Not since I myself was a nipper had I floated merrily down the calm, Gabarre chugging, dragon-fly abundant waters of the Dordogne, France. Not since my teenage days had my flips flops trodden those châteaux-rich Perigourdine lands. Not for several adult years had I felt the heat on my skin from a full-blown French summer. And never ever had I ever seen so much duck on the menu in my life.
After visiting this region of France (Beynac-et-Cazenac to be exact) to celebrate a milestone birthday, the flame I held for all things French was reignited. Not that it wasn’t burning happily before, but this area truly throws at you everything that is so quintessentially, perfectly French. Cobblestone villages tumble down hillsides to the water’s edge from cliffs topped with medieval castles majestically surveying the terrain. Where local cheese and Foie Gras farms beckon you with hand painted signs in the midst of fields bursting bright with sunflowers.
Be you a couple or a chaotic group of happy families, there’s masses to do in the area.
Here are my top six activities to do in the Dordogne, France:
1. Kayak the river Dordogne
There are numerous companies that hire kayaks and canoes in the area and you can choose the length of the route you think you can manage. Opt for one that picks you up from your campsite and allows you to float back to your doorstep! We did exactly that, choosing a 10km route that took us around 2 hours, floating past stunning sites like La Roque Gageac. Don’t forget to pack snacks and a camera – the trip is squirming with picturesque photo opportunities.
2. Discover the mysteries of the underground
The area is home to umpteen natural wonders, caverns, grottes, ancient paintings and caves both prehistoric and medieval. We chose Le Gouffre de Padirac (technically in the Lot region) for the giant sink hole that descends into the belly of the earth and the magical underground river punting tour.
3. Sample the regional specialities
Markets spring up daily in the charming local towns and what better than an early morning meander along the stalls, sampling potent fromage de chèvre (the goatier the better in my opinion), vin rosé and fragrant strawberries? People go mad for all things ducky here, so treat yourself to a meal out (opt for one of the great value 3 course set menus) and munch down some foie gras for starter, magret de canard main and a dreamy crème brûlée for desert.
4. Visit an ancient Château
Prepare to enter a land of real-life fairytale castles. If you’re got princess-lovers and knight enthusiasts within your troops, they’ll go crazy for the hills of the Dordogne, alive as they are with turrets, flags and elaborate parapets of beautiful stone castles, some little more than tantalising ruins, others little different from their own day and age. From Beynac-et-Cazenac, climb up through the steep, narrow, but unbelievably picturesque streets to Beynac Castle for jaw-dropping views over the river and surrounding countryside. Visit the phenomenal castle at the top to be transported back in time and imagine yourselves as the nobility of old. Shiver at the bleak darkness of the soldiers quarters and 14th century latrine and check out a days-of-yore style kitchen. Where once enemies were fearfully spotted through arrowloops and battlements, these ancient barricades now offer the greatest reward of all – spectacular, and peaceful, panoramic views.
5. Camp like you’ve never camped before
There’s something about French campsites. They’re just so geared up for camping ease – especially in the summer months and particularly for families. We were lucky enough to pitch up at a marvellous one – Camping le Capeyrou, found on the Cool Camping website. Large swimming pool with a view – check, plenty of showers – check, scenic setting – check, friendly camp staff – check, proximity to shops and restaurants – check, playpark for kids, check. Cheap, beautiful, fun and quiet at night. Perfect.
6. Make like Phileas Fogg and fly in a hot air balloon
A very special treat indeed. I’ve never felt anything quite like it! One minute you’re on the ground, the next you’re sailing over sunflowers, brushing tree branches, dunking the balloon basket in the river, floating up to the peace and coolness of 2000 metres and waving to unsuspecting holiday-makers enjoying their dinner al fresco. The views, feeling of flying and final drink made from homegrown walnuts make this the ultimate Dordogne splash-out activity.
- Read my winning entry for Telegraph Travel’s Just Back writing competition on flying high over the Dordogne in a hot air balloon.