Summer is upon us, and it’s made me think a lot recently of my childhood holidays in the Dordogne and other areas of France. I have thousands of magical holiday memories. I now have a little girl of my own, and I want to be able to give her the same rich heritage. The other day we sat down together and went through my scrapbooks which she loved! It made me think back to my favourite holidays…
Holidays in the Dordogne
Growing up in England, I was fortunate to live a short drive from Portsmouth, a major ferry port in South England. I have the most beautiful memories of holidays in France, where we would excitedly get on a ferry, often late at night when the city was lit up and set sail to the continent.
Magical childhood memories!
I have five siblings, so it was always a fun, crazy time in the run-up to the holiday that began days before, with packing, losing passports and then, finally, that lovely feeling when you drive up the ferry ramp. You realise that the holidays have officially begun.
Ferries and near misses!
Catching a ferry to France is a fantastic way to cross the Channel. I know that a flight can look “quicker” on paper, but believe me, as someone that has flown a lot, this is rarely true.
It is much easier for a family to pop everything into the car and drive on and off a ferry. Night crossings are an excellent way of travelling while you sleep and can mean less fatigue for the driver.
Sometimes it pays to enjoy the journey a bit more rather than “get there” …whatever “get there” means because family holidays are about every moment, including the journey.
I could tell you some funny memories of long…very long car trips.
My favourite is when we only just made the ferry to sail home. We drove on and turned off the motor whilst the ramp was being hoisted, and then we were moving before we’d even left the car deck!
It could not have been more of a near miss! Family holidays have framed my world more than I maybe realised at the time and have created memories which I treasure and hold onto even now thirty-something years on….
Scrapbooks and French adventures
I’m not a big hoarder, but in a small box of treasures, I’ve kept some scrapbooks of holidays in France from when I was young. It makes me chuckle reading them and looking at the comments I wrote.
There are numerous Brittany Ferries’ postcards, fleet brochures, sugar lump wrappers and restaurant bills, a now mouldy acorn and even a feather stuck into their pages.
One of the best memories was standing outside on the top deck with my family as the ferry left port. It was magical… a new adventure was beginning. On the top tier of a ferry is where my love of France and French culture began and now finds me living in France, married to a French man with an Australian-French daughter.
Who knows where holidays in France could take you!
Waking up in France!
For our holidays in France, we would book a holiday home “un gîte”, often with a pool, because let’s face it, a holiday with six children would have been a lot harder without one.
Destinations for our holidays in France varied, but over the years, we would usually sail from Portsmouth to Saint-Malo or Caen. Although Caen or Le Havre are great for other destinations, the Saint-Malo route is slightly longer, meaning you can get better sleep on overnight crossings before driving in France on arrival.
Some of my childhood holidays were in Brittany, the Loire, the Auvergne or the Dordogne. The options are endless, but I must confess that the Dordogne is still one of my favourite holidays, particularly the Périgord Noir area, which is in the south of the Dordogne region. I’ve been back as an adult to the same spots, and it’s still just as magical. So I thought it would be nice to highlight my favourite places to visit in Périgord….!
11 places to see in the Dordogne
With a population of only 10,000, the small town of Sarlat welcomes more than 1.5 million visitors yearly. This is not surprising when you consider the rich architectural heritage that has been remarkably well-preserved.
I love strolling in the car-free streets bordered by honey-coloured limestone mansions and peeking into pretty inner courtyards.
You must also visit Sarlat for its beautiful markets. Click here for information on market days and times throughout the year.
Make sure you stay at least three nights in this stunning town to wander through its medieval streets, soak up the atmosphere and sample the local cuisine.
If you’re looking for a lovely B&B, try La Lanterne, right in Sarlat's heart, up a little cobbled street. The owner will give you a very warm welcome, and the rooms are beautifully decorated. We especially liked The Courtyard room.
Stroll around the medieval village of Beynac-et-Cazenac, 10 km away from Sarlat, and visit the castle of Beynac. The castle is open all year round and makes for a fascinating visit. It was a crucial stronghold in The Hundred Years' War, with its strategic position overlooking the Dordogne River on the border of the English and French territories. You’ll be rewarded with a fantastic view from the top.
From the castle to the village
Tickets are available online. You can get a self-guided tour document in English or a variety of other languages. Otherwise, guided tours are provided in French if your language skills are up to it! The village is beautiful and, like La Roque-Gageac and Domme, is also listed as one of the Most Beautiful Villages of France. For parking, you have two options - the bottom of the village, where it’s about a 15-minute walk uphill to the castle or drive up to the top car park just a few minutes away from the castle entrance.
Barge boat tours on the traditional flat-bottomed “gabares” depart near the bottom car park opposite the post office. Throughout the 50-minute commented tour you will see the Marqueyssac gardens, the Château de Fayrac, the Château de Castelnaud and, of course, the village of Beynac.
