The Dordogne is one of France’s most entrancing regions, with a cinematic beauty that seems almost too perfect to be real. Curving gracefully through a landscape of vineyards, pastures and orchards, the Dordogne River is often lined with steep hills and limestone bluffs riddled with caves. And on seemingly every convenient rise stands a château, sometimes alone, sometimes surrounded by a medieval village of golden stone.
The Dordogne valley looks like a fairy tale now, but it owes its appearance to having been the front line during the Hundred Years’ War (1337-1453). Richard the Lionheart occupied the imposing Château de Beynac, and not far away at Castillon (now known as Castillon-la-Bataille), the English and French fought the final battle of the war. The region later prospered thanks to its wine, with the river acting as a conduit to the more populous north, but a vine pest and railroads conspired to ruin this trade. The Dordogne became a backwater, ensuring that its landscape remained more or less unmarred by modernity.
But the Hundred Years’ War is recent history. Cro-Magnons who lived in the area left a rich legacy of cave paintings and etchings, dating back some 15,000-plus years. The astonishingly sophisticated compositions at Lascaux are the most famous, and the recently opened replica, Lascaux IV, is a highlight of the region. And before the Cro-Magnons arrived, Neanderthals lived in the Dordogne for hundreds of thousands of years. The valley has an unusually strong link with deep human history, and sometimes the connection feels surprisingly palpable.