The following itinerary lists a range of museums, heritage properties and gardens etc. which we plan to visit. Many are accessible to the public, but some require special permission, which may only be confirmed closer to the tour’s departure. The daily activities described in this itinerary may change or be rotated and/or modified in order to accommodate alterations in opening hours, flight schedules and confirmation of private visits. Participants will receive a final itinerary together with their tour documents. Meals included in the tour price are indicated in the detailed itinerary where: B=breakfast, L=lunch and D=evening meal.
Toulouse - 2 nights
Day 1: Tuesday 24 September, Arrive Toulouse
- Orientation Walk
- Basilica Saint-Sernin, Toulouse
Our tour commences in Toulouse. Upon arrival, participants on the ASA ‘designated’ flight will be included in the group transfer to our hotel. People who have not taken ASA ‘designated’ flight should meet the group at the Grand Hôtel de l’Opéra situated in the centre of Toulouse.
In the afternoon we shall take an orientation walk in the vicinity of the hotel and visit the great pilgrim church of Saint-Sernin (1075-1096). After the abbey church at Cluny (destroyed during the French Revolution), Saint-Sernin was the largest Romanesque church in France. It was one of the five archetypal pilgrim churches on the pilgrim route to Santiago de Compostela, the others being Sainte-Foy at Conques, Saint-Martin at Tours, Saint-Martial de Limoges, and the great cathedral at Santiago. All these churches are aisled basilicas. In each, these aisles run down either side of the nave and around the transepts and semi-circular chevet. From the chevet of each church project chapels that once displayed saints’ relics. The aisles that ran right around the church allowed pilgrims to process through the building to see the relics in these chapels without disrupting services in the chancel. Saint-Sernin was constructed from a richly coloured red brick. Its nave, the longest on the pilgrim route, leads to a crossing topped by a magnificent Gothic tiered tower and spire. (Overnight Toulouse)
Day 2: Wednesday 25 September, Toulouse – Carcassonne – Toulouse
- Château Comtal, Ramparts & Basilica of St Nazaire and St Celse, Carcassonne
- Welcome Dinner
Today we drive southwest to what was once the medieval frontier between the Kingdom of France and the Spanish kingdom of Aragón, to Carcassonne, the walled city we shall visit. Before its integration into the French kingdom by Louis IX, Carcassonne was a stronghold of the Cathars, who were decimated by Simon de Montfort during the Albigensian Crusade (1209–1229). Before the Crusade, Carcassonne, like many cities in this region, had been a centre of local power, jealous of its independence from larger hegemonies. Originally a Celtic settlement, then a Roman colonia (Carcasum), it became a Visigothic stronghold (508) that resisted the early Franks, was taken for a time by the Iberian Muslims (725), and had become the seat of a local county that often allied itself either to the counts of Barcelona or Toulouse. Fragments of Carcassonne’s Roman walls still exist, within the magnificent concentric rings of medieval ramparts defended by many towers. Louis IX founded a lower city across the River Aude from the original fortified city (1247), and even after it had lost importance as a bastion against Aragón (when the frontier moved further south) its towers and ramparts made the upper, older, city almost impregnable. During the Hundred Years’ War, the Black Prince destroyed Louis IX’s lower city, but could not take Carcassonne proper (1355).
Despite prosperity during the later Middle Ages as a centre of wool manufacture, Carcassonne slowly declined to provincial obscurity and its walls fell into such ruin that in the 19th century the French government considered dismantling them. Carcassonne’s mayor, the antiquary Jean-Pierre Cros-Mayrevieille, and the writer Prosper Mérimée, France’s first inspector of ancient monuments, protested, and the city was eventually restored in the 1850s and 1860s by the great Neo-Gothic architect Eugène Viollet-le-Duc. Carcassonne’s restoration became a key moment in the growth of French, and therefore world, notions of conservation and preservation. Much of France’s medieval built heritage had either fallen into disrepair or had suffered depredations through countless wars and the French Revolution. Eugène Viollet-le-Duc – who also restored Notre-Dame de Paris and was then working on Saint-Sernin, Toulouse – performed the massive feat of bringing Carcassonne back to its medieval glory. Although he was criticised for giving the Carcassonne’s towers steep conical pinnacles that were uncharacteristic of a southern region without heavy snowfalls, his restoration is nevertheless seen as a masterpiece, albeit with touches of Romantic fantasy.
