On my first trip to the Périgord region of southwest France, in 2016, a scheduled five-night sojourn turned into a six-week stay. My husband and I, at a life crossroads and with time to linger, became enchanted with the prehistoric caves, castles and limestone cliffs that overhang the Dordogne River. In medieval villages built of sandstone, we wandered labyrinthine stone paths, imagining what life might have been like there centuries ago. After the day-trippers went home, we prepared our own meals, dined alfresco and savored the relative tranquility of spending the night in some of these locations.
For that trip, and two subsequent ones, most recently in September, we have relied on the sharing economy to rent houses or apartments in a total of five medieval villages. All have been situated in the southern part of what is known as the Périgord Noir, or Black Périgord. Each would have been an excellent base for visiting nearby tourist attractions, though some were a bit closer than others; for independent travelers, a car is essential.
In every rental we could observe the rich hues of sandstone bathed in the setting sun, gaze out at a brightly lit moon and awaken to the melodious timbre of church bells. What varied were the amenities and the vibe of each village. Following are the attributes and the sights that are most proximate to each.
Room with a view. There’s a reason Beynac-et-Cazenac has been featured in more than a handful of movies. Its castle, complete with drawbridge and restored interior containing a Renaissance staircase, fireplaces, tapestries and an enormous kitchen, provide a natural set for period films. And the village below looks so quintessentially like an old French town that it was one of several locations used in the 2000 romantic comedy Chocolat. Coincidentally, we rented a house on rue de l’Ancienne Poste (Old Post Road), a street made famous by the film, which stars Juliette Binoche, Judi Dench and Johnny Depp.
From the small private garden of our house at the top of the hill, during the first two weeks of October last year, we had a panoramic view of the lower village and the Dordogne. The kitchen window looked out directly at the Château de Castelnaud, in bold relief or shrouded in mist, depending on the time of day and the weather. We were less enthusiastic about the interior – the musty belowground bedroom in this stone-walled dwelling was like a dungeon – but in this sense it might have been authentic. In any event, this rental, especially during the evenings that we grilled outdoors, offered one of the most beautiful settings of anyplace we have ever stayed.
Though we didn’t realize it until we got there, rue de l’Ancienne Poste was a choice address, too. The old post office, for which it is named, has been converted to a luxury vacation rental, complete with a swimming pool. And about half a block downhill from our house, a plaque marks the home (also for rent) that once belonged to Marius Rossillon, better known by the alias O’Galop. He was the poster artist who created the chubby Michelin Man named Bibendum, who has been the company’s mascot for 125 years. A ten-minute walk up from there, along a steep path, leads to the magical château. For a view of it from the water, one can take a cruise on a flat-bottomed boat, called a gabarre (€8.50, or about $9.40 at current conversion rates, for the 50-minute ride with commentary).
Having focused on caves and châteux during our first trip to the region (more below about the former), during our stay in Beynac last year we concentrated on large weekly markets, with their regional and seasonal produce, including strawberries, figs and all manner of duck products. Those that are especially worth the journey: Le Bugue on Tuesday; Souillac on Friday; Périgueux on Saturday; and Saint-Cyprien on Sunday.
For the sake of comparison, we have sampled a variety of well-reviewed Périgord restaurants and found them to be poor values compared with what we could prepare ourselves. In good weather we grilled locally produced meats: sausage – made of duck, pork or lamb – magret (the breast of a duck or goose that has been fattened for foie gras) and tournedos de canard (vertically cut duck breast). To season the potatoes that we parboiled and then browned on the grill, we used rosemary that grew prolifically under a tree at the edge of our garden.
Services in the village include a butcher, a hairdresser (few French villages are without one) and a small supermarket. Bread for sale there and at a depot de pain near the hairdresser is baked elsewhere – Beynac does not have its own boulangerie.
