I love a short break, especially if it involves eating copious amounts of French cheese and delicous wine. So I was beyond delighted to be invited out to a tiny village near Bergerac for four days last week. Just an hour and 20 minutes flight from London to a tiny rural airport, we left at midday and – voila – were leisurely enjoying cheese and wine by late afternoon.
The southwestern region of Dordogne is absolutely delightful. Every single house and village is quintessentially francais. No high rise cheap builds, they are all beautiful honey coloured stone buildings surrounded by lush green fields and sunflowers.
We stayed in a quaint little holiday village just outside St Felix de Villadeix. So tiny it only has a food shop and evening restaurant, but a boulangerie van brings fresh pastries and bread at 8.30am every morning. Magnifique!
With over 1000 châteaux in the region and two key rivers, there was plenty to keep us occupied in between eating bread and cheese.
I hadn’t realised that the area is so rich in prehistoric history – the local celebrity is Cro Magnon man, an early human who lived in the region some 28,000 years ago . With his long beard and creative paintings, he reminded me a little of some of the Dalstonites of East London… seriously though, the sites are fascinating. The Cro Magnan people crafted beautiful jewellery and cave drawings, bathed in the freshwater rivers and dined on fish. Far more sophisticated than their predecessors, the Neanderthals.
We were spoilt for choice with so many grottos and caves (I am rather partial to stalactites and stalagmites), and we ended up at Grotte du Grand Roc natural caves in Les Eyzies. It was utterly beautiful (although hard to photograph), a kind of enchanting crystallised undersea fairy world; my daughter Coco and her friend India were in their element.
Afterwards we visited Laugerie Basse, located right next to the grotto. This is an ancient settlement area from the Cro Magnon period which uses modern technology to share insights into how life might have been. There are some interesting shelters in the form of open caves that were formed as eroding waters wore into the rock. The whole place is mesmerising, with little natural streams and lots of natural fauna. Make sure to book the children’s tablet when you buy tickets as this features some brilliant challenges and games that the girls absolutely loved (including taking a photo in front of a blue screen which then superimposed them into a prehistoric scene).
All these adventures left us absolutely starving so we ventured to the local restaurant to refuel. Being a lifelong vegetarian I avoided the region’s gastronomic delicacy, foie gras, and opted instead for another local delicacy, cep mushrooms. And of course a few glasses of rose, it would have been rude not to! (and I am sure Cro Magnon man would have done the same).
The following day was spent kayaking in the crystal clear waters of the Vézère river. It’s extremely shallow in places so not passable for any boat other than a canoe, which means its blissfully quiet. Now I have to confess, neither canoeing nor kayaking has ever been up my street. I have positively avoided having anything to do with those skinny little plastic boats that appear to capsize if you so much as sneeze. However having watched the GB Olympic team slalom we felt buoyed up and ready to take on the rapids of the river. So armed with the obligatory life jackets, paddles and waterproof containers stuffed full with bread and cheese, we were bussed 30 minutes up river and deposited in 2 and 3 man kayaks at La Christophe.
At this point we realised we had a 13km journey to get back to the base…. an approximate journey time of 4 hours along the twisting and turning rivers. Slightly daunted we set off on the most beautiful river trip I have ever experienced. The river was cool and clear, perfect to cool off, which we did frequently as the paddling was hard work, especially in temperatures of 30 degrees plus.
Luckily we found a gorgeous little spot to stop for a lazy picnic, surrounded by hay bales and shady trees. The river took us past some beautiful places, including a troglodyte village, castle ruins and chapels. The last leg of the journey took on a Swallows and Amazons feel, as the river’s flow grew stronger and we sped along back to Les Eyzies with the wind in our hair… Ok, we were racing the 8 year olds who were in another boat with one of the dads – and they won. But we all celebrated by eating more cheese, eclairs, creme brulee and marvelling at how many calories we must have burnt.
There were SO many other places to visit and things that I really wanted to do, so another visit is definitely on the cards. We didn’t manage to make it to ancient town of Sarlat, or any of the numerous local markets, plus most of the châteaux have vineyards and the area is renowned for its sweet wines.
I have my eye on these places to stay in future:
Lovely boutique hotel Mas de Garrigue would make a nice little romantic getaway.
I think it would be lots of fun to visit with a group of friends too (especially the kayaking!) and this 17th century place on Airbnb looks amazing, takes up to 10 people The Water Mill
Or for a real treat how about this place….another lovely watermill, featured on i-escape.
Ryanair flies to Bergerac airport on a daily basis.