We shall explore Carcassonne’s ramparts and visit its Château Comtal (Count’s citadel) and the Basilica of St Nazaire and St Celse. There will be time at leisure for lunch and to allow you to further explore the city. Mid-afternoon we return to Toulouse and enjoy a Welcome Dinner. (Overnight Toulouse) BD
Albi - 3 nights
Day 3: Thursday 26 September, Toulouse – Moissac – Albi
- Musée des Augustins, Toulouse
- Cloisters of Saint-Pierre, Moissac
The morning in Toulouse will be spent exploring the town centre and visiting the Musée des Augustins. The Musée des Augustins, once a grand old Augustinian priory used as a residence and studio by Viollet-le-Duc when he worked on the restoration of Saint-Sernin, now holds a comprehensive collection of Romanesque and Gothic sculpture from the city’s churches.
In the afternoon we depart for Albi via Moissac, visiting the church of Saint-Pierre (1100-1150), which was once a Cluniac abbey. Moissac boasts a fine trumeau (door jamb) graced by the ethereal elongated figures of St Paul and the Prophet Jeremiah. Although much of the original monastery has been destroyed, its cloister remains. It has an important corpus of sculpted panels and capitals including figures in relief whose monumentality suggests that the artist, who also worked in Saint-Sernin, Toulouse, was inspired by antique sculpture, which was to be found in abundance in Southern France. (Overnight Albi) B
Day 4: Friday 27 September, Albi
- Cathédrale Sainte-Cécile d’Albi
- Musée Toulouse-Lautrec
- Les Jardins du Palais de la Berbie
- Afternoon at leisure
We spend a full day in Albi, a city of red brick, reminiscent of Siena. It stands on the river Tarn, whose bed provided the clay for these bricks. We visit the Bishop’s palace – the Palais de la Berbie – which has a fine garden and houses the Toulouse-Lautrec Museum, as well as Albi’s extraordinary, fortress-cathedral, Sainte-Cécile. The Toulouse-Lautrec Museum, one of the finest museums devoted to a single artist in France, incorporates early paintings by the master and some of his most important images of Parisian life. There is also a collection of his posters and a section devoted to his lithography displaying many of his lithographic stones.
As late as the 12th century, the County of Toulouse was independent of the French crown. Its cities were wealthy and their merchants criticised the corruption of the Church. Many were Cathars, a name derived from the Greek word for ‘pure’. Cathars believed in the strict separation of good and evil in the world. They were divided into two groups: ordinary believers who worked in thriving cities like Albi and Toulouse, and ‘perfecti’ who separated themselves from the world, living lives of exemplary abstinence, which contrasted awkwardly with abuses within the Church. The French crown mounted the Albigensian Crusade (c.1208-1244) to destroy the Cathar ‘heresy’. Its hidden motive was to conquer the independent south and incorporate it into the French realm. The population of Albi was slaughtered and Bishop Bernard de Castanet (1240-1317) constructed the new Cathedral of Sainte-Cécile (1282-1330; porch 1519-1535) using riches confiscated from the Cathars. The building, with huge, smooth defensive walls and curved tower-buttresses (so that stones hurled by siege machines would glance off them) was designed like a fortress to remind the Albigensians of the authority of the Church whose dogmas they had questioned.
