"The Dordogne..." who has not heard of The Dordogne? Equally well known are the Aquitaine and Périgord, all names for almost the same area, which can lead to confusion. In the beginning was the Aquitaine, known from Roman Times to the Middle Ages to cover the South West of France. On the marriage of Eleanor of Aquitaine to Henry II of England, the area fell into English hands, but as time went on, the owners of the land fluctuated between the English and the French. The English could not pronounce Aquitaine and named it Guyenne, a name which can still be heard today in some places.
Within the Aquitaine was the county of Périgord part of which was renamed by Napoleon as the Dordogne when he redesigned the whole of the French administrative regions. Numbering them alphabetically; thus making the new region of the Dordogne, Départment 24. The boundaries of this new départment coincided roughly with the old Périgord but not completely, and to complicate matters still further he divided the Dordogne into four sections named the White, Black, Green and Purple Périgord. The river Dordogne itself runs through the Black and Purple Périgord.

The old area of the Aquitaine is now covered by the Dordogne, Gironde and Lot-et-Garonne with Bordeaux as the capital. From La Barthe there is easy access to all these départments and is therefore ideally situated for exploring the Aquitaine and to rediscover the fascinating history of the area which is so closely linked to England.

Purple (or red) is the main wing-growing area, a landscape striped with the vineyards of Bergerac, Pécharment, Monbazillac and Saussignac merge into the flavours of St. Emilion on the western borders. The area is prosperous thanks to man's avidity for good vine. The manor houses of old money reflect a less functional style of architecture, while the service industry which fed and restored the stream of gabariers floating their precious cargo down-river to the warehouses of Bordeaux is still apparent in the charmingly shambolic old quarters of Bergerac.
Contrary to popular belief, the Black Périgord is nor named for its truffles. Black is the colour of the abundant live oaks which only drop their leaves in spring. In winter their dark silhouettes on the skyline, visible from miles away, are emblematic of the scenery in this part of the Dordogne, which is the best known, thanks to the reputation of Lascaux and other painted or sculpted caves and its wealth of prehistoric remains, mediaeval Châteaux and towns such as Domme and Sarlat.

The two areas are so different in their content that you could be mistaken for thinking you'd moved to a different country. The rolling hills of limestone and the forests of evergreen oaks of the Périgord Noir (Black Pèrigord) are crossed by the valleys of the Dordogne and the Vézèere which meet at Limeuil, although they now no longer echo to the sound off flat-bottomed barges going down to Bergerac. Instead, they give the impression that peace and tranquillity have reigned here forever.

These two valleys have been inhabited by people since the Magdalenian Age and decorated shelters and caves with engravings, paintings and carvings, masterpieces of parietal art can still be seen today at the Saint-Cirq Cave, and at the Tursac Prehisto Park you can see and understand how these far-off ancestors lived. In the Middle ages a network of churches and fortified castles were built, around which the fortified villages or Bastides were established. As time went on, and living became easier, great Châteaux were built and many are open to the public. This is an area abundant with places to see, places which must be seen. Along the Vézère river you can find whole towns cut into the cliff face, such as La Roque-Saint-Christophe which was inhabited from the Magdelenian Age right up to the Middle Ages. This town was captured by the English during the 100 years war and occupied by them from 1401 to 1416. In fact, as you drive along the road, you can see houses cut into the rock and still lived in today.

In the same area you will find Lascaux, where around 17,000 years ago, the artists of the Upper Palaeolithic age were painting the walls of the cave which was their home, with pictures of bulls and horses and the animals they would watch and hunt. Their work was hidden from view until 1940 when two local lads went looking for buried treasure which legend said was under an old dump. What they found was not what they expected, but they did find a treasure beyond price. The cave was open to the public in 1948, but unfortunately due to the effects of bacteria, carbon dioxide gas and humidity, Lascaux suffered more during the next few years than it had done in several millennia. In 1963, the cave was closed to the public. However such was the public outcry that the Department of the Dordogne financed a 15 year long construction of Lasaux II, 2Omts. below the original. This incredibly painstaking reproduction of the two most beautiful chambers of the original, was painted using the same colours and techniques used 17,000 years ago. Don't be disappointed by thinking that you are missing out on the original, this reproduction must be seen, not only as a reproduction, but as a work of art in its own right.

