For the last 20 years, Brits have descended upon the green pastures of the Dordogne and Quercy in the southwest of France, buying up land and ancient stone houses. The local villagers joke that it’s another “invasion.” During the Hundred Years’ War, this region was witness to bloody battles waged between the English and French, and just to the north, Richard the Lionheart met his demise by a stray arrow shot from a nondescript tower in the Limousin. The English have now rediscovered one of the prettiest places in France, and tourism is soaring. Your clients will be absolutely delighted by the area’s abundance of activities and historical sights, coupled with renowned cuisine that’s straight from the terroir.
The dining terrace at Châteaux de la Treyne offers a magnificent view of the Dordogne.
Also known as the Périgord, the land carved by the Dordogne River is dotted with imposing clifftop châteaux and bastide (fortified medieval) villages hugging the hilltops. This is rural France at its finest, and your clients will enjoy a slice of the quintessential French pastoral life. After all, France is a nation of 36,000 villages, and the hamlets in the Dordogne are utterly charming. Weekly street markets brim with foie gras, truffles, confits, sausages, walnuts and other regional specialties. Visitors flock from around the world to sample the goods at the Saturday market at Sarlat-La-Canéda (its exquisite sandstone turrets and golden-hued medieval alleys were restored by André Malraux, the French Minister of Culture in the 1960s). The seasonal truffle market in Périgueux, the Gallo-Romain regional capital, is also a large draw. Most importantly, the Dordogne is celebrated as a prehistoric cradle of civilization, and its labyrinthine limestone caves—like the world-famous Grotte de Lascaux—showcase significant paintings dating back 14,000 years.
A nice perk is that unlike the Loire Valley, the attractions in the Dordogne are close to one another, so your clients won’t suffer much driving time between sights. Each hairpin turn of the Dordogne River seems to boast another marvel: an enchanting village carved from sheer rock (like La Roque Gageac), a castle perched on dramatic cliffs (like Castelnaud and Beynac-et-Cazenac) or a walled bastide village with medieval ramparts (like Domme).
South of the Dordogne, the Quercy region—its chalky limestone hills sliced by the meandering River Lot—is even less touristed than its northern neighbor. Cahors, the capital of the Lot département, is renowned for its rich red wines, so inky-dark in color that the Romans called it “black wine.” Traveling west from Cahors, your clients will be delighted by some of the most beautiful scenery in France. Following the winding curves of the cliff-flanked river, they will discover a smattering of villages built along the water’s edge, including the spectacular 13th-century hamlet of Saint-Cirq-Lapopie, perched on a cliff 100 meters above the river. Lined with half-timbered houses, the flower-filled streets ascend to a dramatic pinnacle with stupendous views. Also nearby is the Grotte de Pech Merle, a cavern of impressive stalactites and stalagmites as well as beautiful prehistoric paintings of mammoths and polka-dotted horses as well as negative hand prints on the walls.
But what’s the best part of a visit to the southwest of France? Your clients can stay in an authentic château-hotel.
Château de la Treyne seduces with its idyllic setting and luxurious, individually decorated rooms. Lodged on a cliff overlooking the Dordogne just six kilometers from Rocamadour, the famous pilgrimage town that served as a way-station to Santiago de Compostela in Spain, the castle was built between the 14th and 17th centuries. In fact, the castle itself was a stopping point for travelers on this important pilgrimage route. Selected by Karen Brown’s France Hotels as the most romantic hotel in all of France for 2007, Château de la Treyne has 16 beautifully furnished period rooms and suites that have all the modern creature comforts like satellite TV and home theater, air conditioning, minibars and spacious marble bathrooms with Jacuzzi tubs. Surrounded by 120 hectares of lovingly manicured formal gardens and private forest, the hotel features a tennis court, heated swimming pool and an impressive restaurant. A member of Relais & Châteaux hotels, the château is owned by the Gombert family; Philippe and Stéphanie Gombert ([email protected], 011-33-05-6527-6060) are the hotel managers.
Châteaux de la Treyne's Louis XIII suite is decorated in rich wine colors and features a four-poster bed.
Each room is unique and full of character, like the Soleil Levant chamber, housed in the former chapel. And talk about rooms with a view! Book the Dordogne-facing rooms, and your clients won’t stop talking. The prettiest river view is from the magnificent Louis XIII suite, which features a four-poster bed, parquet floors in the style of Versailles, a sitting area with garden views, a gorgeous armoire from the era of Louis XIII and a bathroom with a Jacuzzi tub and separate shower. Other rooms with views over the Dordogne include Duc, Scribe, Louis XVI, La Tour, Fénelon, Turenne, Prison Dorée and Cardinal. For families traveling together, choose the Prison Dorée (“Golden Prison”) apartment, perfect for a group of five. Situated at the top of the 14th-century Square Tower, the Prison Dorée is comprised of a large bedroom, a separate salon with a sofa-bed for two kids, a second bedroom with a single bed and two bathrooms. Also note that the La Tour suite can connect with the Vendanges room.