The rest of the afternoon will be at leisure to explore this beautiful city for yourself. (Overnight Albi) B
Day 5: Saturday 28 September, Albi – Sainte-Eulalie de Cernon – La Cavalerie – La Couvertoirade – Millau Viaduct – Albi
- Templar and Hospitaller Circuit in the Larzac
- Sainte-Eulalie de Cernon: the headquarters of a local Templar Commanderie
- Templar and Hospitaller villages of La Cavalerie and La Couvertoirade
- Millau Viaduct (time permitting)
The south of France was enriched by Mediterranean trade and pilgrimage to Santiago, but it was also a highly contested region, where the forces of the French and Spanish kingdoms, local potentates such as the Counts of Toulouse and Carcassonne, and religious groups like the Cathars, all vied for power. Another force in this region was the Knight Templar, originally dedicated to the succour of pilgrims in Jerusalem, which had been transformed during the Crusades into an aristocratic, military order. Many myths have been spun around the Templars, most of which, such as their involvement in occult practices, are apocryphal. They nevertheless constituted a powerful force in medieval Europe, amassing vast wealth that raised the jealousy of kings. The Templars, like the Knights Hospitaller (later Knights of Malta) attracted charitable donations, including vast tracts of land. Among their many activities was banking, and Philip IV (1268-1314), who was heavily indebted to them, had many arrested, tortured to produce false confessions, and burned at the stake as heretics. He also forced Pope Clement V to disband the Order in 1312.
We spend today exploring Templar territories in the Larzac region to the east of Albi, visiting Sainte-Eulalie de Cernon, their regional headquarters (commanderie), and their stunningly picturesque fortified village of La Couvertoirade. Sainte-Eulalie de Cernon occupies a deep valley between ridges of the Larzac. It is the best-preserved Templar commandery in France, having been established by the Order in 1159, and then taken over by the Hospitallers when Philip IV eliminated the Templars. La Couvertoirade, in a wildly beautiful setting, deep in the Larzac on the edge of the Cévennes National Park, was a Templar stronghold until the fall of the Order, when it also was taken over by the Knights Hospitaller who built the village’s curtain wall between 1439 and 1450. This wall still stands, and within it are a church, a small château, and a number of lovely old houses.
We shall also have lunch at a small restaurant in La Cavalerie, another fortified Larzac Templar site, halfway between Sainte-Eulalie de Cernon and La Couvertoirade.
We return to Albi in the late afternoon and, time permitting, make a brief stop to view the Millau Viaduct a cable-stayed road-bridge that spans the valley of the river Tarn. Designed by the French structural engineer Michel Virlogeux and British architect Norman Foster, it is the tallest bridge in the world. (Overnight Albi) BL
Conques - 1 night
Day 6: Sunday 29 September, Albi – Cordes-sur-Ciel – Najac – Conques
- Bastides of Cordes-sur-Ciel & Najac
Today we drive north to the secluded town of Conques through the region of the Aveyron Gorges, visiting beautiful hill-top bastides, Cordes-sur-Ciel and Najac.
Bastides played a vital role in the emergence of France after the Dark Ages and the consolidation of royal power after the Albigensian Crusade. They also figured in the ensuing territorial struggle with the Plantagenets of England, the Hundred Years’ War. A bastide was a fortified village or town, usually of regular plan, in which the rural population was forced to reside so it could be defended as well as exploited by the crown or a feudal lord. Both the Plantagenet and French monarchies built bastides, and one of their later functions was as strongholds in the Hundred Years’ War. Before the advent of these very particular communities, the landscape of this heavily forested, under-populated region had only tiny, scattered, isolated settlements, abbeys or the strongholds of the local nobility. The bastides were therefore the ‘frontier towns’ or ‘colonies’ of the Middle Ages, which tamed the land. Although an ideal bastide has a grid plan centring on an arcaded market square, they in fact took many forms that depended upon topography, microclimate and available building materials.
The plan of Cordes, the very earliest bastide, does not conform to type. Its organic plan accommodated the urban fabric to the steep bluff upon which it was located. Its domestic architecture is distinctive to the region. Originally, its limited agricultural domain would have been surrounded by forest, for Cordes was founded in virgin territory. Its neighbour Najac, a fine, small bastide that occupies a craggy cliff, is dominated by a partly ruined château built by the villagers in 1253 on the orders of Alphonse de Poitiers. Najac’s 13th-century Church Saint-Jean, erected by the local population as a punishment for their Cathar beliefs, overlooks the village, while at the opposite end, the faubourg (medieval suburb or extension to the town) has the typical architecture of many bastides, with timber-framed houses and commercial arcades around an open area. Najac’s houses are so valued that they have been registered in a special catalogue.
