Dordogne - The Valley of 1000 Castles
What and Where
Situated in the South West of France the Dordogne department, known before as « Le Perigord », is one of the most beautiful regions of France. Its name comes from the most important river that crosses the region: La Dordogne. Dordogne department is one of the 5 departments of Aquitaine region (beside Gironde, Les Landes, Lot-et-Garonne, Pyrenees Atlantique).
The most important cities of the department are: Périgeuex - la capital of "la préfecture" - and Nontron, Bergerac (no, the famous writer Cyrano de Bergerac was not born there but in Paris!!!) and Sarlat - the 3 "subpréfectures". Each of these cities is in fact a capital of the 4 tourist zones commonly called "Le 4 Périgords" that compose the department namely: Sarlat-Perigord Noir, Bergerac-Perigord Purple, Nontron-Perigord Vert and Périgeux-Perigord Blanc. Each color represents the most characteristic aspect of the zone: Noir(Black) coming from its dark oak forests, Purple for its many wineries, Vert(Green) for the many rivers that mirror the green forests they are crossing - apparently it was Jules Verne, who traveled extensively in the region, that first used this name - , and Blanc(White) for its calcareous soil.
Even though the Dordogne department and old Perigord region are not strictly speaking geographically overlapping the French use La Dordogne and Le Perigord interchangeably.
Situated exactly at 45 degrees Nordic latitude Dordogne with its temperate, mild climate, its gentle wooded hills - it is the most forest covered department of France -, many rivers, its small villages 10 of which belong to the prestigious: "Les plus beaux villages de France" association (Dordogne and Aveyron departments share the first place with the biggest number of villages on the organization!), not to mention its more than 1000 castles makes a spectacular place to see.
Dordogne is all together an enthralling place for the history interested traveler no matter what period of the mankind history they are interested in!
Dordogne was inhabited since the dawn of human civilization the oldest traces of human occupation being more than 400,000 years old! - and is in fact the official prehistoric center of the world. There are more than 200 prehistoric caves and archaeological sites - the most famous being of course Lascaux, les Combarelles, Font de Gaume, Le Moustier and Village Troglodytique de la Madeleine. And of course the National Museum of Prehistory is close by at Les Eyzies de Tayac.
Moving on to more recent times there are 18 "bastides" that can be visited in Perigord. The name "bastide" was given to new towns founded by the Kings of France or the Kings of England - the region changed allegiance many times during the late middle ages - during 13th and 14th centuries, and defined a new, at the time, type of urbanization with the town built around a central square as opposed to a castle or a church.
More than 1000 castles and manors are scattered around Dordogne the majority of which are dating from the Renaissance or more recent times but built on the sites of medieval fortresses. Many were restructured many times throughout the centuries.
A big touristic attraction of the region is its gastronomy. Even in the beginning of the 20th century two reputable gastronomy critics Edmond Sailland and Marcel Rouff were describing, in their book "La France Gastronomique", Perigord as "one of the regions of our country where people have eaten better for centuries". The cuisine of Perigord is centered - like in all Southwest - on poultry and ...truffles. Without a doubt the Perigord black truffles are famous all over the world (they are considered second only to the Italian "Albi" truffles) and their price matches the fame with a kilo going for as much as 3000 Euros!
In 1826 the famous epicurean Jean Anthelme Brillat-Savarin, he to whom belongs the famous quote: "Tell me what you eat and I'll tell you who you are", was writing in his book "The taste philosophy":" We do not even mention a meal where there are no truffles. An good appetizer is bad if it is not enriched with truffles. Who did not feel his mouth watering at the thought of a meal of truffles à la Provencale?!" (For Perigord specific recipes see out Gastronomy section).
As mentioned above Périgord region has been inhabited from prehistoric times. With its mild climate - it is believed to have been on the northern border of the human settlements during the last glacial era - dense game rich forests and caves that provided a natural shelter, the region was an ideal habitat for the prehistoric man. The earliest traces of human presence date back to Inferior Paleolithic - but the majority of the uncovered artifacts, including the famous caves of the Vezere river valley, called "The Valley of Mankind", belong to the Superior Paleolithic between 30,000 and 10,000 years ago. During the antiquity the territory of France – known as Gaul from the Latin Gallia - was inhabited by a population called "les Gaulois" the Gauls. The Dordogne region was inhabited by the Gaelic tribe called Petrocorii - from which derives the name Perigord - and together with the rest of the south-west of Gaul became in 51BC, during Emperor Cesar’s times, the Roman province of Aquitaine.