Those who prefer to stay in a hotel or don’t want to cook while on vacation can find other options in Beynac. Be aware, though, that establishments on Route D703 that offer views of the Dordogne are also likely to be noisy, because this narrow, two-way road gets a lot of traffic. La Roque-Gageac, another medieval village a few miles east along that road, suffers from the same issue.
Given the high-income-producing potential of Beynac real estate, it has very few full-time residents anymore. So this is not the place to get much local color. The other drawback is that many rentals, including ours, are not accessible by car. Instead, one must pay to park in the lot next to the river (overnight visitors can purchase a pass at the Mairie, or town hall) and wheel or tote luggage on the ten-minute hike up a steep cobblestone incline.
Even those who walked this path without luggage became breathless; we could hear them swearing in an assortment of languages when they passed beneath our windows. And as we discovered on a couple of rainy days, those cobblestones, well worn from what might be centuries’ worth of foot traffic, become slippery when wet.
Community below the castle. This year we lived for a week in Castelnaud-la-Chapelle, a village whose virtues we came to appreciate from our perch, about ten minutes away, in Beynac. Its castle, which has an excellent military history museum, was the one we had admired from our kitchen window.
First-time visitors to the region will find enough to occupy themselves for several days without having to go very far from Castelnaud. In addition to its château (and the one in Beynac), there’s the Château des Milandes – the lavish country home once occupied by the African-American jazz singer Josephine Baker. From the village you can also hike or drive to the Ecomusée de la Noix, an old farmhouse that’s been turned into a museum about Périgord walnuts. It’s surrounded by walnut groves, where you can picnic in the shade or, depending on the season, watch the nuts being harvested. The gift shop is our preferred source for Périgord walnut oil produced in their own mill.
Unlike Beynac, Castelnaud doesn’t have a quaint main street. Instead, a road, D57, bisects the village. On one side, next to the Dordogne, is a place to rent canoes and bicycles, a park and a pebbly beach, from which, on a hot day, I swam in the Dordogne.
Next to the river is an unattractive strip mall that is the center of village life, with a butcher, a hairdresser and a post office that is hardly ever open. While living in Beynac, we had frequented Maison Carré, where clients from miles around seemed to congregate. It’s the only bakery I follow on Facebook, and in our extensive travels we consider it the best in France. In addition to indulging in their elaborate pastries – French classics like the Paris-Brest as well as their own creations – they were our source of daily bread (closed Wednesdays). The wooden door handle in the shape of a croissant is a charming prelude to what’s available within.
On the other side of the road were jagged paths leading up to the castle and houses nestled in the hillside. Our latest rental was one of them – a three-story stone structure that felt like a doll’s house, with kitchen on the first level, living room on the next and an attic bedroom where we practically had to do the limbo to avoid bumping our heads on the sloped roof. Our landlords owned the attached structure. Across the path was a vacation house owned for the past 15 years by a British couple.
Everyone kept to themselves until the Saturday afternoon when there was a wedding at the church about 100 yards from our house. I was sitting outside, under the shade of a grapevine, when an elderly woman popped her head over our garden gate. “Excusez moi,” she began, then went on to ask whether ours was the red car parked beside the church. (Yes.) A wedding was about to begin, and she needed us to move it.
With the obligatory beeping of horns, the wedding party arrived. An hour later, the church bells pealed. From a distance, we were part of the celebration.
Level streets in a hilly region. Guidebooks and travel boards default to Sarlat as a base for visiting the Périgord, and that was how we started, too. Its major advantage is the wide choice of hotels, stores and restaurants. For those with mobility issues, this is also the least hilly of the historic villages. The downside is that Sarlat has been given over to tourism, with a profusion of shops selling tacky souvenirs and local food products (nut cake and cans of foie gras, for instance). On our most recent visit, the outdoor market, held Wednesday mornings and Saturday mornings on the Place de la Liberté, looked like a theme park, with hordes of visitors wearing headsets and being shepherded around by guides.
