by Jean Woolverton Yale
“The Dordogne region is a quiet little countryside where people enjoy a measured, secure existence. The landscape is filled with curve upon curve in a series of undulating valleys and hills. The villages huddle round a Romanesque church, near the tiny market with its timber or stone pillars. Battlements, turrets or dovecotes suddenly come into view round the bend of a river, at the top of a rock or on the gently rolling hillsides.”
That’s how early 20th-century French adventurer and writer Guy de Larigaudie described the Dordogne River region of southwest France. He had it exactly right.
But the one thing he forgot to mention is the fabulous food!
My fellow travelers and I learned firsthand why this area is called a gastronomic connoisseur’s dream on the Northwestern Alumni Association’s Village Life in the Dordogne trip last May.
The Hôtel de la Madeleine in Sarlat was our home base for the week. The hotel’s owner, Philippe Melot, is the head chef and also the former mayor of this town of 10,000. Each dinner was truly a masterpiece. Melot lectured to us (all in French with a translator) about the area and also gave us a tour of his kitchen. Included in his menus were foie gras, roasted duck, goose stew in wine with apples and prunes, roasted lamb, salmon with sorrel sauce and custard of broccoli, walnut cheese and desserts of tarts, soufflés, cakes and parfaits, to name a few. He took full advantage of fresh produce in the area, and May was strawberry season in France!
Our first excursion was to Rocamadour, a 13th-century village built on the face of a sheer 492-foot cliff. We climbed the 216 steps of the Grand Escalier, or stairway, to the Chapel of Notre Dame. A Sunday Mass (all in French, of course) was attended by some of us in the historic church, where the miraculous Black Virgin and Child stood on the altar.
Prehistoric cave paintings were the highlights of the next day. In approximately 15,000 B.C. unknown artists rendered with exquisite beauty and skill bulls, stallions and antelopes in the Lascaux complex of caves. Since a chance discovery by children in 1940, the Lascaux cave has become known as the “Sistine Chapel of prehistory.” Although the original cave is closed to the public in order to ensure its preservation, a replica, Lascaux II, now depicts the famous cave paintings.
Our next stop, the Cro-de-Granville Cave in Rouffignac is in the middle of the forest and contains a large number of paintings and engravings. We took a tour of the “Cave of a Hundred Mammoths” on a narrow gauge railway past 14,000-year-old cave art.
The National Museum of Prehistory was our first stop in Les Eyzies-de-Tayac. This former 16th-century castle with breathtaking views was built into the rocks of a cliff terrace. The museum’s statues showed the physical features of Cro-Magnon man and Neanderthal man. Prehistoric art is represented by wall paintings and rock carvings as well as domestic objects.
The next day we visited Périgueux, the capital of the Dordogne Department, or province, and home of the Vesunna Museum, built on and around an excavated Roman villa. The outdoor market had beautiful displays of artichokes, tomatoes, avocados and strawberries.
The highlight of the week was the Beynac Castle. Perched on a sheer cliff overlooking the Dordogne Valley, the castle was a stronghold of Richard the Lionhearted. The interior contains a 15th-century fresco of the Last Supper. A cruise on the river in a 19th-century gabarre, or barge, gave us “camera perfect” views of the castle high above.
We ended this day with a train ride to Domme, formerly a fortified village flanked by limestone towers. Called the “Acropolis of the Dordogne,” it is situated on a rocky crag overlooking the Dordogne Valley. Once again the views were spectacular.
Our group of 25 Northwestern travelers enjoyed two special events during our visit to the Dordogne region — a lecture by a French citizen born in England and educated at Harvard, who answered many questions regarding life in France, and a show of colorful dances performed by a group of costumed Sarlat residents. Each and every one of us joined them in several dances and enjoyed their friendly smiles and helpful instructions — all in French, of course!
On the long return trip home we enjoyed sharing our memorable experiences, and all agreed this trip was perfect in every way. Yvette Laurent, our fabulous guide for the week, deserves credit for bringing the Dordogne region to life in every way. Her knowledge and love of the area made her an exceptional guide. For example, during a market visit she joined the French merchant behind the counter to explain the history of foie gras and truffles. Of course, we all purchased some products. And Yvette always knew the correct wine to serve with lunch and dinner. Yes, the wines of France were exceptional, too!
Friendships were established during this time together, with participants from California to New York in the group. This was truly a magical visit to the Dordogne region for all of us.
Jean Woolverton Yale (SESP57) lives in Winnetka, Ill. She is special events coordinator for Northwestern Athletics.
For more information on upcoming NAA trips, click here or call 1-800-NU-ALUMS.