07/22/2018 - 07/22/2018
France is a country composed of smaller pieces, each with their own distinct renown. These regions to some extent correspond to the administrative divisions, but also have invisible boundaries that have been shaped by more than a thousand years of history. There's Paris and its surrounds. Provence, of course. Brittany and Normandy. Alsace. The Loire Valley, Bordeaux and Bourgogne. One of the smaller areas to enjoy this legendary status is the Périgord, more widely known outside of France by its departmental name of Dordogne. The Périgord epitomizes everything that is wonderful and unique about France, from the verdant countryside to the iconic towns and castles to the delicious cuisine. We were excited to have four entire days and part of a fifth to work our way through a long list of markets, villages, and historic landmarks.
Our previous forays into the Loire Valley and Provence had taught us well that France can't be approached in the same way as Spain. Whereas Spain has less to offer in the early morning and forces travelers into late bedtimes, France is very unforgiving of slow starts. A typical market in the summer has seen its best moments before ten in the morning and is basically over except for the tourist stragglers by noon. On Sunday morning we set our alarms as early as we could stand and raced a half hour southeast to the weekly market of Issigeac, one of the most heralded in the Périgord.
The first thing we saw as we walked into the center was a woman tending a counter with an array of enormous pans, each containing a different tantalizing preparation of meat or seafood. We resisted the temptation to begin eating right away, knowing that every minute that passed would bring larger crowds to impede our progress through the market.
Issigeac was a tiny village with narrow streets, stone and half-timbered houses, and the ancient Saint-Félicien Church overlooking the bustling central square. The atmosphere for our first Dordogne market couldn't have been better.
After a couple of circuits through the market, we'd selected our bread and cheese, strawberries, freshly-shucked oysters and other delicacies and retired to a park bench to enjoy a messy breakfast.
It turned out we'd escaped just in time. We ventured back into the market to let the kids play with the soap bubble guy and found it jam-packed. Arriving early had saved us from having to compete with crowds for the attention of every vendor.
We continued southeast to Château de Bonaguil, one of the most picturesque castles in the Périgord. This formidable medieval edifice suddenly appeared at the top of a hill as we approached on the access road, inspiring an immediate rush of traveler's euphoria.
A castle on a hill like Bonaguil is really two experiences in one, each with its own distinct pleasures. The first part is the climb up the winding path to the castle past ancient, crumbling stone walls and a carefully restored limestone church.
Once we reached the top of the hill it was time for the main event. A stone bridge crossed the crevasse between the hill and the rocky outcropping, or aigeulle, on which the castle is perched.
It took a half hour to explore the half-ruined fortress. The crumbling masonry created surreal, Escherian perspectives of the interior elements of the stronghold. We could only imagine the majesty of the castle during its heyday in the 18th century.
The views of the Périgord countryside from the tall castle keep were spectacular. We were getting a dramatic introduction to this extraordinary and singular corner of the world, and we were energized to continue onward to the other destinations in our day's itinerary.
Our next stop wouldn't have ideally been another castle, but the first sight on the way back from Bonaguil was Château de Biron. Like Bonaguil, this château was a spectacular sight both at a distance from the road and close up. Biron has been preserved and renovated to the extent that the main building can host art exhibitions. By the time we arrived, both the boys were sleeping so I took Cleo for a walk along the side of the enormous castle. I don't think we missed much by skipping a tour of the interior.
In the Périgord there are numerous villages that have been clearly designated for tourism. They are featured in every guidebook and they have a support system of cafes and souvenir shops for travelers. Are they truly the most picturesque of all the villages in the region, or simply the ones that prefer the financial boost of tourism to peace and quiet? We weren't going to be staying in the area long enough to uncover all the secret towns that the tour guides haven't discovered, so we followed the crowds to Monpazier.
Monpazier was certainly picturesque, a well-preserved bastide that was established in the 13th century in the run-up to the Hundred Years War. On the day of our visit they were having a book festival, and the central square was filled with vendors of old magazines and used books. Much to the kids' enjoyment, a craftsman was demonstrating the historic method of making paper from the pulp of old fabric.
We only spent another half hour in Monpazier, enough time to absorb the best examples of medieval architecture and the colorful decoration of the narrow pedestrian streets. In the end it was hard to overcome the feeling of Epcot Syndrome, the term I use for environments that feel more like a theme park pavilion than an authentic travel destination. Perhaps the best examples I can think of in France are Aix-en-Provence and the walled city of Carcassonne, but even central Paris suffers from it to some extent.
We had skipped lunch in anticipation of an early arrival to our chosen Sunday night market. Monbazillac is a small village just south of Bergerac best known for its château and sweet white wines. On the road approaching the village we encountered a whimsical art installation of colorful bicycles.
The roadside market wasn't as picturesque as the one in Audrix, but the selection of food was much larger and the vibe was more local. Whole farm animals roasted on spits and a woman tended to an enormous basin of simmering mussels. We ate reverentially in the shadow of the château.
On Monday morning it was already time to leave our first Dordogne Airbnb. We hoped we could replicate our success with the Pau daily market in Bergerac but it wasn't to be. The market was open in name only, with just a couple of stalls in business and nothing that could be considered a decent breakfast. There was no point in trying to make it to a weekly market as we still had to pack, so we walked around the largely deserted center of Bergerac. There were more than the usual number of attractive half-timbered houses and an intriguing little plaza where an upright piano had been converted into a miniature garden.
It was still far too early for any restaurants to be open for lunch, so we decided it would be best to head straight to our next Airbnb in Périgueux. Once we were settled there we wouldn't have to worry about rushing back in the evening to meet our host. We hadn't even made a dent so far in our list of destinations in the Dordogne.