The holy village of Rocamadour, bills it-self as the 'Second Site in France' (after Mont St. Michel). The origins of Rocamadour are murky and the Grotte des Merveilles suggests that this remarkable site was a holy place long before any of it's stories were written. In the late 11th. century, L'Hospitalet was founded by Helene de Castelnau for pilgrims en route to Compostella. The Benedictine Monks of Tuille promoted the cult of the Black Virgin which was given a boost in 1166 when a mans body was discovered buried near the alter said to be that of St. Zaccheus who became a hermit and built the first sanctuaries in the cliff face. He was called by the locals 'the lover' or 'Amator' in French for his devotion and so the name Roc-Amadour - the rock of the lover or lover of rock was given to the where he lived.

Rocamadour became one of the busiest pilgrimage shrines in France, but suffered a set back during the Wars of Religion when the shrine was laid waste and desecrated by the Huguenots, who hacked the relics of St. Amadour to bits but left the Virgin and her bell intact. Three centuries later, the village was restored by the Bishops of Cahors, giving the buildings a feeling that you are on a film set, somewhere unreal, which increases in high summer with all the tourists who have to queue just to get into the narrow lanes of the village which is entered by way of the 13th. Century Forte due Figuier, one of four gates which defend the village's only road.

Visitors be warned there are well over 144 steps if you intend to climb the Grand Escalier, but if you are fit and able, this is well worth the effort as the majority of the village's places of interest are to be found along the staircase. The Black Virgin herself can be found in the Chapelle Notre-Dame which dates back to 1479. She is believed to have been carved from a walnut in the 11th. century and sits stiffly on her throne, the Christ Child balanced on her knee. She has a very primitive appearance which only heightens her mystic power. It is said that when she performed a miracle, it would be foretold by the ringing of the 9th. century bell hanging from the roof. The chains worn by pilgrims still hang in the back of the chapel.

The rusty sword embedded in the stone high in the rock above the door is said to be Durandal, the famous sword of Roland, who confided his blade to the archangle Michael, and when Roland died, Michael hurled the sword from the Pyrenees like a javelin straight into Rocamadour's cliff. Today, it is held in place by a chain to prevent it from falling on someone's head.

For those who cannot make the long climb up the Grand Escalier, there is a lift near the second gate Porte Salmon which will take you to the Parvis de St. Amadour, the centre of the village and where the Chapelle Notre-Dame can be found. Another lift will take you to the ramparts of the Château from which you will have one of the most magnificent views to be found in France.

There are so many and varied beauties of the Perigord Noir that it is impossible to preview them all here and therefore a trip around the area is essential.

Wine is the order of the day in the Périgord Purple, the capital of which is Bergerac, named after a poetic cavalier with a very big nose, Savien Cyrano de Sergerac, who by the way, was never anywhere near the town. He was born in 1619 in Paris and grew up to become a swashbuckling extrovert and poet. In his lifetime he wrote several tradgedies, comedies, letters and a humorous essay called La Voyage dans la Lune. He was appointed as a musketeer in a company of Gascons who were, to say the least, a boastful lot, so he added Bergerac to his name to help him fit in. It is an enchanting city, with swans swimming in the Dordogne and a cluster of medieval, half-timbered houses basking by the old- river port. In the Perigord Purple, there are 93 communes producing a wide variety of wines, but tobacco is also grown here in large quantities and in Bergerac there is a unique museum to this weed, first made popular in France by Catherine de Medici, who is said to have used it to cure her migraines.

This is the area for all you wine lovers where there are abundant big and small vineyards where you can call in and taste their brew. Don't be put off because the vineyard seems to be very small, they can produce some excellent wines. However, there are of course, the well known ones which are a must. Bergerac has produced wines since the 12th. century and as far back as 1250 was exporting wine to England. The quality controls laid down in the 1300's strictly defined the planting area and set the date of the harvest and these controls are still used today.

