The Dordogne, or as the locals call it, the Périgord, is a relatively unknown but enchanting region in the southwest of France. Famed for its cuisine and wines of nearby Bordeaux, its lovely hotels, and warm hospitality, the Dordogne is a region framed by the many ancient rivers winding through the rolling green hills. The rivers Tarn, Aveyron, Lot, Célé, Vézère, and Dordogne flow lazily to the west, eroding the limestone along the way into tall, vertical cliffs, creating dramatic sites for villages and castles.
The attractiveness of the Dordogne landscape and the sensory pleasures of the food and wine are more than enough to lure the traveler; but to fully appreciate this region, one must know its history. In the caves first populated by Cro-Magnon man, are the astonishing cave paintings of Lascaux, Roufignac, Pech Merle, and others – where the well- preserved images seem to whisper and take us back to the very beginning of humankind’s history. This history has continued to forge the framework of the present-day Périgord; the abundance of castles, fortified churches, and walled cities attest to the wars and religious strife that have influenced the architecture and cityscapes. We will see two medieval fortresses facing each other from opposite sides of the Dordogne river – Beynac, the bastion of the French throughout the Hundred Years’ War, and Castelnaud, stronghold of the English.
The Dordogne is so rich in things to see and experience, that it must be explored slowly, and why not by bicycle or tandem? In a country considered to be the best cycling nation in the world, this area is understandably a favorite among cyclists. It is a storybook land of castles, cliffside villages, gardens, winding rivers, tiny roads with little traffic, and cave art. Each day’s ride will end at a beautifully-situated hotel; some are châteaux dating as far back as the 13th century, and offering elegance seldom enjoyed by touring cyclists.
AUGUST 22 - CORDES SUR CIEL (TOULOUSE)
Arrive Toulouse, France, by plane or train; we’ll meet you in our van and transport you to our hotel in Cordes-sur-Ciel, a commute of just over an hour. Cordes is one of the prettiest of the many “bastide”, or walled, villages we’ll visit on this tour. With a commanding view of the countryside, and its steep, cobbled streets, Cordes is the perfect setting for the start of our tour of this beautiful region. We’ll gather tonight for our welcoming dinner and an overview of the tour.
AUGUST 23 - NAJAC 25MI, 1800FT OR 60MI, 2700FT
The greater part of our tour’s riding will be along flat, winding rivers, with occasional climb (800-1000ft) over the surrounding hills to the next river valley. Today, the rivers are the Aveyron and its tributary, the Viaur. The long route passes beneath the castle ruins of Penne, before winding up the river for a relative flat 31 miles. Both routes climb up to Najac, a beautiful one-street town. It is situated on a narrow ridge, rising 600ft from the Aveyron river. The hotel at the center of the village is charming and friendly, and the evening meal is one you’ll never forget.
AUGUST 24 - CONQUES EN ROUERGUES 52MI, 2000FT OR 60MI, 2900FT
Starting today’s ride with a twisting descent to the Aveyron, the first 20k hardly raises a sweat before we arrive at the first pastry stop in Villefranche de Rouergue. This is the main market town for the area, so there is always much activity in and around the many little cafés and restaurants. Hopefully this will be market day, the weekly event that brings together local farmers and shop keepers from the surrounding villages – a 3-ring circus of buying and selling. A wooded, winding climb continues up over a series of open pastured hills, with great views and descents to the lunch stop in Rignac. The long route adds a descent to the village of Belcastle on the Aveyron. This ancient stone village rises steeply from the quiet river to the well-preserved castle above – a perfect postcard vision. Small farming roads lead us along the wooded Gorges du Dourdou, then a short climb to our village. Conques is an abbey town, rich in Romanesque architecture, and its Abbé Sainte Foy, is filled with France’s most precious religious treasures.
AUGUST 25 -LAGUIOLE 62MI, 4300FT OR 61MI, 5500FT
The ride along the Lot River from Conques to Entraygues and then to Espalion, will be one of the most leisurely of the tour, as the narrow road hugs the meandering river bank, with the hillsides dotted with tiny hamlets and farm houses. After stopping in Entraygues for a pastry and coffee we head up river through the Gorges du Lot to Espalion. Here after 55 km of riding, we are still at a lower elevation than our hotel in Conque, but don’t worry, shortly after leaving Espalion, the climbing begins in earnest. This region is the Aubrac, it is a high basaltic plateau formed by long dead Volcanoes. It is famous for its cattle, the Laguiole knives and its superb cuisine, led by the renown culinary expert, Michel Bras.
