Dordogne’s Most Beautiful Villages

What makes a French village so special? It’s a question that taunts many a traveller. The answer may be found in one of those many photographic coffee table books on the subject or perhaps in the long list published by the association, Les Plus Beaux Villages de France, the most beautiful villages of France. When staying in the Dordogne departement of southwestern France, it’s a delightful and popular pastime to explore these designated Plus Beaux Villages as well as the small but undesignated communes of the district, thus creating your own list. With advice from the hosts of our rental house in Monpazier, Giselle and Jean-Pierre, together with a bit of reading, we embarked on a busy two weeks of driving around the Dordogne and only now, I’m a little closer to answering that question, though I would be quite keen to do some more research on site.

Market square, Monpazier, our home village for two weeks. Taller gap between these arched walkways allows a horse with mounted rider to pass through to the square.

The association, Les Plus Beaux Village de France, was set up in 1981 by Charles Ceyrac and today the association includes 157 villages spread over 14 regions and 70 departements. The aim of the association is to

“avoid certain pitfalls such as villages turning into soulless museums or, on the contrary, “theme parks”. Our well-reasoned and passionate ambition is to reconcile villages with the future and to restore life around the fountain or in the square shaded by hundred-year-old lime and plane trees.”¹

The departement of the Dordogne has its fair share of beaux villages and if we count a few in the neighbouring Lot et Garonne, the list grows longer. Belves, Beynac, Castelnaud- la- Chappelle, Domme, Limeuil, Monpazier, La Roque Gageac, Saint- Amand- de- Coly, Saint- Jean- de Cole, and Saint Leon sur Vezere have received this prestigious title. Most villages have a market day, though after a few markets, you will begin to recognise many stall holders. Still, there will be surprises and very local specialties in each of them. The smaller villages and hamlets not on this list are often more beautiful in many ways.

And so back to that question. What makes a French village so special? It really does depend on the day. My ‘best of’ list is naturally informed by my own value judgments as no doubt yours would be too. Many factors affect that judgement, such as, the weather on the day, the density of tourists which goes hand in hand with the season, the beauty of the surrounding countryside, the proximity of the village to a river, the attraction of a market in progress, the arrival of a cavalcade of day tourists in small buses, turning your favourite village into a theme park, the blustering cajolery of les Anglais, the Dordogne’s more recent residents from over La Manche who are omnipresent in some villages, congestion or its opposite, deathly quiet, the authenticity of the architecture, signage, cuisine, and friendliness, just to name a few factors. Although food is often high on my agenda, my main interest in this area is medieval history and architecture, as well as following the course of the Vezere river, a most enchanting river, as it winds its watery way through this verdant rural land.

Limeuil from across the river
A picnic spot on the Vezere, Limeuil France

Of the 50 or so villages, hamlets and towns that I visited in 2017 and 2011, my favourite villages include Saint Leon sur Vezere, Belves, Monpazier, Issigeac, Limeuil, the small commune of Biron, and the larger towns of Le Bugue and Bergerac. During a visit to this area in 2011, we stayed in Brantôme en Périgord and grew to love that town and the little hamlets nearby. We also have a list of our least favourites, which includes Eymet ( nice architecture but oh- so -English) and La Roque- Gageac, beautifully situated on a steep slope next to the Dordogne river, but frequented by a long procession of bus tour groups. Below, a media show of the picturesque village of Eymet.

The history of the region can be read in the architecture, with castles, chateaux, churches, abbeys, bastides, and cave fortresses along with the more modest domestic architecture and streetscapes such as medieval market halls, bastide walls, village squares, fountains, laneways and half-timbered houses. In the long run, it doesn’t really matter where you stay, so long as you have a car to tour the myriad of hamlets, villages, and towns that dot the countryside.

There are 520 communes in the Dordogne, 1500 castles and 18 Bastide towns. So much to see and so little time. More research is definitely required.

Wet day somewhere in the Dordogne.

For Helen and Chris, who will be there soon enough. Tomorrow, I’ll return to my favourite village, Saint Leon Sur Vezere.

My previous posts on the Dordogne, France

A Village Church at Saint Leon sur Vezere.

Out to Lunch in the Dordogne

Another Lunch, Monpazier

French Country Markets

The Bastide Villages of the Dordogne. 