Monbazillac - the wine growing region of Monbazillac is some 6 kms. south of Bergerac, dominated by the imposing Château de Monbazillac, which was built in 1550 and is virtually unchanged today. Walk round the Chateau and you will be offered a view of the whole of the Bergerac valley, truly a sight not to be missed. Monbazillac wine today is a heavy sweet white wine but this was not always so. In 18th. Century, the Dutch developed a taste for sweet heavy wines, or 'Vins Liquoreux' and the vineyards of Monbazillac were converted to produce a strong white dessert wine using Semillon grapes with small quantities of Muscadelle and Sauvignon and the vines were planted on the north facing slopes to take advantage of a microclimate where autumnal morning mists help to incubate Botrytis Cinerea, the 'noble rot' which withers the grape but adds an extra distinctive sweetness and fragrance. However in the 19th. Century, the reputation of Monbazillac sank until it was described as cheap plonk and in 1960 the growers rooted up much of the old stock and planted new vines producing a dry white wine and drier lighter vins liquoureux. This resulted in a lovely golden coloured wine which deepened with age and smelt of wildflowers. Good years 1988, 1989 and 1990 can be safely kept for 30 years. (If you could refrain from drinking it for so long).

Continue to travel south, and you come to the vineyards of Pomport and Sigoules and especially the Château Caillavel at Pomport which produces one of the finest red wines I have ever tasted - and a dry white wine with the smell and flavour of elderflowers. Perfect served chilled on a warm summer evening. Well worth a visit.

The otherside of Bergerac towards Périgueux you find the wine growing region of Pécharmant with it's truly distinctive flavour of oak barrels. A rich heady wine not to be missed.

Follow the river down past St. Foy-le-Grande and you will come to the vineyards of St. Emilion but give yourself time to stop at St. Foy-le-Grande, a bustling market town founded as a bastide by Alphonse de Poitiers in 1255. Although not one of the well known wine regions the town is well worth a visit.

St. Emilion itself is set in a natural amphitheatre surrounded by its vineyards. Although the site has been a town since Roman times, it was not until the arrival of a Benedictine hermit named Emilion that the town was put on the map, when he and his companions enlarged the natural shelters and caves on the site, the largest of which was used as a church and when he died the town took his name. This is not the place for high heels as the lanes called Tetres are unevenly paved with granite blocks from Cornwall and are so steep that handrails have been installed down their centres. However the great secrets of the town are underground, not only the cellars for the rich ruby wine. but also Europe's largest subterranean church. In 1199 a new civil authority was set up of a hundred peers called the Jurade and they were responsible for everything including the quality of the wine up until the Revolution. The wine was exported to the English court where interest was so great that in 1289 Edward 1 set the limits of the production area - these same limits are used today.

The reputation of Saint-Emilion soared in the Middle Ages and was praised by the French and English alike as the 'King of Wines'. It's quality is a mystery that cannot be explained, for the growing area on the north bank of the Dordogne has no special microclimate as with the Monbazillac. The predominate variety is Merlot which is mixed with Cabernet Franc, Cabernet Sauvignon and/or Malbec. The vineyards of St. Emilion are subjected to some of the strictest quality control in France and the estates are remarkably small compared with others, the Grand Crus being only 10 or 20 hectares. In 1948 the civil authority set up in 1199 the Jurade was reincarnated and they now announce the Ban des Vendages, or the beginning of the harvest with a fete the night before. In June, they gather to taste the new wines and give the appellation if they consider the wines of sufficient quality, but in May of each year, a dozen Châteaux open their doors for free tastings of the previous year's harvest.

Although the Périgord Purple does not have the wealth of touristy attractions of the Perigord Noir, it has many bastide towns such as Issigeac and Eymet which are well worth exploring. The bastides were not, as many people think, initially built as fortified towns and some like Miramont-de-Guyenne never did become fortified. The towns were built to a specific design of either square or circular streets forming a kind of web radiating from a central square, which was the heart of the town and surrounded by arcades. Here were the administrative and commercial buildings with a tithe barn and a Market Hall. It was nor until the end of the 12th. or the beginning of the 13th. century that the walls were built, not as some would suppose to resist the assault of organised armies but rather to discourage bandits for from the time of their creation, the role of the Bastide was essentially economic.