AUGUST 26 - VÉSAC 47MI, 4000FT OR 65MI, 5300FT
The morning ride will be very beautiful as we ride over the rolling hills of this high plateau. There are small patches of forest, but mostly it is meadows and pastures as far as the eye can see. The green grass and the beautiful fields of wild flowers are laced with stone fences and. The hillsides are dotted with tiny hamlets, farm houses and small shepherds huts, not to mention an occasional castle. After dropping down to the Truyere Gorges, we climb out of the valley onto another high volcanic plateau, which is dominated by the volcano Puy Mary, and comprises the Parc Regional des Volcans d’Auvergne. Soon we tackle a series of ridges and valleys; this scenery is made dramatic by the river’s erosion of the volcanic lava flows. Our “castle” hotel in Vézac has grand views across the valley to the hills and mountains rising in the distance.
AUGUST 27 - LE THEIL (SALERS) 30MI, 2500FT OR 46MI, 4000FT
A quick descent to the larger town of Aurillac brings us to the base of today’s climb up the Puy Mary – 24 miles of climbing and only 4000ft of elevation gain. The lava flows from this mountain were very liquid and flowed rapidly, forming long, gradually sloping ridges and valleys. Our route takes us up the Mandailles valley and traverses just below the summit of Puy Mary. The volcanic formations are strange and the lush greenery covering the mountain gives them an eerie appearance. The views are amazing in all directions and the viewpoint from the Pas de Payrol is the highest in the Massif Central. From th Col de Neronne, we have a long, slightly winding high speed descent to Salers, one of the prettiest villages in the area. The buildings are dark gray, cut from the lava stone, and with their clean lines and turreted roofs, they seem like props in a movie set rather than a real country setting. Our hotel, an old country estate, is of similar construction.
AUGUST 28 - MONTAL 70MI, 2500FT
The high volcanic plateau slopes gently to the west, so our route is mostly downhill with a few short climbs due to the small rivers that cut across our route. Then we are suddenly plummeting down a steep incline to the Dordogne River at the point just below the last dam. Here is where it becomes serene and meandering, and for the rest of the day, we will follow it down river. For a typical French lunch, stop in Argentat, a village renowned for its charming houses, restaurants, and gardens gracing the river’s edge. Further down river, an ice cream stop is in order as we explore the streets of Beaulieu and its ancient buildings dating back to the 9th century. Continuing downstream on the small rural roads, we reach our destination of St Jean Lespinasse and our beautiful country hotel.
AUGUST 29 - MONTAL 36MI, 2000FT OR CHOICE OF LOOP RIDES
Today is a day not to be missed, with so many things to see and do. We warm up with an easy climb; at the top it opens up to farm land and rolling pastures. A must stop is Rocamadour, second only to Mont St Michel as a tourist stop in France. Built on the face and top of a limestone cliff, its stunning location has attracted Christian pilgrims for centuries, and now hosts crowds of tourists. Another mandatory stop is the Gouffre de Padirac, an immense hole in the ground, 114ft wide and 300ft deep, with over 13 miles of cave galleries. At one time this was thought to be the entrance to Hell, so be careful. A visit to this cave system is one of the favorite events of our tour. The little side loop to start the day takes us through two Villages Fleuries. A nice descent down the Cirque d’Autoire brings us to the 1st village, Autoire. The 2nd perched at the top of a steep hillside, is the bastide village of Loubressac, selected as one of the Dordogne’s most beautiful villages. Another option for the day is to head to St Cere, shop, have lunch and return to the hotel spending the afternoon relaxing by the pool.
AUGUST 30 - CONDAT SUR VÉSÈRE 49MI, 1800FT
We begin our day pedaling down river along one of the prettiest stretches of the Dordogne valley, passing the Cirque de Montvalent and the cliff side town of Gluges. We continue following the Dordogne downriver, beneath limestone cliffs, past caves and castles until we arrive in Souillac for lunch The rest of the ride is rolling hills through farmland, scrub oak, and little hamlets. A short side trip to the medieval village of St Armand de Coly, is rewarded with one of the best examples of a fortified church. Our hotel is a 12th and 15th century chateau, with a large swimming pool, making a wonderful place to relax, so don’t dally too long on the ride today.
