We had been looking forward to the Dordgone since the beginning of the trip. Acclaimed for it’s stunning scenery, quaint riverside villages and Medieval castles, we knew we would need to spend a bit more time here than just passing through on the bicycles would allow. So we gave ourselves a week to really see it properly and decided – because we were getting closer to the end of our trip and wanted to really make the most of it – that we would treat ourselves to some stays in actual campgrounds. We didn’t quite take into account how the hills would slow us down, but we managed to see some very extraordinary places and very much enjoyed ourselves in the process.
We decided that our first stop would be Les Eyzies, the gateway to the Vezier Valley as well as the capital of prehistoric artifacts from the Cro-Magnon and Neanderthal early hominids. As a former humanities teacher who has had an obsession with early humans and early civilizations since learning it myself back in Grade 7 (and then having the pleasure of teaching it), I was very excited about this. We had to ride 85 km to get there first, which wasn’t possible without a stay at a pleasantly forested campground in Pezuls.
We did make it to Les Eyzies the next day though, first with a stop in Le Bugue. To shelter from the rain which had just started, we found a delicious patisserie and treated ourselves to coffee and croissants. We have been in France at this point for almost two months, and this was our first non-instant coffee and non-store-bought pastries. I know, right?
The Vezier Valley has a very ancient feel to it, and not just because of the old towns and the Paleolithic settlements carved into the sides of the cliffs. It just feels like people have been living there for thousands of years.
We found a great little campsite with a view of the cliffs that was within walking distance of the town, set up camp and headed into Les Eyzies along the river.
The town itself is right on the Vezier River and parts of it are carved directly into the cliffside, making for a pretty epic, troglodytic feel. We arrived with plenty of time to spare at the Museum of Prehistory, where we would spend many hours perusing the artifacts and translating the placards to figure it all out.
It is a shame that not more of the museums in France have English translations, but we ended up just trying to piece together as much of it as we could with the English information sheets scattered around the museum’s halls. After teaching all about the early hominids and showing my students the great Werner Herzog documentary Cave of Forgotten Dreams, I was pretty excited to see the Lascaux Cave replicas, but they turned out to be 22km farther north and very difficult to get tours for in English. The International Museum of Cave Art, highlighting an even newer recreation, had just opened, but was even harder to get to. You can’t see it all, unfortunately, and we will definitely have to go back one day (probably with a vehicle or at least with more time). The town itself was still pretty impressive though, and we enjoyed a post-museum dinner out at a great restaurant that (surprisingly) served delicious vegetarian food, followed by a sunset stroll along the river.
The next day, we decided to check out our first medieval castle: Chateau Commarque. On the map, it looked like it was perfectly situated on our route towards Sarlat (one of the larger towns in the Dordogne that we thought we’d head to next). This was the day we realized just how crazy the hills in this area are. The chateau turned out to be a 6 detour km – entirely uphill – off of our route, which was rather challenging and made worse by the 30ºC heat and lack of shade.
This was then made worse by the fact that we had to hike 500m downhill to see the chateau and then up at least 10 sets of stairs to the top tower of the castle. This was exhausting in and of itself, but we learned a lot of cool things about the wealthy Commarque family and the reconstruction of this castle that was only discovered – completely derelict and covered in trees and shrubs – 50 years ago. My favourite part of the castle was the games room where you could play any number of “medieval” games. Christian had to drag me away from that one.
The sun was still glaring down on us as we hiked the 500m back uphill to our bikes (we had hid them behind the toilets and just brought our valuables with us), but we still had a long way to go to Sarlat. There was only one campsite close to Sarlat so we decided to end up there for the night, but again, had not realized the number of hills we would need to climb to get there. Things went from bad to worse when we got our site number and realized it was the farthest possible site up two very steep hills and a very long walk away from the pool (the idea of which spurned us on the whole way there!) After a swim, we felt much better and slept well that night.
From Sarlat, we headed south to the heart of the Dordogne: the river and the many castles you can see along it. From Beynac-et-Cazenac, you can look out at no fewer than five castles in one area. All of these castles (and of course their adjacent towns) were located very high up on hills (of course – otherwise they might not make very good castles), so we ended up just enjoying biking close to the river and taking pictures of them from the best vantages we could find.
Next, we got to La Roque-Gageac which was a very cool riverside town bustling with tourists, canoeists, and picnickers.
We joined them for a healthy lunch of cheese, bread and apricot jam and continued on our way to Montfort, another castle/village/hill combo.
After many ups and downs, more castles and even morespectacular scenery, we eventually found ourselves on a cycle route that seemed to be trying to keep us on level enough ground, and it was time to head across the Dordogne river and start inching our way south to Gourdon.
After a long and hot day of sightseeing by bike, we found a lakeside campsite to rest for the night (after a swim in the pool and a couple of Jupiter beers, of course). The next day, we would be leaving the department of Dordogne, entering Lot and continuing east to Figeac…
Musician, teacher, traveller. Currently on a year-long journey around the world. Bronwyn is one of the founders of onlyamazingdays.com.