The site of the Bastide of Eymet has been occupied since prehistoric times and many jewels and domestic utensils have been found in the locality and are now displayed in the Château museum. The dolmen of Eylias and the sites of standing stones, the 'Peyrelevades' prove the existence of a Gaelic cult, a 'Nemet' which is probably the origin of the town's name. The remains of many important Roman villas have been found near the villages of Serres, Sainte-Eulalie and Sainte-Innocence, many of which are still to be excavated, proving that the area was popular in Roman times when the river Dropt would have been navigable providing easy travelling and trade with Bordeaux.

The official history of Eymet begins on the 28th. June 1270 with the creation of the bastide. It's location at this time, depended on its links with Marmande in the Agen region which was the property of Aphonse de Poitiers, brother of Louis IX and Count of Toulouse. Alphonse inherited the region on the death of his father-in-law whose estates extended from Marmande to the Rhône, and he began to construct several bastides to ensure control of his new territory. To the North he built St. Foy-le-Grand in 1255, Castillonnes in 1259, Villereal in 1267 and finally Eymet in 1270 marking the border with Périgord. Market day in Eymet was fixed by Charter to be a Thursday and remains so to this day.

In 1271, one year after the completion of the town. Alphonse de Poitiers died with no descendants and according to the Meaux treaty of 1229 his property went to the crown of France and so Eymet became French, but not for long. Eight years later, following the Amiens treaty, it was given to Edward I of England. This was challenged by the Kings of France, but Eymet remained in English hands all through the 14th Century. However, from 1337 onwards it changed hands several times. On the 1st. September 1377, Bertrand du Guesclin commander of the troops of the Duke of Anjou, brother of King Charles V, took back from the English more than 100 defensive positions, towns and castles in Aquitaine, then the steward of Bergerac, Thomas Felton set up an ambush at the approaches to Eymet, but Du Guesclin heard of the ambush and ordered his Lieutenant Jean de Bueil, to attack and a large number of English and Gascon soldiers were drowned in the river Dropt just south of Eymet at a place called 'Gua de Roupy' which became known as 'The Englishmen's hole'. A great battering-ram called 'La Truye' became blocked at Eymet's southern gate which was too narrow and had to be partially demolished. This gate from then on was called 'Gate of the Engine' and the street which leads to it was called Rue de l'Engine, and to this day this street is so called.

The Walls of Eymet, built around 1320 had four principal gates which were destroyed along with the ramparts in 1830, but a smaller gate called 'Le Portanel' overlooking the Dropt still exists today.

500 years after the fall of the Roman Empire, the Duchy of Aquitaine was formed, which was eventually inherited by Eleanor of Aquitaine who gave the Duchy to her husband Henry P1antagenet, King of England, and the area remained in English hands on and off for the next 300 years. In 1360 Edward III renounced his claims to the crown of France in exchange for sure title to the quasi-independent principality of Aquitaine, extending from Poitou to the Bigorre, and to rule it, he sent his eldest son, Edward known as the Black Prince. It is the Black Prince who is reputed to have built the Château at Eymet and to have lived there on and off when he was in the area. The exact date of the end of the English occupation of Eymet is unknown, but around June 1451 Gilbert de Pellegrue surrendered to Charles VII King of France and on the 17th. July 1453 the defeat of the Anglo-Bordelais troops officially marked the end of the 100 years war, and Eymet's place in the French Nation.

For the lovers of the sea, just west of Bordeaux is the 250 square Kilometre Bassin d'Arcachon. There was a small fishing village of Arechon which in 1841 was turned upside down by the coming of the railway and the new fashion for sea-bathing. From then on, this small fishing village never looked back and evolved into a smart resort and the 19th century Bordelais built second homes there, letting their hair down and building in the Neogothic, Tyrolean, Tudor and Pseudo-Medieval and some 200 of these unique villas still survive.