AUGUST 31 - SARLAT 40MI, 2000FT
If we had only two days to ride in the Dordogne, these next two would have to be them. Everything that is grand and beautiful in the Dordogne is represented on this route – caves, castles, villages fleuries, forts, winding scenic roads, cliffs and panoramic views. Six miles down the road is our first stop, the world famous caves of Lascaux and their incredible prehistoric art. There are more than a dozen other caves along the way, but this is the best experience. La Roque St Christophe is next, a cliff-face dwelling, inhabited for the last 40,000 years. Les Eyziès, where the first skeletal remains of Cro-Magnon man were discovered, is the Pre-History capital of the world, and merits a stop (lunch). From here our route winds through the forests and farmlands to Sarlat, a wonderfully preserved ancient market town, dating back to the 9th century. Our hotel is beautifully situated for total relaxation after such a busy day.
SEPTEMBER 1 - SARLAT 25MI, 1000FT OR REST DAY
Today is market day in Sarlat, so 1st thing is to head to the center of town and experience the best market in the Dordogne region. The produce market occupies the main medieval Square, Place de la Libertie. Here you can get all the regional products, meats and vegetables, even truffles, depending on the season, as well as fish, poultry, honey, bread, flowers, cheeses, garlic, and duck in its many forms. Other side streets will have non food items and the main square will have musicians and street entertainers adding to the atmosphere. This market literally buzzes with activity. The produce market disappears at 1pm when the local cafes will then spread their tables and chairs into the square making an ideal setting for a leisurely lunch.
If you would like an all day ride or just an afternoon jaunt, there are more places to go and things to see, per mile, than any other area of our tour. The dispute over ownership of the Dordogne region is the reason that the French and English fought the Hundred Years War.
SEPTEMBER 2 - SARLAT 49MI, 3700FT
After yesterday’s full day of activities, everyone should be ready for a fun day of cycling. Today we avoid most the tourist hot spots, the village of Domme being the lone exception. We head north out of Sarlat over the rolling countryside, mostly farms and forests, to Salignac-Eyvigues, castle ruins here. More beautiful countryside brings us to the Dordogne River, across, past the castle of Fenelon, and back into the hills. Except for a few castles and cute little villages along the way, there is nothing to stop this enjoyable riding through the countryside. After a late lunch in Domme, we have a short but scenic ride back to the hotel, where there will still be plenty of time to relax by the pool before dinner.
SEPTEMBER 3 - ST CIRQ-LAPOPIE 67MI, 2700FT
For anyone who loves cycling today will be a real treat. France’s gift to cyclists is the myriad of small, paved roads, winding through forests and farmlands, giving France the highest density of great cycling roads in the world. For much of the day, we will follow the Ceou River from its terminus at the Dordogne River to its source near Labistide-Murat. The scenery will be beautiful and the numerous small villages, castles, and churches will make this a very enchanting day. We will pass through one of France’s plus beaux villages, La Roque Gageac. Here the cliffs rise above the river, leaving just enough room for one row of buildings and a narrow road with a castle in a commanding position at the far end of town. The Grotte du Pech Merle should not be missed; it is one of the few caves where you can still see the original cave art. St Cirq-Lapopie is considered, by many, as France’s most beautiful village, reserve some time for a walkabout and photo shoot. Dinner is on your own tonight, with plenty of places to choose from.
SEPTEMBER 4 - CORDES SUR CIEL 43MI, 1900FT OR 52MI, 2400FT
This is our last day of cycling, and after all we have seen and done, today may seem somewhat anticlimactic. Just another scenic road connecting pretty villages – but at home this would be your most special route! We climb out of the Lot valley and over the Causse de Limogne, one of the best truffle growing regions in France, although it will be off-season for truffle hunting. This is a good day to find one of those small, wonderful French restaurants and enjoy one final gourmet lunch before heading back to our hotel in Cordes, where we’ll have plenty of time to pack up before our farewell dinner tonight.
SEPTEMBER 5 - DEPARTURE
We’ll transport you to the Toulouse airport for your flight home or onwards.