Helen of Troy may have been the cause of a decade-long war and the launch of a thousand ships, but Eleanor of Aquitaine did her one better. Her own complicated matrimonial saga started a 300-year conflict between France and England, triggered a boom in fortress building and culminated in the Hundred Years’ War. Actually the war in question lasted 116 years, from 1337 to 1453, but let’s not quibble.

The Most Desirable Heiress of her Time

Dordogne-Castle.

Medieval castles punctuate the landscape of the Dordogne.

The trouble started in April 1137, when William X, Duke of Aquitaine, died leaving his eldest daughter, 15 year old Eleanor the most eligible heiress in Europe. The new Duchess’s lands, all of southwestern France, represented the largest and richest province of the country (almost one third of today’s France). In days when kidnapping an heiress was considered a viable option to secure a title, her father had had the foresight to appoint none other than the King of France as her guardian until a suitable suitor came along. However, Louis VI, already with one foot in the grave himself, thought it far more expeditious to bring Aquitaine under the French crown by marrying off Eleanor to his 17-year old heir, Prince Louis. A tidy solution that greatly increased the power of France and its ruling family. The wedding took place in July, followed within two weeks by the death of the king.

Dordogne-Laussel

Although in disrepair, the Chateau de Laussel continues to cut an imposing figure.

By all accounts, the young Louis VII was smitten with is new bride. She apparently was less enthusiastic. It took her 15 years, but she ultimately managed to get her marriage annulled by the pope in March 1152. Within 10 weeks she was remarried to Henri II, the soon to be King of England, bringing Aquitaine to the English crown in the process. And that’s when the mayhem really began.

Memories of a Turbulent Past

Dordogne-Beynac-et-Cazenac.

Clustered under its twelfth century fortress, the village of Beynac-et-Cazenac still thrives.

The French side may have shrugged off losing the Duchess, but the duchy was another story. On its eastern side the Perigord Noir, an exceptionally scenic area of rocky cliffs covered with forests of dark oaks at confluence of the Dordogne and the Vézère rivers, was especially contested. The Dordogne river became the border between the two enemy lines, causing both sides to build countless fortified castles, monasteries and bastides (walled villages) facing each other on both banks of the river. Many of them are still standing today, and most are beautifully maintained, making for stunning vistas and lots of impromptu photo stops. So dense are the touristic riches of the area that it would take a lengthy stay to do more than scratch the surface. Here is just a sampling of my favorite “must-sees.”

A Bastide in the Sky

Dordogne-Domme

The bastide de Domme has retained all its medieval charm.

Founded in 1283 on a high rocky outcrop overlooking the Dordogne, Domme is a bastide remarkable not only for the breathtaking 180 degree view of the valley from its vast terraced belvedere, but also for its intact yellow sandstone fortifications. The only entrance into the village is through a large fortified gate flanked by two imposing towers at the bottom of the central street. In addition to their protective purpose, the towers once served as prisons, and you can still see the religious symbols scratched in the stone by the Templars that were incarcerated there during the fourteenth century. At the top of the village, near the original covered market hall with its impressive carpentry roof supported by stone pillars, a discrete entrance leads into a network of caves beneath the village. These have been used as hideouts throughout eight hundred years of conflicts, most recently during World War II.

A Gem on the River

Dordogne-Roque Gageac pano.

The remains of the original cave fortress overhang the village.

Wedged against a high cliff overhanging a sundrenched curve of the north bank of the Dordogne, La Roque-Gageac is a photographer’s delight. Although sitting on a site believed to have been occupied since prehistoric times, its documented existence traces back to the mid-ninth century, when Vikings were sailing their longboats up the river with raiding on their mind. For the first few centuries of its existence, La Roque-Gageac was a troglodyte fortress, set in caves some 40 meters (130 feet) above the river, the remains of which can still be seen above the village today. It was not until the end of the Hundred Years’ War that the “Laroquois,” as its residents are called, felt safe enough to move down to the lovely Renaissance homes that we see today, lining the riverbank and the narrow footpaths climbing to the base of the cliff.