About 8 kms south of Arcachon are the largest sand dunes in Europe. They are an awesome, terrible, extraordinary sight that really should not be missed; the dune du Pilaf is a huge 347ft. pile of sand, 2.7 Kms long and 550 yds. wide. If you like sun, sand and sea, then this for you is paradise. The dune is thought to have started forming some 8000 years ago, and reached it's present size in the 17th. century, but like all dunes, it is constantly moving and every year it encroaches little by little inland. Climb the wooden stair for an unforgettable view, but beware there are 190 steps to the top of the dune. Be there at sunset and you will be greeted with the most wonderful view of schools of Bottlenose Dolphins and Porpoises frolicking just off-shore. To see Arcachon and the Dune du Pilar to their full advantage, leave early in the morning and be prepared to stay until after sundown. You will not regret it, and if you do get overwhelmed by the wonder of nature, there are numerous activities and excursions you could take. Every half hour in the summer a boat crosses to Cap Ferret, or there is a two hour long excursion to the Ile aux Oiseaux at 3.30 p.m. all year long. This is the Bassin d'Arcachon's only island where there are sea birds and oyster farms together with the islands picturesque 'Cabanes Tchanquees' or huts perched on stilts.

The department now known as the Lot-et-Garonne, an area not so well known as the Dordogne, but none-the-less beautiful, was once described as the 'Tuscany of France'. Unfortunately most people rush through the Lot-et-Garonne in a hurry to get somewhere else, but not only is there a wonderful collection of Bastide towms hidden away in the landscape of rolling hills, woodlands and meadows, such as Villeneuve-sur-Lot, Monflanquin, Monpazier, Issigeac and Castillonnes to name but a few, but there are two of the finest castles in the Southwest, the Château de Bonaguil and the Château de Biron.

If you want to see the French equivalent of an English Folly, then the Château de Bonaguil is it. Few Châteaux were as useless but as photogenic as this great prow-shaped monstrosity. It was begun in the 13th. Century by a family of knights from Fumel and passed in the 1460's to the hunchback Brengon de Rocquefeuil, one of the cruellest, nastiest and vainest people thrown up by history, who, when fined by Charles VII sealed himself in at Bonaguil with years worth of provisions and weapons and surrounded the Château with a moat, surging walls and towers designed to withstand a long siege, but no-one ever came or showed the least interest. By the 18th. century it was such a white elephant that it was sold for 100ff and a bag of walnuts. It was eventually purchased by the town of Fumel in 1860. Today, whichever way you approach the Château you will see a stunning site equal to any Hollywood set and on summer nights it is illuminated until midnight.

In contrast to the Château de Bonaguil is the superb and beautiful Château de Biron. The largest of all Périgord's castles. The original castle was built in the 11th. century to command the northern approaches to the Agenais. Over the centuries it has been added to and improved by the Gontaut family who came into possession of the Château in 1189 and retained it until the early 20th. century. Gaston de Gontaut built the square 12th. century keep. The Romanesque walls and the Tour du Concierge were added after the 1212 siege of Biron by Simon de Montfort. For the next 200 years or so there were no further additions. Then in 1497 Pons de Gontaut-Biron added a delicate Pavillonde la Recette and a two-story Chapel. Biron was raised to a duchy by Henri IV as a reward to Baron Armand de Gontaut who fought at his side against the Catholic League, and his hot-headed son Charles who received 32 wounds in battle. However Charles fell from grace and in 1602 he was un-duked and beheaded for conspiracy. Thus began the story of Biron's headless ghost. The notorious Cardinal Richelieu, worried about the power of the French aristocracy, ordered that the moat be filled in. In the 18th. century building began again but the Revolution came along and the work was never finished.

When visiting the Château de Biron, a visit to the village Lacapelle-Biron is a must. The village stands near the head of a mini-gorge created by the Lede. Sit and listen to this little stream. It's tinkling music really does take all your cares seem far, far, away.

Villelleuve-sur-Lot today is a bustling market city, yet it was originally a Bastide founded in 1264, and you can still find the old town in the heart of the city. The central market square, Place Lafayette, is still surrounded by it's original arcades or 'Cornieres', but the original Gothic Church was replaced in the 1930's by an elaborate brick building, Sainte-Catherine in which was incorporated the magnificent stained glass windows of the old church. Today if you take the Périguex - Auch road over the Pont Vieux, built in 1282 by the English (worthy of a closer look. The bridge originally had three fortified towers, but these tumbled down when the bridge was partially destroyed by a flood and a rather dolly like statue of Our Lady of Joy was placed in the chapel overhanging the north end when it was rebuilt in 1642) and travel for about 2kms. you will arrive at Pujols. Entry is under the arch of the tower of the 15th. century Saint-Nicholas which leads into the ancient market square. The church has little fireplaces so that the barons of Pujols could stay warm whilst attending Mass. The town itself has white walls and deals mainly in antiques.

