Off the beaten path in the Dordogne

by Laurence November 06, 2013

There are less trodden paths in the Dordogne, if you choose to take a bit of time to seek them out. Or, with this handy guide, you can cheat, and learn them now.

Lets take a look at four destinations in the Dordogne where you are going to have a bit of room to breathe when enjoying your surroundings.

St Jean de Cole

So the secret to getting off the beaten path in the Dordogne is to head north, away from the actual Dordogne valley, and to the region north of Perigueux. For some reason this area is far less visited than its southern counterpart – yet still offers up chateaux, rivers and incredibly picturesque little villages.

Like the town of St Jean de Cole for example. Lauded as having the prettiest roofs in France, and a member of France’s most beautiful villages association, this little gem can be found in the north east of the Dordogne, and it does indeed, feature some remarkably pretty roofs.

It’s not all about the roofs though. St Jean de Cole is home to the gorgeous Chateau de la Marthonie, which dates from the 12th century, as well as a Byzantine church. It’s not a big place, but it’s very much worth a wander, perhaps with a bit of extra time planned in for a picnic by the banks of the River Cole.

St Jean de Cole is very tiny, but this doesn't stop it from boasting one of the best restaurants in the area. On Place Eglise, La Perla Cafe serves up excellent French cuisine in a gorgeous setting (+33 5 53 523 811).

Saint Jean de Cole

Nontron

Did you know that the French are world famous for their folding knives? Neither did I until I visited the town of Nontron, perched high above the surrounding wooded landscape on a rocky outcrop.

Here you will find the last of the Nontron knife making factories, once numbering 39, and now numbering one, who carry on the tradition started way back in 1653.

The knives come in all sorts of sizes, from enormous weapons that Crocodile Dundee would be happy to carry, through to knives fashioned from the stones of plums. Size apart, they all follow the same design – a wooden handle, into which folds the blade when not in use.

And in Nontron you can visit the knife making factory, and peer down at the workers, who between them craft over 60,000 knives a year for worldwide export and use. Of course, Nontron has more than some knives to make it worth the visit. There’s a weekly market every Saturday, quaint streets to explore, a sculpture filled garden, and a little art museum. Plenty of opportunity for filling some time!.

Brantôme

Around 30km south of Nontron, or 20km north of Perigueux, sits the stunningly beautiful town of Brantôme. Enclosed by a loop of the river Dronne, this town has earned the title of the “Venice of France”.

Now, if you’ve visited Venice, you might feel that this is a bit of a stretch, but we shall forgive the marketing department of Brantôme this little bit of creativity, because Brantôme is truly a town that deserves to be visited. In fact, if you do nothing else on this list but visit Brantôme, you will be happy.

Brantôme is particularly notable for two things – the river Dronne which wends its way entirely around the town centre, creating an island on which the town sits, and for the caves in the hillside which were home to troglodytic monks.

These monks were responsible for starting the creation of Brantôme Abbey, way back in 769, in cohorts with Charlemagne, then the King of France. This Abbey, which is still standing, is one of the reasons why this town has been on the map for hundreds of years as a site of religious pilgrimage, and indeed, it is part of the epic Santiago de Compostela walking route in France.

Of course, it’s not all about the religion – if you want to take in a bit of canoeing for example, then Brantôme also has you covered, with a number of companies offering excursions on the river, either self paddled or by electric boat.

Picking one restaurant here from the many available is a real challenge - they are all excellent, so it really depends on what sort of view and budget you are keen to enjoy or exercise. If I had to choose though, I would go with Les Saveurs (+33 5 53 055 423), on 6 Rue Georges Saumande, where I've always had an wonderful dining experience.

Picking one hotel in Brantome to unwind after a long day out is easier. Head to the Moulin de Vigonac boutique hotel. A lovingly restored watermill hidden away in lush gardens just outside Brantôme, with a sparking swimming pool and soothing riverside bedrooms. And a savoury restaurant, too.

The Caves of Villars

If there is one thing that the Dordogne is famous for, it’s caves. Oh, and duck. And castles. And rivers. Ok, so it’s famous for a lot of things. But caves are definitely up there!

The caves of Lascaux are probably the most famous of the French caves in the Dordogne, but due to human activity, have been closed to the public since 1963. The alternative, known as Lascaux II, are open to the public, but are a man-made recreation of the original.

The caves of Villars, not too far from Brantôme, are home to equally ancient cave paintings, and are the largest caves in the Dordogne. Stretching for nearly 13km, 600m of these caves are accessible to visitors, and are home to 30 cave paintings dating from around 17,000 years ago.

Around Villars

If you’re visiting the caves of Villars, then I can recommend planning a little extra time to explore the immediate surrounding area. Two highlights spring to mind – the Chateau Puyguilhem and the ruined Abbey of Boschaud.

The former is a beautiful small Renaissance-style chateau built between 1513 and 1535, which served as the inspiration for many of the more famous Dordogne chateaux. The Chateau is open during the summer months for tours.

The ruins of Boschaud abbey, in the tiny village of Boschaud are very atmospheric for a wander, and are free to enter. I can recommend checking the timetable of events with a local tourism office, as they often have open-air activities going on – everything from live music to renditions of Shakespeare. If you get a warm summers evening, it’s a fantastic venue for a picnic with a fine bottle of French wine!

Many thanks to Laurence Norah from Finding the Universe for stopping by and sharing some of his secret places in Dorgogne with us.


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