The clouds were so dark that I could almost feel the electricity in the air. We had just landed in Limoges, and given the menacing thunderstorm that was brewing we couldn’t have been gladder to be safely on the ground.
We were in France for a four-day trip in the Dordogne region and, as a compulsive weather checker, I already knew we’d have rain for the entire duration of our stay. It’s not as if we needed sunshine and heat, coming out of the notoriously glorious British winter and spring!
The moment we got on our rental car, the mighty deluge was on us. By the time we left Limoges, however, it had turned into a lighter, yet persistent rain that accompanied us for most of the two hours it took us to reach Sarlat-la-Canéda – a town of 9,000 nestled in the pretty Périgord countryside.
When we stepped into its quaint medieval core for a pre-dinner stroll, it appeared that, while we were checking into our hotel, the whole town had been forced to flee some kind of apocalyptic event: it was barely 7pm and the streets were deserted. Shop lights were out, the shutters down. A stack of patio chairs, which would have normally borne the promise of a merry dinner alfresco, stood dripping outside an empty restaurant. A gloom-filled sight.
We weren’t sure why the town was so dead, but in a way it made our walk around its quiet and warmly lit streets all the more enjoyable. We stopped by the pretty cathedral and the bullet-shaped stone tower known as “Lantern of the Dead” in the adjacent Jardin des Enfeus. These lanterns are common in central and southern France, but we still don’t know whether they are meant to indicate the presence of a cemetery or to commemorate the crusades (the name doesn’t help: morts – dead – and Maures – Moors – sound almost exactly the same in French).
CHURCHES AND CAVES
The following day the sky was, again, a dull, grey blanket. During our sumptuous breakfast, we stared in silence at the hotel’s swimming pool – the only reason we had booked accommodation outside the town center. Needless to say, we never used it.
Home to both a sanctuary and a famous goat cheese of the same name, Rocamadour appeared to us enshrouded in a light morning mist. Annoyingly, the rain wasn’t showing any sign of stopping, so we parked the car, grabbed our umbrellas and went up to the sanctuary.
You’ll have enough chapels here to fill a full day of sightseeing, but we settled for a walk around the religious complex to take in its beautiful turrets, arches and staircases – much of the sanctuary was directly dug out of the cliff face. We did walk into the Chapel of Our Lady, a small and peaceful place famous for the 12th-century statuette of the Black Madonna (oxidation and candle smoke turned it black), worshipped by Christian pilgrims in search for a miracle. I am not religious, but for a moment I contemplated the idea to ask the Holy V to make the rain cease. I eventually didn’t.
To reach the castle on the top of the cliff, we then walked up a leafy and twisty path showcasing at each bend one of the stations on Jesus’ Journey of the Cross. All of sudden wet feet and an umbrella didn’t seem so bad. (We later found out there is a road leading up to the chateau – for the not-so-repentent, I guess).
The castle dates back to the 19th century, and the ramparts were the highlight of our visit to Rocamadour: they offer unrivalled, bird’s-eye views of the town and the valley around it. Truly spectacular. (Bring coins as they are the only way to get through the barriers.)
After saying goodbye to Rocamadour, we drove to our next stop, the Gouffre de Padirac. It’s a massive chasm 75-metres deep created when the ground above the cave collapsed (nobody knows when that was). From the bottom you can access the actual cave. We were excited because part of it is a navigable underground river. Sadly, Mother Nature had other plans for us: the cave had flooded due to the heavy rain and was closed that dat. I tried to channel my inner yogi to avoid swearing out loud, but failed.
We had to make do with the nearby Grottes de Presque (single ticket goes for €8). We were the only visitors and, I must say, it was incredible to have this surreal, almost alien world full of odd rock formations all to ourselves.
We were back in Sarlat in time for dinner at the smartly decorated Le Bistro de l’Octroi, where we enjoyed some foie gras and veal with mushrooms sauce. The meal was good, but not extraordinary… and certainly not worth €36! I have never been a huge fan of French cuisine and, while I recognize the uniqueness of some of the local dishes, what I found about restaurants in Sarlat is that they are often pretty expensive for what they offer (we had a similar experience the night before at Le Quatre Saisons). And there is only so much foie gras a man can eat in one trip!
After a couple of beers in a café in Place de la Liberté, we went back to the hotel, where we could finally hang our pants to dry.
A GLIMMER OF HOPE… OR SO WE THOUGHT
We were almost in disbelief the following morning when we saw the sun had finally managed to break through the layers of clouds to make sporadic and short-lived appearances.
We knew it wouldn’t last long, so we quickly got in the car and drove to the nearby commune of Castelnaud-la-Chapelle. It doesn’t get any more medieval fortress than this at the perfectly preserved 13th-century chateau: get ready to travel back in time as you explore the castle’s bastions, towers and rooms. Throughout the building, you’ll see an interesting display of weapons – don’t miss the catapults on the bastions. With the sun playing hide-and-seek with the clouds, the majestic Dordogne Valley in front of us seemed to get a new skin every few minutes.
A few miles up the river is Beynac-et-Cazenac (it would appear that every village here has at least a three-word name). Perched on a rocky cliff, its castle rivals Castelnaud in elegance – even though walking in the alleys leading up to it, lined with cream-colored houses, will perhaps be the best part of your visit. It’s not hard to see why Beynac is considered one of the prettiest villages in France.
By the time we had reached La Roque-Gageac – another picture-perfect village built at the foot of a cliff and right on the bank of the River Dordogne – it had started pouring again. Sideways. We endured the rain to take a few shots of the cute little town, but it quickly became too much even for two Londoners well versed in the art of making the most of bad weather.
So, in conclusion, I highly recommend visiting the Perigord… it’s a charming, peaceful part of France that will make you fall in love with its picturesque villages, medieval charm and delicious food.
Just hope the sun is out when you visit.