Dining is a true pleasure at Château de la Treyne, and a meal enjoyed on the outside terrace overlooking the Dordogne is not to be missed. As to be expected from a chef who was awarded a Michelin star in 2001, Stéphane Andrieux’s plates exhibit a poetic harmony of flavors and artistic presentation. Three special menus highlight the region’s rich flavors, with signature specialties including seared foie gras with walnuts and quince compote served with a medley of lobster and artichoke hearts; scallops cooked in their own shells with a citrus confit; and Millefeuille of Aubrac beef layered with Cahors-wine marinated duck, served with a soufflé of apples and locally harvested mushrooms and morilles. Then there’s the tasting of foie gras presented in four different ways: gently cooked in Cahors wine; marinated with salt and star anise; served in a terrine with spices and boiled in a pot-au-feu.
Château de la Treyne is the perfect spot for weddings, with a professional team on hand to organize the event. In fact, your clients can take over the entire castle—the château can sleep 40 to 50 people comfortably, and there are six additional rooms available at the Château du Bastit to accommodate between 12 and 18 persons.
From Château de la Treyne, your clients can easily access all of the wonderful sights in the region, and Stéphanie Gombert is happy to make the arrangements. There’s plenty to do right outside the front door: fishing, hiking or picnicking along the riverbanks. Canoeing along the Dordogne is the best way for your clients to discover the area, and Gombert makes reservations with the Société Copeyre. She also recommends a guided tour of the 14th-century Moulin de Caugnaguet, a visit to the nearby caves at Lacave and a tour of the local goat farm. Of course the château is happy to arrange transportation to all of Dordogne’s famous sites by private car or minibus, with or without a guide. Gombert even can arrange hot-air-balloon or helicopter rides directly from the castle gardens.
Another magical château-hotel is Château de Mercuès, home of the bishops of Cahors for seven centuries starting in 1212. Just 10 kilometers from Cahors, the Château de Mercuès survived the Hundred Years’ War and the 16th-century Wars of Religion and has now been converted into a hotel and gastronomic restaurant, where food lovers are introduced to Quercy products and flavors. Chef Philippe Combet serves up regional specialties like truffle risotto, duck foie gras marbled with morilles and confit, veal with cèpes and vegetables from the garden and Quercy lamb rubbed with pepper and tapenade. Owned by Georges Vigouroux and managed by Bernard Denègre ([email protected], 011-33-05-6520-0001), Château de Mercuès features a swimming pool, two tennis courts and meeting rooms with a capacity for 100 people. The hotel’s terraces, orchards and gardens date from before the French Revolution. Surrounded by vineyards of the Grands Vins Seigneurs Association, the château offers tastings of its premium wines, some of the area’s best, in its famous vaulted wine cellar.
Châteaux de Mercuès, whose orchards and gardens date back to before the French Revolution.
A member of the Relais & Châteaux chain, the hotel offers 24 guest rooms and six suites, each with its own particular charm. The unit to book is the spectacular Bishop’s Room, which features a bronze sundial in the floor and a huge bed of gold-painted wood, inspiring General de Gaulle to write in 1950: “From the Château de Mercuès, history comes to you.” Another excellent choice is the Tower Room, housed at the top of the castle with a sliding roof that reveals the turret.
The manager, Bernard Denègre, is happy to assist with arrangements for your clients, including private vineyard tours, transportation to the tourist sites of the Dordogne and Lot, horseback riding, golf, helicopter tours, water-skiing and canoeing and visits to the local duck farms to learn about the making of foie gras.
Going There and Dining
Getting There: Cahors is only an hour north of Toulouse, the fourth largest city in France, where major airlines fly into the Toulouse-Blagnac International Airport. Bordeaux also has an international airport, Aeroport de Bordeaux, though the TGV high-speed train only takes about three hours from Paris. RyanAir, Easy Jet and other low-cost carriers now fly into many of the region’s smaller airports, including Limoges.
Dining: Suggest a meal at La Vieux Logis, a charming, ivy-draped hotel in Trémolat, while your clients are touring the prehistoric caverns of the Dordogne. There are even cooking classes available. A visit to the medieval town of Sarlat-La-Canéda is an absolute must, even if your clients can’t make it on market day. Le Grand Bleu was recently awarded a Michelin star in the 2008 guide, and Chef Maxime Lebrun creates dishes from only the freshest seasonal products. Even the bread and ice cream are made on the premises.