The region that boasts ten of the prettiest villages in France

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The region that boasts ten of the prettiest villages in France

Fairytale castles, breathtaking views and a new luxury hotel make the Dordogne region a wonderful choice for a long weekend

Louisa Walters is Features Editor at the Jewish News and specialises in food and travel writing

As Vianne Rocher in the movie Chocolat, Juliette Binoche fell in love with a fictional village in the Dordogne, but I fell in love with the real thing – and not just one village either, for each little hamlet along this winding river in the southwest of France is prettier than the one before it. If castles, medieval cities, foie gras, truffles and walnuts are your thing you will love it too.

The only thing this exquisitely beautiful area had been missing up until now was a luxury hotel, but the Pruneyac family has seen to that with the opening (in 2022) of Domaine de Rochebois, a 40-bedroom boutique property set on a stunning estate with a nine-hole golf course.

About an hour’s drive from Bergerac airport, Rochebois is the kind of hotel where once you enter your supremely comfortable bedroom, decorated in a calming colour palette of pastel neutrals with French furniture and top-level bedding, and then open the doors on to your terrace you simply won’t want to leave. And with a gourmet restaurant recently opened under the auspices of Michelin-starred chef Adrien Soro, who trained under Joel Robuchon and Alain Ducasse, casual dining available at The Wedge restaurant on the golf course, plus an outdoor pool, a spa and a kids club, you really don’t need to.

Domiane de Rochebois hotel

And yet, this region, which is in many ways reminiscent of the Cotswolds with its honey-coloured buildings and multitude of little towns and gardens, needs to be explored, and we did just that.

The Dordogne is a river, said to be the cleanest in Europe, and stretches for 515km through hill country, full of old villages, castles (1,000 of them) and small country towns. Among the 154 villages featured on the ‘Most Beautiful Villages of France’ list, no fewer than 10 are located along the Dordogne.

Bedroom at Domaine de Rochebois

After breakfast on the terrace at Rochebois – for it was still warm enough in September to eat outdoors – we headed to the market in the village of Saint Cyprien, fondly described by locals as “small city of character”. Each Sunday morning around 150 traders ply their wares along the main street – mainly food but also a deliciously sweet wine called Montbazaic from nearby Bergerac and local craft goods, too.

From here we took a drive to the Italianate-style Marqueyssac gardens, a parkland filled with contrasts – 6km of pathways interspersed with winding labyrinths, with a castle at its heart that has been restored to support the typical stone Perigord Noir roof. We learned that ‘ac’ on the end of a place name means that it was there in Roman times.

Jardins de Marqueyssac

The main feature of the gardens are the extraordinary boxwood, which number 150,000, and the beautiful views; there is a delightful, inexpensive restaurant on site to rest your legs and enjoy them while eating lunch.

At the foot of a cliff running along the Dordogne is the tiny village of La Roque-Gageac, whose most notable feature is the staircase cut into the rock leading to a recently renovated fort with views of the river and verdant forests 40m below. It was a struggle climbing the steps in the hot midday sunshine and equally so the steep narrow street that leads to a luxuriant botanical garden with palm trees, lemon trees and Japanese medlar trees – but so worth the effort as this is a truly fascinating feature in a quaint French village.


We had certainly earned an ice cream at Glacier Fabricant Lamber in the walled village of Domme, a 13th century royal bastide (fortified medieval town). Created in 1281 on a protected cliff by order of French King Philip III, it was invaded by the English in 1346 for a time but remained relatively unscathed and you can see the ramparts and the Porte des Tours in which the imprisoned Templars made engravings which are still visible today. Our guide had an extremely good command of English, and explained that in 1987, when she was 18, she was an au pair for a Jewish family in Edgware.

Beynac-et-Cazenac is another medieval town with cobbled streets and forms part of the Valley of Five Chateaux, named for the five castles that date from the 100 Years War. Chateau de Beynac, perched on the clifftop overlooking the town, is one of the best preserved in the region and has been used many times for filming, including for Luc Besson’s Jeanne d’Arc with Faye Dunaway, John Malkovich and Dustin Hoffman in 1999.

Les Milandes

Castelnaud-la-Chapelle has two castles, one of which, the Milandes, is the former home of  the music-hall artist Joséphine Baker. It was built in the 15th century by an aristocratic French family who wanted to bring beauty back into a region that had been ravaged by fighting against the English but reached new fame in the 20th century when it was restored, enlarged and then bought by Mme Baker in 1947. She lived there for 30 years and the rooms represent her life as it was, from her costumes to the living rooms and bathrooms. Born in St Louis, she renounced her US citizenship to become French, was a renowned civil rights campaigner when black Americans were second-class citizens, and was a member of the French Resistance. She was married four times and had 12 children – all of them adopted.

There were Jews in the Dordogne as far back as the 13th century, but they were expelled in 1302. There is a street known as Rue Judaïque behind the Museum of Périgord in Périgueux , the largest town in the region, and during the Second World War Alsatian Jews settled in the town. Eventually the Resistance was suppressed, and the Nazis deported them. A community centre was built in the 1960s, in the wake of the arrival of Jews from North Africa, and there is still a synagogue there today.

Every corner you turn in these magically quaint hilltop towns affords another breathtaking view of the Dordogne sparkling in the sunlight. It is reputedly the cleanest river in Europe, as there’s no ‘industry’ along it – no factories, mills, or anything that pollutes it.As the evenings draw in, the gently lit villages reflect off the water, which is the beating heart of this beautiful region. Jonny Depp apparently never visited the area when he was filming opposite with Juliette Binoche in Chocolat. To quote another well-known movie, big mistake. Huge.

Rooms at Domaine de Rochebois from 190 euros per night.

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