The early Middle Ages saw the invasion of the Germanic, Frank and Visigoth tribes in the roman occupied territories and the actual break down of the Roman empire. In early 400s AD the Visigoths settle in Aquitaine and while initially vassal to Romans, they elect in 466 their own king and start to extend their territory. In 507 the Frank king Clovis - who previously united the center of Gaul - defeats the Visigoths and annexes the province of Aquitaine. Clovis is also credited with the triumph of the Roman-Catholic church as the main religion of his people.
In the 8th century Perigord together with the rest of the South of France was invaded by the Saracens, the Arab population from the North of Africa. Since that times date the names of several towns like Sarrazis, Mauriac, Sarrasac and most notably the well of the castle of Baynac called the well of Saracens - "puits des Sarrasins".
One of the most celebrated figures of the French history, the Emperor Charlemagne who regained the territories of the North of the Pyrenees from the Arabs, left his mark of his passing through Perigord. He founded the priory of Tremolat and the church of Brantome.
The 10th century marks the formation of the 4 baronies of Périgord: Mareuil, Bourdeilles, Beynac and Biron. These baronies were parts of the earldom of Périgord that belonged starting with the 12th century to the Talleyrand family - the family whose arguably the most famous member was Charles Maurice Talleyrand de Périgord.
In 1152 Eleanor, Duchess of Aquitaine (former Queen of France through her marriage with Louis VII but this marriage was annulled!) marries the future Henri II Plantagenet of England bringing Aquitaine and hence Périgord under English rule. What follows is a period of incessant fights between the ruling houses of France and England for this territory. The fights end temporarily in 1259 when Louis IX known as Saint Louis recognized the English as rulers of Aquitaine.
In the 12th century a heretic movement called Catharism spreads in the region that is now the Southwest of France and makes many adepts among the nobles of Aquitaine and Périgord. As a reaction to what he perceives as big danger to his authority the Pope Innocent III declares a crusade against the cathares, called "La croisade albigeoise" after Albi the capital city of French Catharism, and in 1214, under the command of Simon de Montfort, the fortresses of the Périgord fall to the crusaders hands. (For more information about Catharism read our dedicated story!)
The pace established by Saint Louis is short lived and 1337 marks the breakout of the so called "Hundred Years War" between the House of Plantagenet - that was ruling England - and the House of Valois on the throne of France. During the 100 (actually 116) years of war that ended in 1453 with the expulsion of the English from France, many regions changed hands regularly subject to the victor’s side.
During the 16th century Périgord is like the rest of the country the theatre of the religious wars between Catholics and Protestants (that in France were called Huguenots). The territory was divided between the Catholic North and the Huguenot South. The war temporarily ended with the treaty signed in 1577 at Bergerac but started and ended again temporarily with the Edict of Nantes signed on 13 April 1598, by Henri IV of France. The prosecution of Huguenots starts again during the reign of King Louis XIV who in 1685 sends his army to Bergerac.
Like many of the Protestants from the rest of France, numerous Bergerac Protestants flee to neighboring countries or to English colonies in America.
The 4th March 1790 the department of Dordogne is created on the territory of the ancient province of Périgord.
1940 saw the arrival in Dordogne of many Alsatians who took refuge from the advancing German army. During the Second War Dordogne is a stronghold of the French resistance.
...and of course Henry Miller
In 1958 Henry Miller wrote at the beginning of the "Colossus of Maroussi" about Dordogne: "Actually it must have been a paradise for many thousands of years. I believe it must have been so for the Cro-Magnon man, despite the fossilized evidences of the great caves which point to a condition of life rather bewildering and terrifying. I believe that the Cro-Magnon man settled here because he was extremely intelligent and had a highly developed sense of beauty. I believe that in him the religious sense was already highly developed and that it flourished here even if he lived like an animal in the depths of the caves. I believe that this great peaceful region of France will always be a sacred spot for man and that when the cities have killed off the poets this will be the refuge and the cradle of the poets to come. I repeat it was most important for me to have seen the Dordogne: it gives me hope for the future of the race, for the future of the earth itself. France may one day exist no more, but the Dordogne will live on just as dreams live on and nourish the souls of men."