After lunchtime in Najac, we turn east again into deep, heavily forested valleys formed by the river Lot to Conques, one of France’s greatest treasures. Tonight we stay in a delightful small hotel occupying a late medieval house next to Conques’ famous church. (Overnight Conques) BD
Saint-Jean-Lespinasse - 1 night
Day 7: Monday 30 September, Conques – Rocamadour – Saint-Jean-Lespinasse
- Benedictine Abbey of Sainte-Foy, Conques
- Abbey Museum, Conques
Conques owes its fame to the Benedictine Abbey of Sainte-Foy (1031-1090) that, despite its isolation, became one of the most famous shrines on the medieval pilgrim route to Santiago de Compostela (northern Spain). The church is one of five archetypal pilgrim basilicas, along with Saint-Sernin (Toulouse), Santiago de Compostela, Saint Martin (Tours: destroyed) and Saint-Martial (Limoges). It has a fine east-end with radiating chapels, a narrow, high nave with galleries, and a well-preserved coloured portal depicting the Last Judgement in vividly descriptive detail. The abbey was founded in 866 in a lonely, thickly wooded region of the Dordogne. It became an important station on the pilgrim route to Santiago from Le Puy because of the extraordinary popularity of the saint, martyred in 330 AD, whose relics were brought here in five centuries later. The adolescent girl Sainte Foy, like Saint George, was of obscure origins, but later became so popular that monuments to her were founded throughout Britain, continental Europe and the Near East. Her strange reliquary, fashioned in the form of an enthroned monarch, is the only surviving example of a form popular in the 11th century. It is housed in Conques’ Abbey Museum, which holds one of Europe’s best-preserved collections of medieval pilgrim art.
We shall spend the morning visiting the abbey church and the museum of Conques, and wandering through the small town viewing its lovely small houses.
In the afternoon, we shall drive west through the medieval clifftop village of Rocamadour. Rocamadour is both a place of legend and history where old stone houses, majestic towers and a castle keep cascade off the cliff into the Alzou Canyon. We enter the sacred city though one of its beautiful arched stone gates. A UNESCO World Heritage Site, Rocamadour has also been a crucial pilgrimage site for hundreds of years. Rocamadour traces its origins back to 1105 when a small chapel was built in the cliff side. In 1112, the Abbot of Tulle came to live here and in 1148 a first miracle was announced. Pilgrims on their way to Santiago de Compostela started arriving, climbing the monumental steps of the Grand Escalier on their knees. Their donations financed the Romanesque-Gothic Basilica of Saint-Saveur. You will have time to wander through the town and see Rocamadour’s religious buildings: the Chapelle Notre-Dame, which is home to the Black Madonna statue, the Chapelle Saint-Michel and the Palace of the Bishops (Palais des évêques).
We continue our journey to our next hotel, the Hôtel des Trois Soleils de Montal is overlooking the Bave Valley outside the village of Saint-Jean-Lespinasse. The hotel is noted for its fine cuisine and we shall dine here tonight. (Overnight Saint-Jean-Lespinasse) BD
Sarlat - 4 nights
Day 8: Tuesday 1 October, Saint-Jean-Lespinasse – Montal – Autoire – Loubressac – Carennac – Sarlat
- Château de Montal
- Carennac Church
Today we explore a château and two villages close to St Céré and then turn west along the valley of the Dordogne. Our route takes us through the heart of an ancient agricultural region with numerous beautiful châteaux, villages and Romanesque pilgrim churches. We begin at the Château de Montal whose powerful towers and picturesque profile give it the aspect of a fortress. Built in 1523-4, it is, however, a Renaissance palace similar to the great châteaux of the Loire, and the rich decoration of its stately façades reflects a political stability unknown earlier, when bastides were used to tame this part of France and when French and English armies fought each other for control of it. Of particular note are Montal’s portrait sculptures of Robert de Balsac, his wife Antoinette de Castelnau, and members of their family that grace the upper storeys of the courtyard façade. Within, the château has a magnificent central staircase and beautiful fittings, such as great ornamental fireplaces. After touring the château and its gardens, we continue our journey, travelling through Autoire, located at the head of the Gorge d’Autoire, a chasm running south from the Dordogne, to the nearby village of Loubressac where we break for a picnic lunch.