Dordogne-Roque-Gageac River.

La Roque-Gageac is at its most striking viewed from the river.

By then the Dordogne was plied by gabarres, the traditional flat-bottom barges that transported cargo down the river to Bordeaux until the arrival of the railroad put them out of business at the end of the nineteenth century. Today, the gabarres sail once more, taking tourists on a relaxed one-hour, seven-kilometer (4.5 mile) cruise downriver to the Castelnaud Bridge, at the base of the eponymous twelfth century fortress. It is the best way to see the village (and the castle). If you prefer to do your own paddling, there are kayaks for rent on the riverbank.

A Medieval Showcase

Sarlat-Gisson Manoir

The Manoir de Gisson, built for a family merchants, dominates the market square.

The most famous town in Perigord Noir, Sarlat-la-Canéda, or just plain Sarlat, is recognized as one of the most attractive medieval towns in France. Its traceable past began in the ninth century with the creation of a Benedictine abbey. As the abbey grew, so did the town around it, to become a wealthy local center of commerce. Many of the grand medieval houses we see today were built by rich merchants of that time. Unfortunately, like most of the region, Sarlat was brought to its knees by the Hundred Years’ War, and didn’t begin to rise again until the beginning of the sixteenth century.

Sarlat-Boetie

The birthplace and residence of native son Étienne de La Boétie, a revered fifteenth century writer and philosopher.

Another period of prosperity ensued, to which we owe the Renaissance gems of the city. Then came the Wars of Religion, and another thirty years of chaos and ruin. However, firmly Catholic Sarlat ended up on the winning side. The city, now a bishopric, was once again firmly established. Until the Revolution reshuffled the cards once more. Stripped of its religious importance and far removed from the main centers of powers, the city withered away, a forgotten backwater town until the second half of the twentieth century. A lucky turn of fate, as its isolation protected its historic center from the desecrations inflicted in the name of modernization on more prosperous town in the decades immediately following World War II. More recently, the importance of Sarlat’s cultural heritage recognized, sufficient funding was allocated to undertake an extensive program of restoration. The town center is now also listed as a protected area to restrict future development.

Sarlat-Market.

To this day, Sarlat remains the market hub of the Perigord Noir.

Beyond its return to its Medieval and Renaissance glory, the greatest charm of Sarlat is that, far from becoming a “museum city,” it remains a vibrant, lived-in place, and the thriving market town of its distant past. In addition to the weekly all-products market that fills its city center every Saturday, there is the twice-weekly food market (Wednesday and Saturday) and the traditional truffles and foie gras markets throughout the winter months. Meanwhile, during the warmer months, after the busses of day-trippers have moved on, the city slows down and the terraces of the old town fill up with resident taking in the atmosphere of another era while enjoying the duck confits, truffled foie gras salads and other traditional culinary delights of the region. Although the city can be explored in a few hours, it is worth planning to stay a day or two just to enjoy a rare moment of life in the past lane.

From its vast terraced belvedere, Domme offers a breathtaking view of the Dordogne Valley.

Good to Know

  • Getting There – Sarlat is located 5.5 hours by car southwest of Paris 2.5 hours northeast of Bordeaux and 2.5 hours North of Toulouse. Nearest commercial airports are Brive Vallee Dordogne Airport 55 minutes northeast and Bergerac Dordogne Perigord Airport, 1.30 hour west of Sarlat.
  • Getting AroundAll these and more remarkable sites are within a 10-kilometer radius of each other. Unless you are an avid hiker or cyclist, a car is necessary to get around.
  • Staying There – There are lodging options to suit all tastes and budgets within easy access to all the main sites of the Dordogne Valley. We opted for the Chateau la Fleunie, a fully restored medieval castle turned three star boutique hotel in for its bucolic setting and superb gourmet restaurant in Condat-sur-Vézère.

Location, location, location!

Sarlat