About 10 kms. south of Pujols are the Grottes de Fontirou, and 7 kms. northwest are the Grottes de Lestournells, if you like exploring caves, these are worth a visit with their extraordinary limestone formations.

Monpazier, quoted as 'the most perfect Bastide' was founded by Edward I in 1284. In the 14th. century it bounced back and forth between the English and the French, it was pillaged by the notorious Baron de Biron and suffered from bad harvests followed by an outbreak of typhoid fever, then to cap it all in 1350 came the Black Death. Obviously not the best of places to be living at that time. Despite all of this the town survived and the fortified church still bears a Revolutionary slogan 'The People of France believe in a Supreme Being and the Immortality of the Soul'. The bastide of Monpazier was not built in the same fashion as the others, but you will see that the arcades around the square are irregular with narrow spaces left between the houses and it is believed that these spaces were where the residents threw their rubbish.

Monflanquin is built on top of a hill with views for miles around which was a great advantage when it was built in 1256 by Alphonse de Poitiers. Much of the original Bastide elements such as the central square with it's arcades have been preserved, so has the fortified church and blocks of medieval houses. It's most recent claim to fame is the late Robert Maxwell's Château on the outskirts of Monflanquin which is now up for sale, although the locals believe he is still inside the building.

Castillonnes has also retained it's arcades and narrow medieval lanes. The church is well worth a visit to see the 17th. century gilded retable.

Issigeac must be the most photographed of all the Bastides as it has changed little over the centuries and has been used as a location for several films. Walking around the medieval streets you will discover many original houses and the half-timbered Maison de Têtes which is decorated with leering faces. This is a town where time seems to have stood still especially if you visit around lunch time when the inhabitants are inside. There is a distinct feeling of unreality that you might have stepped back in time.

The best wine of the Lot-et-Garonne is to be found in the northwest corner. The French come here to rediscover life and the English, remembering that the Aquitaine was for many years, English owned, have returned in great numbers to buy back as much as they can of this part.

Côtes de Duras is mostly overshadowed by it's more famous neighbours of Bordeaux and Bergerac. The Côtes de Duras reds are usually made from 100% Merlot or Cabernet Sauvignon and the whites from Sauvignon, Mauzac or Semillon. It is well worth remembering the Côtes de Duras and taking some time to visit a few of the vineyards to sample the brew.

The town of Lauzun is best known for the Duke de Lauzun who fell in love with the 'Grand Mademoiselle' Louis XIV's headstrong cousin. It is said that they were secrefly married and a furious Louis committed him to the Bastille. It was the Duke de Lauzun who added the domed pavilion to the golden half-medieval. half-Renaissance Château.

High on a hill overlooking the valley of the river Dropt sits the pretty Bastide of Duras, reputed to be the only town in France never to have had a Catholic Church. The main attraction beside the market square with it's arcades is the prow shaped Château de Duras, built in the 1100's and completely restored in 1310 and in 1794 the surviving towers were reduced in size and by the 20th. century it was little more than a ruin. It was purchased by the town in 1969 and a 20 rear restoration was started and the Château can once again be seen in it's full glory; now thanks to the same designers who created Futuroscope in Poitiers, the Château has come back to life. Thanks to laser technology the troubadours, knights, and ladies, the music in the great hall and boiling pots in the kitchen can been seen again.

There are so many other wonderful sights which could be labelled 'not to be missed' that it is impossible to give an account of them all, but if you really wish to make sure you do not miss out on anything, then I can strongly recommend you purchase 'Southwest France, Dordogne, Lot & Bordeaux' by Dana Facaros and Michael Pauls - published in England by Cadogan guides and in America by The Globe Peguot Press, before you come on your holiday. This book will give you a full guide of the three areas and is written in an interesting and humorous manner