Near Loubressac, the Bave meets the Dordogne, whose south bank we follow to Carennac. Here we stop briefly to view the medieval tympanum over the doorway of the church. Carved tympana, often with graphic depictions of the Last Judgement, were a feature of Romanesque churches, presenting the faithful entering the shrine with awesome visions of Christ or terrifying views of eternal punishments meted out to sinners. You will be able to compare Carennac’s Last Judgement with those you have seen at Moissac and Conques, and will see how each has a very different style compared to its counterparts. From here we follow the Dordogne as it winds its way west and continue on to Sarlat-la-Canéda. (Overnight Sarlat) BL
Day 9: Wednesday 2 October, Sarlat – Les Eyzies de Tayac – Rouffignac – Sarlat
- Musée National de la Préhistoire, Les Eyzies
- Abri Pataud, Les Eyzies
- Prehistoric cave of Rouffignac
For over a century the Dordogne has been celebrated for its magnificent painted caves from the Late Pleistocine, what archaeologists call Late Paleolithic (40,000-10,000 BC). At this time humans were sufficiently technologically advanced to survive the extreme cold of the Last Ice Age in this region, and to hunt the huge herds of animals that roamed it. For 25,000 years in this region of limestone plateaux and verdant valleys, humans decorated caves with engravings, sculptures and paintings, depicting all kinds of animals in extraordinary, vividly naturalistic detail. Around 10,000 BC the climate ameliorated and the magnificent cave decorations cease, possibly because the great herds of bison, deer and other animals that man had hunted – and depicted – moved further north to new pastures that had been freed from the retreating ice cover.
This morning we visit the Musée National de la Préhistoire at Les Eyzies-de-Tayac. It is situated in a restored château on a terrace overlooking a plain on which vast herds of reindeer and other beasts would have roamed in the Late Stone Age. The château, in fact, is located on the site of a Prehistoric settlement chosen, no doubt, for the excellent view it provided those scanning the plain for game. The museum holds, among other exhibits, an amazing collection of artefacts such as beautifully sculpted reliefs of animals.
Following lunch in Les Eyzies, we visit the excavation site of Abri Pataud, the only prehistoric site in the Dordogne to have been converted into a museum. It is situated 15 metres above the river Vézère at the foot of an imposing cliff that dominates the village of Les Eyzies-de-Tayac.
Our last visit today is Rouffignac, a vast prehistoric cave which includes ten kilometres of galleries, two of which were frequented by Cro-Magnon artists. It’s also exceptional for its more than 150 depictions of mammoths. An electrical train takes us through. This is linear art: animals and signs outlined in magnanese dioxyde, or finely engraved, or finger-drawn where the wall’s surface is soft enough. The simplicity and accuracy of line here reveal the artist’s talent and expertise more in this cave, perhaps, than anywhere else. The Great Ceiling, one kilometre from the entrance, offers the viewer an unforgettable whirl of mammoths, bisons, and ibex. (Overnight Sarlat) B
Day 10: Thursday 3 October, Sarlat – Monpazier – Castelnaud-la-Chapelle – Sarlat
- Orientation walk of Sarlat-la-Canéda
- Bastide town of Monpazier & Thursday Market
- Château des Milandes, Castelnaud-la-Chapelle incl. the Falconry Show
This morning we take a leisurely stroll of Sarlat-la-Canéda which will include a visit to the mysterious Lanterne-des-Mortes and the cathedral, and time to view its golden stone buildings. Sarlat-la-Canéda was largely a ruinous town until purposefully restored by the French government in the 20th century to act as a cultural focus for the Périgord-Noir region.
