France is a magnet for tourists, especially Paris, which is everyone's romantic destination. There are other areas of France that draw the crowds – the Cote d'Azur, or French Riviera, centered on Nice, and the fabled cities of Provence.
But much of France is best savored in more remote countryside, and one of the most beautiful of these areas is the Dordogne Valley, in southwest France.
This is where one experiences the real France, the off the beaten track France, the slower rhythm, the ancient villages, extraordinary food; and, at the same time, magnificent medieval castles and chateaux dotting the countryside.
The best of the Dordogne is to be found along the Dordogne river in a grouping of small villages and bastides, centering around the towns of Sarlat, Domme, La Roque Gageac, Beynac and Castelnaud. These towns are all only a few miles apart, so one can settle in at a local hotel or bed and breakfast, and explore this great area at one's leisure.
Sarlat is the largest town here, a lovely medieval town of winding streets and ancient stone houses. Sarlat is especially well known for its Saturday market. Here you will find wonderful displays of local food, cheeses, fresh vegetables, and foie gras, the famous goose liver pate, for which the region is renamed.
Beynac and Castelnaud are two villas at the foot of two remarkable castles. Castelnaud was a stronghold of the English, while Beynac was held by the French, and they warred with each other for centuries. They both overlook the beautiful Dordogne river and valley, and are only about a mile apart.
At both Beynac and La Roque Gajeac, you can take a boat and drift lazily down the river, viewing other castles along the way.
Speaking of castles, there is one of great renounced nearby – Chateau des Milandes. It is a beautiful chateau overlooking the Dordogne River, and this was the home for many years of the great American song and dance star, Josephine Baker. She lived here for many years with her 12 adopted children – one each from a different country of the world. The chateau is open to visitors, and the interior of the castle is a beautiful living museum dedicated to the memory of Josephine.
Just north of this area of the Dordogne are the famous Lascaux caves, the site of extraordinary wall paintings done by our ancestors 17,000 years ago. This connection with the long-past past permeates still the atmosphere of the Dordogne. There is a softness, a glow here, and a sense of continuity with even the most remote past that adds a real beauty to the living here.
This is a part of France where you begin to experience the real essence of this great country.