In the southwest region of France, two graceful rivers meander their way through a land where soft, clear sunlight immerses you in a world unchanged for hundreds of years. The rivers Dordogne and Lot lead you to some of France’s most picturesque countryside, decorated with peaceful meadows and farms, thick green woodlands and dramatic castles that practically float atop staggering rocky cliffs and hilltops.
On this trip, I spent twelve days driving through this region to enjoy the splendor of spring and to visit the most beautiful medieval villages in France. It is always a challenge to plan a route with so many interesting attractions to choose from. Thankfully, I had the wonderful book written by travel-guru Karen Brown, France B&B. Her books always provide wonderful, indispensible advice for my trips, and this time was no exception: I poured through France B&B like a bible.
In Dordogne Valley, I stayed in the charming, centrally-located town of Sarlat. The easy mix of medieval and renaissance architecture gives the illusion that time has indeed stood still all these years, and if it weren’t for the draping vines of wisteria and bougainvillea that break-up the shadows, it might not even seem real. Within its quaint quarter, the narrow cobblestone streets of Sarlat wind through a maze of gastronomical delights that specialize in truffles and foie-gras. Not to be missed is the tour through the Lascaux Caves, which is home to very rare Paleolithic cave paintings that date back 15,000 years.
While driving alongside the Dordogne River, wondrous sights greet you at every curve of the road, such as the village of Rocamandour, which is built on steep, narrow canyon walls that rise over 400 feet. Even the approach to the village Beynac is dramatic, with its austere, twelfth-century castle perched menacingly atop a limestone cliff as it casts it shadow across the small village. The medieval walled-village of Domme boasts original fortified walls and gateways into the town, and, for lookout-purposes, was built at the top of a fairly steep hill, providing spectacular views of the Dordogne River. Be sure to have a cappuccino or a glass of vin rosé at the café Terrasse de la Barre to enjoy breathtaking panoramas of the Dordogne River and surrounding valley.
Lot River Valley is referred to by the French as La France Profonde, meaning "Deep France". Quietly tucked away just south of Dordogne and east of the large town of Cahors, the beautifully secluded Lot River Valley is best explored with a leisurely, two to three-day drive and a stay in some of the quaintest B&B’s along the river. The ambiance of Lot River is one of easy tranquility. The lulling chime of cathedral bells sound twice every hour and the sun shines reassuringly through the mist in the morning, as if calling you to start your day. With countless Romanesque architecture, ancient abbeys, and sweeping vineyards, there is an abundance of dramatic vistas to gaze upon. However, there is also a severe shortage of places to stop and pull-over, which can make photography a real challenge.
Saint-Cirq Lapopie is one of the most memorable villages I visited along the Lots River. Under an overcast sky, it looked as though I had just stepped inside one of Monet’s Water Lilly paintings. Pale colors blend together, creating vividness in their unison. I stayed overnight in an old four-room B&B inside the village. An eerie quiet lends a distinct air of mystery to Saint-Cirq Lapopie. As I walked through the very narrow and shadowy cobblestone lanes that wrap around, up and down the village, the only sound was the echo of my own footsteps competing with the occasional light rains. Morning, noon or night, it makes no difference: the tranquil quiet always lingers, as if it were a true ghost town left untouched for a few hundred years.
Let the Lot River be your guide and travel further down, as the riverside presents a myriad of charming towns connected by rambling roads so curvy that each turn presents a different angle of Lot Valley. Near the end of my trip, I visited the massive walled city of Carcassonne. With the title of Europe’s largest medieval fortress, this is definitely the highlight of my trip. Built in the first century and fortified by the Romans in 100 BCE, Carcassonne’s castle played a prominent role in the medieval crusades and remained a military stronghold until 1659, when France’s border moved south to the Pyrenees. One of the best panoramic views of its grandiose castle is from the highway leading into the ancient city, with subtly curved vineyards as the lead-in lines. Once the sun begins to set, go across the river and have dinner at the Hôtel de la Cité while you enjoy the splendid evening view of the city when giant flood lights illuminate the massive protecting walls in all their entirety. There is a palpable excitement in the air when you see such an impressive man-made structure that stands the test of time beside the beauty of Nature’s greener-than-green expanse that rises and falls as gently and as free as the ocean.
It was a real joy to drive along the rivers of Dordogne and Lot and let myself get lost in the surrounding villages. An air of enchantment completely envelops these valleys. With soaring medieval architecture and honey-colored chateaux that hover above deep forests and farms, these two rivers flow dreamily not just through land, but through time itself.t