Next, we drive to the bastide of Monpazier, nominated one of ‘plus beaux villages de France’. It is not only the best-preserved bastide in the Dordogne, but is also considered the most typical example of a bastide in the entire south-west of France. King Edward I of England founded Monpazier in 1284 with the help of Pierre de Gontaut, Lord of Biron, and it was only during the reign of King Charles V of France (1366-1380) that it was taken by the French. In 1574 the Huguenot captain, Geoffroi de Vivans, took control of Monpazier and in 1594 it became a centre of the Peasant’s Revolt.
Despite the ravages of the Hundred Years’ War and the Wars of Religion, Monpazier has remained remarkably unchanged for 700 years. Monpazier’s urban core is perfectly quadrilateral in overall layout, its symmetrical, gridded plan covering an area of 400 x 220 metres. The town’s grid is crossed by four transverse streets, which divide it into rectangular precincts. Medieval and 17th-century houses surround the central Place des Cornières; originally, all of Monpazier’s houses were exactly the same size and separated from one another by narrow side alleys or androns to prevent the spread of fire. The ground floor of those surrounding the square form a continuous arcade, a feature typical of bastides, also seen in northern Italy and in Spanish cities and towns. Monpazier’s old market hall is intact; its 16th-century timber roof frame is supported by wooden pillars that rest on stone blocks. St Dominique’s Church was built in the 13th century and added to later. Its nave, with ribbed vaults, leads to a polygonal chevet. Monpazier’s 13th-century Chapter House, situated behind the church, once served as the tithe barn for stocking harvest produce requisitioned as taxes. This tithe house, as well as the town’s highly organised plan and characteristic architecture, all speak physically of the fact that bastides were created from scratch as centres of power and commerce by princes.
Our visit to Montpazier is timed for the Thursday market when you will be able to purchase ingredients for a picnic lunch. Walnuts are a local speciality and taste wonderfully fresh. You may wish to try the local walnut bread and tarts!
In the afternoon we visit the Château des Milandes in Castelnaud-la-Chapelle, a turreted 15th-century château, flanked by hundred-year-old magnolia trees. Les Milandes affords one of the best views of the rolling hills and tiled-roof villages of the Dordogne Valley. The château was built in 1489 when Claude de Cardaillac begged her husband, the Lord of Castelnaud, to build her a house that, true to her wishes, has a very grand interior, with beamed ceilings, mullioned windows and stained-glass panels, and huge fireplaces.
Milandes’ modern fame stems from the fact that it became the home of Josephine Baker, a far cry from the slums of St Louis, USA, where at the age of 12 she had lived on the streets. Baker entered Vaudeville at 15, and soon became one of its most popular dancers, and a key player in the ‘Harlem Renaissance’. Baker fled the racism of the USA in 1925, and gained notoriety for her semi-nude performances at the Folies Bergère, becoming one of Europe’s most popular and richest music hall stars. This extraordinarily talented woman then augmented her music hall performances by becoming an important opera singer. During the war, she spied for her adopted country, assisted the Resistance, and earned two of France’s most important military honours, the Croix de Guerre and the Rosette de la Résistance. Charles de Gaulle also made her a Chevalier of the Légion d’honneur. Baker was a civil rights activist, friend and associate of Martin Luther King Jr, and after his death was asked by his widow to lead the movement. Childless, she adopted 12 orphans from different countries. She bought Château des Milandes in 1947, and lived here with her French husband and adopted children. We shall tour her home, and see a number of memorabilia, including her famous banana skirt.
Milandes accommodates many birds of prey including buzzards, falcons and barn owls. Before touring the château and grounds we shall attend a Birds of Prey Show, presented by two falconers in the gardens in front of the castle. (Overnight Sarlat) B
Day 11: Friday 4 October, Sarlat – Grottes de Cougnac – Labastide-Murat – Pech-Merle – Sarlat
- Grottes de Cougnac
- Lunch at Hotel La Garissade, Labastide-Murat
- Centre de Préhistoire du Pech-Merle
This morning we drive to two fascinating caves at the Grottes de Cougnac, one of which is important for its geology and the other for its fine paintings. You will see mammoth, ibex, human figures and three megaloceros (reindeer with huge antlers). Many of the painted forms take advantage of the natural shapes of the cave wall that may possibly even have suggested them. Some of the stalagmites and stalactites in the cave were deliberately broken at the time the paintings were executed. This suggests that the paintings were to be viewed from the other side of the chamber.