¹. les-plus-beaux-villages-de-france

 

French Country Markets

Village markets in France roll around once or twice a week, and if you happen to miss your local marché, there’s always another one the following day in a village nearby. I can sense pre- market excitement when I’m staying in a village but maybe it’s just my own eagerness to get there. I must confess, I’m a French market junkie, having been to around a dozen or so over the last four weeks, and I put this down to my greed and lust for good food. I’m in the right country. French markets are integral to life here. Supplies come to your village from the local district: some from the farmers, cheese makers, apiarists, some from local artisans, and of course, manufacturers of cheap clothing. Heading out the front door, with strong bags in hand, and strolling through narrow lanes and medieval arcades, with no car traffic to deal with enroute, is far more pleasurable than heading off to a supermarket by car. If only my local market back at home near Melbourne was as easy to visit, without fear of being run down by speeding tourists keen to park as close to the market as possible. In French country markets, cars are banned: they are parked on the outskirts of the village, allowing easy access for vendors’ vehicles. All shoppers must walk to the market.

Market day, Pezenas.

What treasures will turn up this week? What new seasonal vegetables will be on offer and will I show some restraint for a change? The church bells are chiming 8 am and I can hardly wait. Today’s market in Pezenas, Occitanie, will be interesting. It takes place in a nearby square, a stone’s throw from our 16th century apartment. As I write, I can hear the trolleys being wheeled in through the port below the window.

Local oysters, Pezenas. There are also two daily oyster stalls in the town. These sell at around 6 euro a kilo. ( around 15 to a kilo)
Walnut season necessitating the purchase of a walnut cracker.

The markets in the Dordogne region varied in size and style. The large and colourful Sunday market at Issigeac was a favourite. It snaked its way around the narrow and winding village streets in an unpredictable way, given that Issigeac doesn’t have a large market square. All sorts of vendors turned up: the mushroom man, selling girelles, trompe du mort and Cèpes (porcini): a rugged looking duo selling oysters of every size, boxed up for buyers on beds of seaweed, a curly red headed lady with honey and bees wax for sale, who played the squeeze box and sang French folk songs when not engaged in selling, and the usual array of vegetable, cheese and saucisson stalls.

The most delicious mushrooms, Cèpes. Ne Pas Toucher, Mischa Belle.
Miel. Local honey in the Dordogne. Our honey pot, tasting of woods and flowers, was a gift from our landlord,  Jean Pierre, from his own bees.

The Thursday market at Monpazier ( it has always been held on Thursdays since the 13th century ) was much smaller, though on one occasion, a mattress seller took pride of place in the square and I did rather fancy the knife sharpening man, a skill that is slowly dying. The big town market at Bergerac encircled the town’s cathedral, then radiated uphill along adjacent streets. A huge christening ceremony took place one Saturday while the market was in full swing, the shoppers and vendors forming a row of honour as the family and baby arrived.

There were little stalls selling sweet canelè in every flavour, lots of walnut stalls, chestnuts, and a substantial flower market. The Saturday market at Le Bugue, right on the Dordogne, sold the best Paella, cakess and quiches and the huge poissomiere truck did a roaring trade. I purchased a small tub of brandade to spread on croutons: this is one dish I never bother to make at home given the tedious soaking of salted cod required.

Not for sale, otherwise they would now be in my suitcase!

In each market you’ll usually find a separate area where cheap clothing, linen, shoes and handbags are sold. These stalls are appealing at first, then after a while, you recognise the same garments at every market- this season it’s oversized knitted sloppy joes, women’s tops with large stars on the back, and retro looking cotton tops with a lot of glitter and sequins.

Radish and parsnip. Bergerac market

One of the other features of the village market, and one I’m too shy and too foreign to join, is the footpath café scene. Coffee and wine are sipped slowly,  double or triple kiss greetings take place as locals gather to catch up, though you can always spot a French poseur or two, and a few expats trying very hard to appear local. I’ll head to the Café des Arts in the late afternoon for a Pastis. I’ve acquired a taste for this old Provençal drink. I’ll wave about an imaginary Gauloises and if chilly, I may even don my new fingerless gloves or perhaps a beret. Bonne journée.

Take away seafood paella. One metre wide paella dish.
Market day cafe scene, Pezenas

This is my list for Languedoc/ now Occitanie.