- If you'd like to get a nice photo from the bottom of the castle, then as you arrive in the village, drive past Le Capeyrou campsite, and you'll see a green area on your left next to the river where you can stop and take a photo like the one we've featured above. GPS coordinates: 44.839175, 1.146623 on google Maps.
- If you are travelling with children and want to save money, choose the morning for a boat ride with “Les Gabarres de Beynac”. Children are free of charge on 10 am, 10.30 am, 11 am or 11.30 am departures.
Opposite the Beynac castle, on the other side of the Dordogne River, stands the Castelnaud castle, which was often in possession of the English throughout the Hundred Years' war. In 1442 the French recaptured the fortress for good after a long siege.
You can visit the castle all year round and check the current programme to see one of the medieval shows and displays. You can see a trebuchet in action, although it is a third of the original size for safety reasons! Find out more information on their website.
The village of Castelnaud-La-Chapelle itself is one of the Most Beautiful Villages of France and has some lovely little streets to wander through.
- If you plan on visiting the Marqueyssac gardens, you can buy a combined entrance ticket for the Jardins de Marqueyssac and the castle of Castelnaud. It doesn’t have to be used on the same day and is valid for one year.
- If you plan on visiting several Périgord castles and places of interest, you might want to buy a Pass Visit Périgord. It’s basically a card you charge up with credit and gives you a reduced entrance rate off of a selection of attractions, making it a bit cheaper as you pay a reduced entrance rate instead of the full price. The ticket price is debited from the pass until all credit is used. You can use it for several people at a time, so suitable for families. Click here for more information.
This little village, awarded the prestigious title of one of the Most Beautiful Villages of France, literally hugs the cliffside. In La Roque-Gageac, you will find a row of restaurants, hotels and little shops on one side, the narrow “main” road and then the Dordogne River. Walk up near the church to visit the exotic gardens featuring palm trees, banana plants, fig-trees, cacti and bamboo.
We also highly recommend you take a boat ride from La Roque-Gageac on the famous “gabares”. A flat-bottomed barge will take you up and down the river while you admire the fantastic villages and views and learn more about the famous history between the French and English!
Have lunch or dinner at La Belle Etoile, or even stay there. This family-run boutique hotel and restaurant is a true gem. I ate here on their terrace overlooking the river as a child and returned as an adult not long ago. The kitchen has a different generation but still has the same family, and the food is excellent. You will find it in the Michelin guide, which has a good reputation.
Jardins de Marqueyssac
These suspended gardens are exquisite and well worth a visit. For more photos, look at the blog post we wrote a few years ago after visiting these gardens. In July and August, go on Thursday evenings for the candlelight nights (dusk to midnight).
- To get the best photos to visit in the morning to have the proper lighting for photos of Beynac and Castelnaud.
- If you plan on visiting the Château de Castelnaud, buy a combined ticket. (Please note the combined ticket is not valid for the candlelight evenings.)
If you like gardens, you might also want to visit the Jardins d’Eyrignac, which are 14km to the northeast of Sarlat.
The Lascaux Caves were initially discovered in 1940 by four boys. One of the most significant discoveries of the 20th century was uncovered. The caves were full of prehistoric paintings dating from around 18,000 BC.
In 1963 the original caves had to close as the paintings were being damaged by the number of visitors coming to see them. A replica of the caves was built a short distance away using the same materials and techniques to replicate the paintings. Lascaux II opened in 1983, and this is where you can see the prehistoric engravings and replicas of the original cave.
The Lascaux caves are at Montignac in the Vézère Valley, just 26km from Sarlat.
Other places of interest in the Vézère Valley with prehistoric sites:
- Les Eyzies-de-Tayac-Sireuil
- Grand Roc
- Village de la Madeleine
- La Roque Saint-Christophe
Château des Milandes
They also have some great children’s workshops where little ones can become falconers, dress up and hold exotic birds. (Ages 5 and up). Book if you want your children to attend one of these events.
The village of Domme
The historic village of Domme is perched atop a cliff which dominates the Dordogne River at 210m high, hence its nickname "Acropolis of the Périgord".
King Philippe III founded the bastide in 1281, and the English coveted it during the Hundred Years’ War. The fortified town repeatedly changed hands between the French and the English until 1437, when the French captured it.
From the "Belvédère de la Barre", you'll be spoilt with a fine view over the Dordogne Valley from Montfort to La Roque-Gageac.
Awarded The Most Beautiful Villages of France status, Domme is a stunning village. Arrive early to secure a parking spot as, like everywhere else in this region; it does get pretty busy.
The following places are a bit further afield, but I include them as they are worth a little detour ...
Gouffre de Padirac
The Padirac cave (or Gouffre de Padirac) is a 100m deep chasm which is one of the most amazing natural sites to visit in France. It was first explored in 1889. Visitors access the bottom of the chasm via a lift or a staircase. From there, you’ll explore the cave partly on foot and in a boat.
The underground boat ride leads to the Lac des Pluies, where you can see beautiful stalagmites and stalactites. I still have magical memories of riding in one of these boats deep underground! Children and adults alike will love this outing. (Official website)
Wear warm clothes (the average temperature below ground is 13℃) and comfortable non-slip footwear.
