‘Far from the madding crowd’ in the Dordogne

After a successful trip to Var last year, James Benson ended up trail-testing another Cicerone walking guide to France with his family this year – this time Walking in the Dordogne – enjoying the rolling pastoral landscape and the red wine in equal measure.

This year we booked two centres, staying near Beaulieu in the Perigord Noir for one week before decamping to the Perigord Poupre to the west. Clearly many UK residents drive down, judging by the large numbers of British cars we encountered across the county, sorry departement, but we chose to fly via Bordeaux and then to hire a car. Bordeaux Merignac airport’s low-cost terminal known as Billi is incidentally the most unpleasant and least customer-friendly facility of this type that any of us have encountered anywhere in the world, and that seems to be borne out by online reviews. Any amount of time on the M25 would definitely be preferable.

Chateau Monbazillac perched on a hill south of Bergerac

Even this far up the river valley, 140 miles east of Bordeaux, the landscape is mature, pastoral, lush and rolling, with none of the sort of big peaks to be found to the south in Provence, let alone the Pyrenees. It’s comfortable, green agricultural landscape, dotted with amazing ancient towns and villages, and through it all run the big rivers, at times cutting through high cliffs in the limestone, probably the most impressive features of this countryside.

Not wanting to sound like the local tourist board, but it’s all very lovely, the food is great, the markets superb, and the people always friendly.

Have I mentioned the wine yet? It’s cheap, often red, always high quality and it’s everywhere, especially on Janette Norton’s Walk 24 in the Cicerone guidebook, through the vineyards of Monbazillac. At just over an hour that easily counts as the most effortless Cicerone walk that I have undertaken so far. The walk starts from the beautifully preserved Château de Monbazillac, perched on what passes for a hill in these parts, to the south of the lovely town of Bergerac. The views are pretty extensive to the north over the town and the acres and acres of vineyards and occasional orchards through which we then ambled, following telephone poles, along jeep tracks.

It all felt very French and very calming, as was the wonderful wine tasting at the château afterwards. I don’t normally do sweet dessert wines, but tasted in situ they were really rather special and a perfect way to toast a walk that was quite long enough given the heat. And yes, that price in Euros was for a case of six bottles, not one. It’s a long way to the nearest Waitrose and even further to Booths.

A decorated cart near St Felix

If that was the shortest walk, St Felix de Villadeix (Walk 31) was the most convenient for us, as we happened to be staying there so didn’t have to drive to get to the start. As Janette writes, this is a really satisfying walk of 12km, with lots of interest provided by the constant contrasts and changes in scenery.

To me, this felt like walking through parts of East Devon or Dorset, following tracks through small patches of woodland and scrub before emerging at the side of large open fields, with wide views over the rolling countryside, with perhaps a hint of a large house or château off in the distance.

I now see she writes the walk has a ‘far from the madding crowd’ feel about it, and Gabriel Oak or Tess Durbeyfield, would indeed have felt quite at home here. We did use an IGN blue series map for the route, but as ever, the directions in the book were spot on, down to the timings and yellow splashes. ‘In three minutes we will see a square pumping station on the right or a sign in Dutch’ were the sort of directions frequently relayed on these walks, followed three minutes later by a selection of comments, often slightly facetious in character, and directed I must say at the carrier of the book rather than its author or publisher.

View from the Monbazillac vineyard walk, looking towards Bergerac

The most impressive of the walks that we undertook was upstream on the Dordogne at St Sozy (Walk 12). We had the pleasure of meeting some friends from home for this walk, starting from the church in St Sozy. (Top tip: Don’t stand right underneath the eaves when the house martens are about.) A little bit of complex route finding at the start – ok, I admit, for the first time ever on a Cicerone walk, we got lost because we were talking and not paying attention to the book even though Janette does say ‘Careful this is not easy to see’ and it’s printed in bold – eventually we emerged out of woods high above the river at the Roc Coulon.

This is a more rufty-tufty landscape and hot work in this weather, with nettles and even scree to contend with. The trail roughly follows the Dordogne south through and over the top of the high cliffs, before dropping down to the river at Blanzaguet, and following back through dense magical woodland along the river bank and directly under the cliffs. One of the highlights of this impressive walk were the huge caves that we encountered, apparently the habitation of early man, whose antics had, of course, to be faithfully re-enacted.

On this stretch, plenty of people passed in canoes, and later in the holiday we took to the water ourselves, on both the Dordogne and the Vezere; another superb way of seeing this lovely landscape.

Canoeing down the Dordogne

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