After lunch at Hotel La Garissade, a charming restaurant located in the small village of Labastide-Murat, we drive to Pech-Merle, where we visit a marvelous cave, with painted black outlines of aurochs, mammoth and spotted horses. The art here has been assigned to three distinct phases. To the earliest belong images of circles, dots and the outlines of hands; this phase also includes the ‘spotted horses’. The second phase includes figures made by finger-tracings on the ceiling as well as 40 black outline drawings. The last phase includes engravings, the most famous of which is a bear’s head. In the late afternoon we return to Sarlat, where the evening is at leisure. (Overnight Sarlat) BL
Montignac - 3 nights
Day 12: Saturday 5 October, Sarlat – Vézac – Beynac-Cazenac – Montignac
- Market Day at Sarlat-la-Canéda
- Jardins de Marqueyssac, Vézac
- Barge excursion along the Dordogne River
- Village of Beynac-Cazenac
Saturday is market day in Sarlat-la-Canéda, which rivals Conques in the beauty of its medieval streetscapes. Our leisurely morning stroll will include participation in the market where you will be able to purchase ingredients for your picnic lunch in the gardens of Marqueyssac.
The Dordogne south of Sarlat-la-Canéda is littered with exquisite châteaux, bastides and churches. Our drive to the Château de Marqueyssac allows us to inspect this landscape more closely. Marqueyssac has extraordinary ‘hanging gardens’ named because of their position on a craggy promontory with breathtaking views over the surrounding valley. The château was founded in the late 17th century and has remained in the family ever since. In the 18th and 19th centuries a vast number of box trees, which lend themselves so well to topiary, were planted. Marqueyssac’s boxwood folly, along with a great variety of oaks, hornbeams, lime trees, Judas trees, viburnum, plantain, elms and cypresses, shares this inimitable setting with vegetable and flower gardens, fine cliff-top bastions, sinuous paths, and a grand allée derived from one family member’s fond memories of Italy.
We next drive to Beynac-Cazenac, a village which has managed to retain its medieval charm. The Château de Beynac, one of the great castles of the Périgord, dominates the north bank of the Dordogne River from a precipitous height and is defended on the north side by double walls. Crouching beneath its limestone cliff is a small village, once the home of poet Paul Eluard. During the Hundred Years’ War, the Dordogne River frequently marked the border between French and English territories: the fortress at Beynac, then in French hands was faced on the opposite bank of the river by the Château de Castelnaud held by the English.
We shall enjoy a cruise along the Dordogne River on board replicas of traditional gabarres (the Dordogne’s traditional flat-bottomed boats), passing some of the valley’s most beautiful castles along the way, and a local guide will provide a commentary on various aspects relating to the river, its history and its environment.
Following some time at leisure in the village of Beynac-Cazenac to wander through its narrow paved streets, we continue to Montignac where we shall reside for the next 3 nights. Montignac is dominated by a tall tower, the vestige of a fortress that was once the home of the counts of Périgord. Until recently a sleepy backwater, Montignac was transformed when the Lascaux caves were discovered. It is now a thriving small town with attractive medieval streets and houses, a 17th-century priory church and a local folk museum. (Overnight Montignac) BD
Day 13: Sunday 6 October, Montignac – Thonac – St-Léon-sur-Vézère – Lascaux – Montignac
- Château de Losse, Thonac
- Lascaux Caves IV
We begin this morning with a visit to the Château de Losse. This castle owes its position, inhabited continuously since prehistory, to its strategic command of the valley. In the 13th century a Flemish family, the Loss, fortified the cliff above the river. Like so many French châteaux, it was transformed from a fortress to a country palace during the Renaissance. This was affected by Jean II de Loss who was one of François I’s pages and tutor to Henry IV. We shall visit the elegant Renaissance building and its large formal garden, all with magnificent views of the valley
We then drive along the Vézère Valley up to the picturesque village of St-Léon-sur-Vézère. We return to Montignac for lunch. Here we will visit the recently opened (2016) new facsimile of the world famous painted caves, Lascaux IV, the original having long since been closed to the public. This is the most famous and spectacular of all decorated caves, best-known perhaps for its 600 paintings of aurochs, horses, deer and a variety of signs; there are also almost 1500 engravings in the cave. Although we cannot visit the original, it is important to see this facsimile in order to gauge the quality of this pinnacle of cave art. (Overnight Montignac) BLD
Day 14: Monday 7 October, Montignac – Marquay – Eyrignac – St-Amand-de-Coly –Montignac
- Abri de Cap Blanc, Marquay
- Les Jardins du Manoir d’Eyrignac
- Saint-Amand-de-Coly: Fortified Church
This morning we head to the small village of Marquay to explore the Abri du Cap Blanc, a rock shelter that presents a large prehistoric sculpted frieze. Considered to be one of the best examples of Palaeolithic sculpture, the frieze is 13 meters long and includes carvings of horses, bison and deer.
