Roger Bray returns to a favourite haunt.
Autumn can be lovely in Dordogne. Country lanes are strewn with sweet chestnuts. Fallen walnuts lie unharvested. Up the road from our rented apartment in Bergerac a small restaurant is advertising omelettes aux cèpes for €18, though in the town’s Saturday market those elite edible funghi were nowhere to be seen. The hot, dry weather was to blame. In the vineyards of nearby Monbazillac, best known for their golden sweet wines, great trailer loads of grapes were still being picked. And, perhaps best of all, the families who holiday here in such numbers in July and August had long headed home.
Memories of peak summer, when it’s hard to go anywhere in Dordogne without hearing English spoken, had long deterred us from returning. A certain Francophile snobbery was at work too. A Frenchwoman, encountered as we journeyed north again, asked where we had been. Her response suggested she should have guessed. But there’s a reason it is so popular with the British, I protested. With its honeyed stone buildings and rolling, green landscape, it is gorgeous.
Clare, the owner of our accommodation, had “relocated” there with her husband. The one-bedroom apartment* was on the ground floor of a house dating from the 18th century, a very short stroll from Bergerac’s historic centre. Its private front garden overlooked the Dordogne River, separated by an often busy road, though to a London dweller the traffic noise was hardly obtrusive and, inside, could hardly be heard. When it came to furnishing, Clare had a good eye and respect for the property’s age, not least in its large and sumptuously comfortable sitting room.
A major advantage of renting in a town is being able to pop out and get the morning croissants and fresh baguettes. A disadvantage of Autumn was that the nearest boulangerie/patisserie closed for a holiday midway through our stay. But no matter, there was another only a few minutes further away, where I was unable to resist a large peach and frangipani tart that cost, in these inflationary times, €22. The extravagance was justified by the first mouthful. Another small drawback was inability to park outside the apartment, but there was plenty of free space not far away, just beyond Bergerac’s Old Bridge, which dates from 1825 in its present form but was – for many years before the Revolution – the Dordogne Valley’s sole such crossing.
In the country south of the river we walked on those clearly marked routes to be found in most of rural France. A circuit from the bastide, or fortified town of Beaumont du Périgord, for example, took us to St-Avit-Sénieur, approaching on “Rue Romain” to the hamlet’s massive church and ruined abbey, built where Roman remains were indeed more recently unearthed. The return hike rewards you with a fine view of Beaumont’s equally imposing church, built as part of the town’s defences. The village of Issigeac, with its wood framed, projecting upper floors known in English as jetties, drew us back for a second exploration.
Recommendations by Clare and her husband took us to two wineries for tastings: first to a cooperative in Sigoulès to see if a Merlot at €4.50 a bottle would live up to their glowing description. It did. What a bargain. And later to the Domaine de l’Ancienne Cure, one of Bergerac’s top producers, where purchases include a superb dry white (Sauvignon Blanc with a touch of Sémillon) and a Monbazillac to drink with some winter dessert.
In Bergerac’s market, we bought confit duck legs, wonderful goat cheese and jam made of apricots and – a new one on us – brugnons. These were described by the stallholder as “something like peaches” and later as nectarines, but online as a hybrid of plums and peaches. Whichever, it was delicious.
We were frustrated in efforts to eat at two restaurants recommended in the apartment’s helpful folder. One was closed on the evenings we had left to us. The other – on a Wednesday in mid-October – was full. Lesson learned: always book.
Fortunately, I had done so at a third, L’Imparfait, whose name looked like an example of getting one’s defence in early. It was anything but. Five minutes walk or so away in the old centre, with its statue of Cyrano (de Bergerac), it was rated by Clare as the town’s best. The entrée was a kadaif of crayfish, with citrus fruit, tomato and ginger. Kadaif, for those like me who might need to ask, was a savoury version of a Turkish dessert made with shredded filo dough. There followed lightly seared scallops with prawns, gnocchi and a foam of those elusive cèpes so good I mopped the plate spotless – and a tart of apples on a thin, crisped base, flamed with calvados, and a scoop of vanilla ice cream. With a amuse bouches, espressos and petits fours, a modest amount of wine and mineral water, the price for two was €134 (£120 as it appeared on my credit card bill).
Though one fine restaurant would hardly have tipped the balance it sharpened our realisation that in seeking parts of France less familiar to the British, we had ignored Dordogne for far too long.
*More images – and contact details for the apartment, Esprit de la Rivière, can be found on its Facebook page.
Beautiful holiday homes in the Dordogne can be found at CV Villas. Our Silver Travel Advisors can book holidays all over France, call 0800 412 5678.