Found in the neighbouring region of Lot, 50km from Sarlat, Rocamadour looks like it is carved straight out of limestone. It became a famous place of pilgrimage in the 12th Century. Pilgrims would climb up the 224 steps on their knees.
It is a fortified town seeped in history, and there are lots to look at, as well as incredible views. It’s a bit of a drive but worth a day out, and if you leave early, you can also visit the Padirac Cave on the same day.
Wear comfortable shoes, as you will be walking a fair bit uphill.
Pech-Merle Prehistoric caves
It’s a little bit further afield (68km from Sarlat), but if you want to see some authentic prehistoric paintings then this is the place to go.
If you are planning on visiting (especially in July and August), then they highly recommend calling at least several days before or using the online booking facility to reserve your tickets for a specific day. To ensure the caves and paintings are conserved, they limit visitors to 700 per day. Click here for phone information and how to book
Most Beautiful Villages of France
Other “Most Beautiful Villages of France” in the Dordogne region and not too far from Sarlat are worth a visit:
Food, glorious food ...!
I've compiled a list of regional specialities and produce you mustn't miss...
- Foie gras, duck confit, duck breast (magret de canard), pommes de terre sarladaises (basically potatoes cooked in duck or goose fat with some salt, garlic and parsley - divine!).
- Cheese: Cabécou (locally made raw milk goat's cheese), Trappe - a soft walnut-liqueur-washed cheese crafted at Abbaye d’Echourgnac where it is matured in the abbey vaults and their sheep's milk cheese tommette de brebis,
- Cakes: Walnut cakes and walnut tarts, “Pompe aux Pommes du Perigord" (apples and almonds in flaky pastry),
- Wine: Local red and white Bergerac wines and the sweet Monbazillac wine, which goes beautifully with foie gras. There is a local wine producer in the Périgord Noir called Vin de Domme, which produces some quality wines.
Make sure you taste or buy this local produce at the markets…
- Spring: white asparagus, morel mushrooms, succulent strawberries
- Summer: array of fresh fruits and vegetables
- Autumn: walnuts, wild cèpes, girolle mushrooms, chestnuts
- Winter: white and black truffles
Don’t miss the truffle festival if you are in Sarlat in January!
Holidays in the Dordogne activities
- Farm visit: Visit a farm where they produce foie gras and other local delicacies. Our friends went here and enjoyed visiting the farm and seeing how the geese are raised. “Gavage” (force-feeding) can be a bit controversial, but if you are a fan of foie gras, then this outing is for you! A 1-hour free visit is available every day in July and August at 18h30. Monday to Saturday rest of the year.
- Maze - A perfect outing for all the family … get lost in a corn labyrinth and then find your way out with the help of clues. There are two in the Périgord Noir area: Labyrinthe de l'Ermite and Labyrinthe de Maïs des Châteaux.
Practical info for holidays in the Dordogne
Best time to visit the Dordogne
Try to avoid July and August if possible, but I know with school holiday dates, this can be tricky.
If you have the choice, then May, June, September and October are excellent months too. It can get pretty hot in the Dordogne, so if you find yourself there at the height of Summer, we suggest reaching out early and relaxing by the river or in your holiday accommodation in the heat of the day. You can always head out again when it cools down for dinner and an evening stroll!
For something more gastronomic, check out the Michelin-rated restaurants near Sarlat. Otherwise, we recommend checking TripAdvisor for reviews and finding a restaurant that suits your mood and budget.
Some restaurants will have children’s menus but not always. Usually, restaurants won’t mind if you get an extra plate for children to share a main or have some of yours. French children generally eat the same as their parents.
Lunch is generally 12 pm-2 pm. In the evening, restaurants don’t open till at least 7 pm in France; even then, you might be the only ones eating for a while. Restaurants often do two sittings in the evening, so it is common for people to make a later booking. Make sure you reserve a table for more popular restaurants if you are travelling during peak season.
At lunchtime, you will usually get a better-priced menu. A smaller menu is usually a good sign that dishes are fresh and “fait maison”. An extensive menu might suggest a tourist trap, and some de-frosting is happening behind the scenes! Look for local specialities and be a little adventurous. Even if it’s on the menu, avoid burgers and tourist food. This region has incredible cuisine and is well worth being a little adventurous!
Where to stay in the Dordogne
There is an excellent range of accommodations in the Dordogne, from luxury hotels to camping sites and comfortable guest houses.
The map below shows most of the accommodation sites in Sarlat and its surroundings. Zoom out to see more of the Dordogne (including Beynac, Domme and La Roque-Gageac):
There are so many amazing things to do in the Dordogne region that it's hard to list them all, but hopefully, this blog post has given you an appetite for this region (and duck 😊). Have you been to the Dordogne yet? Do you live in England and use the ferries to get to France? We would love to hear about your favourite holiday experiences.
Have a wonderful summer wherever you end up travelling!
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