Though the city is scenic, few locals live in its historic center, and the merchants, no doubt fatigued by the crowds, tend to have an edge. The duplex apartment we rented was up a flight of stone stairs and looked like a castle, with high ceilings and wooden beams. But like other buildings in old cities, it had a pigeon problem. And sleeping with the windows open during an early September heat wave (few places have air-conditioning), we were disturbed by rowdy revelers in the restaurant across the alley.
Finally, if you crave a glimpse of the river for which this region is named, you’ll have to drive for about half an hour to see it: The Dordogne is more than 12 miles south of Sarlat.
Slice of 21st-century life. With few sightseeing attractions and no hotels, Saint-Cyprien is an ideal choice for those who want to experience a medieval village that has made the transition to modern times. We did that in 2016, renting a 16th-century townhouse, up a small but steep incline from a remaining portion of the old ramparts. It retained vestiges of various centuries’ remodeling jobs: Victorian-style French doors, windows and balconies; high ceilings; and a gas stove installed in the old hearth.
Sun streamed in through the two large kitchen windows, and from there we could observe how a medieval village gets wired: with pipes and conduits drilled through the exteriors of centuries-old buildings to bring in modern plumbing and electricity. During the late afternoon, one could hear the squeals of schoolchildren as they kicked a soccer ball uphill and tried to intercept it on the descent. In the evening, cooking aromas wafted up from every direction.
Down the hill from our house, on Sundays, rue Gambetta, the main thoroughfare in the lower village, was closed to traffic so merchants could set up for the weekly open-air market. There was much air-kissing, as the line formed to buy rotisserie chickens, and a strawberry vendor struggled to explain the difference between three cultivated varieties. For locals, this was a place to see and be seen.
Solitude on the ramparts. Domme was our last stop during those first six weeks in the Dordogne, and by then we had some travel hacks to offer visitors to the area’s famous caves. At the top of the list: Skip Lascaux, which are reproductions (albeit beautiful, they are fakes). Queue up before 8 a.m. to secure a spot at Font de Gaume. For the less publicized, but glorious, cave of the hundred mammoths in Rouffignac, don’t visit in the morning, but have a picnic lunch nearby and be positioned to buy a ticket when they go on sale, at 2 p.m. For the mobility-impaired, these caves have an additional attraction, since most of the visit takes place on a mini-train.
Having made a day trip to Domme in early September to see the bastide, we wanted to return and live there after the crowds had gone. And with many beautiful vacation homes vacated by October, there were opportunities to rent for three weeks there at attractive off-season prices: $120 per night for a three-bedroom, three-bath house, with a family room, living room and enormous kitchen. The home we rented, previously a restaurant, still had a gigantic gas stove.
From there and the garden, we could see the village of Cenac below, where we bought our bread each day from one of two boulangeries; went to the Tuesday market; and patronized the local butcher. In addition to gorgeous views from our house, there were public gardens in Domme with an even more spectacular panorama of the Dordogne.
When it rained we retreated to our capacious nest and put up a soup. Wet weather brought on the nut harvest, and we caught walnut fever concocting, among other things, a salad of mixed greens, endive, figs and goat cheese, topped with walnuts and raspberry vinaigrette.
The only thing standing between us and total bliss was something called “Le Petit Train.” This is a sightseeing vehicle (with commentary) that looks like a giant toy train and winds through many popular French destinations. Several times a day one of them passed directly in front of our rental in Domme. And when it did, we were practically nose-to-nose with curious onlookers staring into our windows. We never imagined that by renting in a medieval village we, too, might become a tourist attraction.
Deborah L. Jacobs is the author most recently of Four Seasons in a Day: Travel, Transitions and Letting Go of the Place We Call Home, about her adventures – and misadventures – living in France. Follow her on Twitter at @djworking and join her on Facebook here. You can subscribe to future blog posts by using the sign-up box on her website’s homepage.