Located in the south-west of the country, the Dordogne region of France is simply spectacular. The whole area is very rural and tranquil, comprising many small farms and the most beautiful medieval villages. The serenity and old-fashioned quaintness of the region make it a popular escape from city living and dwelling. Named after the fabulous eponymous river which runs through it, the Dordogne lies in the Nouvelle-Aquitaine department, between the Pyrenees and the Loire Valley. A most prestigious location! There are numerous outstanding villages to visit in this region, but we are honing in on three that are located to the south of the area in the Lot Department.
The first must-see village is Loubressac. It lies towards the northern border of the Lot area and has the honor of belonging to the “Les Plus Beaux Villages de France” association. It is indeed an extraordinarily pretty village, high up overlooking the Dordogne Valley. It’s quite small in size, but it’s magical and is easy to explore on foot. As you enter the village from the main road, there’s a parking lot with a small daily charge. Dump the car and head to the center! Here you’ll find narrow little streets, a central square and some wonderful medieval buildings, all constructed from the local white/gold-colored stone. Most of them feature fancy terracotta roofs and, in some cases, balconies. Many of the gardens, small though they are, boast an array of beautiful flowers and, in spring and summer, colorful hanging baskets add to the appeal and aesthetics of this wonderful village. In fact, it has won many prizes for “the most beautiful flowering village of the Lot region” and “the best flowering village of the Midi-Pyrenees.”
As you wander around the village, the views of the surrounding countryside are simply awesome: valleys, rivers, other villages, and a great view of the daunting but fabulous Château de Castelnau-Bretenoux – one of the great castles of France. Loubressac has its own 15th-century castle but it’s not open to the public. It’s massive, with a somewhat pretentious gateway! It’s also home to the Roman Catholic St. John the Baptist Church. Spotted some time ago by a movie scout, Loubressac features in the 1973 film Quelques Messieurs Trop Tranquilles, directed by Georges Lautner.
A short 10-minute drive from Loubressac brings you to the second of our two villages – Autoire. Yet another of “Les Plus Beaux Villages de France,” Autoire will not disappoint. It’s a bigger area to explore than Loubressac, and you might be pleased and surprised to learn it has an advantage over it in the form of two restaurants! It too has its fair share of beautiful medieval houses, but it also features a fountain, a manor house, a 12th century church, and several castles – including the impressive Château de Limargue, which looks like it’s come straight from the pages of a storybook. What is remarkable about this village is that it’s actually changed very little during the last 800 years or more. You sure can’t say that about many places! It even has a dramatic setting, with the cliffs of the edge of the Causses – a group of limestone plateaus – forming an impressive backdrop. Walnut groves abound in this region, and in this village in particular. At the appropriate time of the year, a great pastime is to watch the locals shaking the trees and collecting vast quantities of nuts in huge baskets. Don’t stand too close, though – those nuts sure can hurt if they land on your head! Be sure to taste the local walnut oil; a perfect accompaniment to salads and many other dishes, it’s known to be very healthy and can apparently help lower cholesterol.
There’s yet another treat in store when you visit Autoire. A trail leads you from the village to a pretty spectacular waterfall. It’s about an hour’s hike, but well worth it. Or, alternatively, there’s a long stairway from a parking area just outside the village, which will take you to the waterfall. A quicker but less scenic route.
And so to our third and final village – Carennac. Some 16 minutes or so by car from Autoire, Carennac is yet another of the “Les Plus Beaux Villages de France” and has the Dordogne River actually running through its center. A quite extraordinary village, it is probably the one that has most retained its medieval influences. Viewed as a skyline, the village couldn’t be more picturesque: tall chimneys, silhouetted towers, and castle turrets. At the very heart of the village lies a little courtyard housing a 12th century church and its cloister, plus, somewhat bizarrely, a few farm buildings and a tourist office! Although, the latter is housed in one of the old buildings and not in some brand spanking new incongruous construction. The church features some wonderful carvings, together with a mural of “The Three Dead Kings.” For a small fee, you can visit the cloister that boasts the famous 15th century sculpture of the Mise au Tombeau – the burial of Jesus.
On a slightly lighter note… Carennac’s 16th century castle lies close to the church, alongside some of the village’s houses. Inside the castle, you can view an exhibition about the history of the village and its architecture. Prepare to be amazed by the awesome painted ceiling of the ceremonial hall! Many of the aforementioned houses are very attractive, having retained their sculpted windows. In amongst all the houses, turrets, and other-worldliness, you will find the odd quaint little shop, as well as two restaurants and a cafe. There’s a convenient, shady parking lot, so just leave the car and take the time to explore this wonderful little village.
That’s our quick romp through just three of the amazing villages in the Dordogne region. If France and history are on your hit lists, then you might also enjoy 5 breathtaking castles to visit in the Languedoc-Roussillon region and exploring the citadel city of Carcassonne.