill.
In Beynac-et-Cazenac, wind your way through the tiny village –the setting for the 2001 film Chocolat, enjoy the greenery spilling over the windowsills of limestone houses and hike up the hill to the Chateau de Beynac. This chateau is among the best-known and best-preserved in the region. It stands atop a limestone cliff on the north bank of the Dordogne River. You may recognize it as one of the settings for the 1998 Drew Barrymore film Ever After. Cross over the moat and the drawbridge to explore inside. Here you will find beautifully restored tapestries of the past barons of the chateau on hunting expeditions. End your day floating down the river in a canoe or even in just a lifejacket.
Carennac will grip you as soon as you approach its limestone flower-lined bridge that leads over the Dordogne and into the village. In the center, you will find more examples of the region’s trademark limestone buildings, many of which are covered in ivy. The cornerstone of this town is its medieval priory, which combines an 11th-century church, Eglise Saint Pierre, and a 16th-century castle. Saint Pierre features a remarkable tympanum (decorated archway) as well as magnificent stained glass windows and arched walkways looking out on a courtyard. Not far from this town is the Padirac Cave, an extraordinary natural phenomenon discovered in the 19th century with an underground river system navigable by boat. Perfect for the adventure-seeker!