Then we drive through lovely, often dramatic, countryside to Eyrignac, where Patrick Sermadiras de Pouzels de Lile has restored a formal 18th-century garden, a rarity in Périgord. Here, box, hornbeam and yew are clipped with an almost obsessive exactness to produce verdant architectural forms aligned along three vistas. Strong perspectives of sharply formed leafy structures are orchestrated in subtle tonal contrasts – between the fresh green of lawns, the glossy leaves of the box, the slightly translucent foliage of the hornbeam and the matt, almost black needles of the yew.
We enjoy lunch at the gardens’ terrace restaurant before driving to the picturesque village of Saint-Amand-de-Coly, which has an interesting 12th-century fortified church. The small walled village of Saint-Armand-de-Coly grew up around an Augustinian monastery first mentioned in a document of 1048. A monk from the Catalan monastery of Ripoll, later bishop of Vich, who made a journey around the monasteries of Périgord, wrote the 1048 text. He recorded that the monastery had grown up around the tomb of Saint-Armand, a young Limousine noble who came here as a hermit in the middle of the 6th century from the community of Genouillac (Terrasson). Saint Armand preached to the local population, and when he died was made a saint. The day of his death was fixed as 25th June. A small town grew up around the monastery, whose houses like the monastery itself, were constructed of Sarlaise stone, with typical lauze roofs. Little remains of the monastery and the high defensive walls that protected it and the town, but the magnificent early 12th-century fortified church remains. (Overnight Montignac) BLD
Bordeaux - 1 night
Day 15: Tuesday 8 October, Montignac – Périgueux – Pessac-sur-Dordogne – Bordeaux
- Pilgrim cathedral of Saint-Front, Périgueux
- Farewell Lunch and wine tasting at Château Carbonneau, Pessac-sur-Dordogne
Today we drive to Bordeaux via one of France’s most important medieval pilgrimage centres, Périgueux. Its Cathedral of Saint-Front, although very heavily restored in the 19th century, nevertheless is particularly interesting for its medieval domes. The use of domes to roof churches in this region resembles that at St Mark’s, Venice. It is typical of the ecclesiastical architecture of the Byzantine Empire rather than Western Europe. Saint-Front is actually composed of two earlier churches, separated by a high medieval bell tower.
We sample wines and eat lunch at one of the region’s wineries, Château Carbonneau, located between Saint-Emilion and Bergerac. Recently awarded International Best of Wine Tourism prize, this is a corner of New Zealand in the Sainte-Foy appellation, which is between Castillon and Bergerac. Now on the third generation of New Zealand owners (with a French husband however), and a New Zealand winemaker, they produce three types of wine: red, rosé and white. The 100-hectare plus estate is also a working farm, with cattle, forest and some beautiful Bernese mountain dogs. (Overnight Bordeaux) BL
Day 16: Wednesday 9 October, Bordeaux. Tour Ends.
- Airport transfer for participants departing on the ASA ‘designated’ flight
Our tour ends today in Bordeaux. Participants departing on the ASA ‘designated’ flight will be included in the group transfer to Bordeaux airport. Participants wishing to extend their stay in France and Europe are advised to contact ASA for further information. B