The Best of Dordogne

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July 2010

1/400th @ f/13.0
ISO 400
Canon EOS-1D Mark IV

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The Best of Dordogne
My favourite thing about France is travelling through a nice rural region. A few good medieval castles perched on hilltops, some classic views of a chateau and the fabulous cuisine that lures both your taste buds and your camera.

The Photography Blog

Beautiful Towns

Dordogne is just brimming with lovely towns. Some are very small with a chapel and a few dozen houses surrounding, others are large with a pedestrian old town to help preserve the architecture. All of them have at least one if not a dozen chateaux to add a touch of elegance and grandeur to the location. Many towns are built on the apex of dramatic cliffs, hills or mountains which adds to their photogenic nature. The rural landscape between towns is just as much a highlight of Dordogne as the towns themselves, but harder to encapsulate in photos. Getting lost in the lanes and discovering a foie gras farm off the map is one of life's great joys.

See below for a list of the towns that make the Dordogne Valley especially photogrenic.

Summer Scenes

The good news about rural France in the summertime is the endless array of flowers, produce and poppies on display. In July you can already find a few massive fields of sunflowers with their brilliant yellow heads tilting in unison. Vineyards have grapes on the vines as well, small and growing but still pretty to photograph. Grape growers have to leave a field fallow for a year before replanting a parcel of land with new vines, so they sprinkle flower seeds into the fallow plots and you get massive carpets of colour to play with.

The hills are green, the fields are green, the trees are green.

You're more than likely to get plenty of direct sunlight, especially in the afternoons when the sun has burnt off the early cloud and haze. That summer sun is also very low to the north, so at lunchtime you're still getting some angle on the light that feels as though it's about mid-morning. You'll need a polarizer to make use of these midday mornings, but you can keep shooting into the day, take a break around lunchtime and wait until 5pm when the afternoon light is in position.

The downside to all these excessive daylight hours is you find the late evening light can keep going through to 9pm which is when you need to be at the hotel for dinner. And if you miss dinner then you rarely have a second option as even the local supermarkets are closed after 7pm and may not even be open on a Sunday. This is France.

Rural Goodies

Dordogne is one of the great culinary centres of France and the three stars of the region are Truffles, Foie Gras and Walnuts. In winter the truffles dominate local menus but in summer they are rare to find. Summer truffles are not a patch on the rich dark winter varieties. Truffles are not especially photogenic but the geese wandering in the fields at foie gras farms certainly are. Farmers are happy to show you their operation, right down to the dirty details of how they fatten the birds to induce the engorged liver. The expectation is that after your tour of the paddocks and pens you will purchase a few samples of the produce to take home.

Truffles may not be inspiring photographic subjects but the dishes presented at fine hotel restaurants are another matter entirely. The hotel rating scheme for France gives 4 stars for the best of the best, so any 3-star hotel is likely to have a special chef who wants to make his name in the game. I didn't make a feature of food often on my travels in France, mainly because I was usually too tired and too hungry when the plate hits the table. The other problem is that most restaurants are dimly lit for ambience. My favourite food photography during my travels were at outdoors locations over lunch when the light is good, the scenery is inspiring and the cuisine at touch modern.

Summer Sunrise

Long summer days do have a few notable drawbacks, not least of all are the sunrise conditions when I would normally get my best images. On warm mornings the horizon would usually be overcast, filtering the sun to a dull white ball. Sometimes for a bit of variety,we would have cold mornings in the deeper valleys near the Dordogne River and mist would roll through valley until mid morning. You can easily find yourself in the wrong place to use such mist for creative composition and miss out on your original idea for a morning shot. Most morning shots in my collection were taken between 10am and 1pm.

Summer in France means very long days and very short nights, so if you do stay up to catch the twilight or rise early for dawn you aren't getting a lot of sleep. You don't get really brilliant sunsets or sunrise events anyway, not with the drawn out days and slow horizons. Every now and then a bit of colour appears on some well placed clouds, but not often enough.

Deux Che Veau

These lovely old Citroën 2CVs are about as French as the baguette and not much bigger. Emissions laws in Paris have all but wiped them out of the city, except for a tour operator running sightseeing circuits around town in specially modified machines that conform to modern regulations. In the French countryside you still see a few of them, and they look absolutely fantastic. Those simple curves, bolted on headlights and the double-chevron proudly mounted on the grill add up to a bundle of character. I got a chance to photograph just two 2CVs during my travels, and only one of which was parked in way to allow me to compose a shot of the overall scene. I saw many more but usually driving past me in the opposite direction, or parked outside a Citroën dealer awaiting repairs.


Of all the pieces of equipment I wish I didn't have to use the polarizer is top of the list. It adds contrast where you don't want it and distorts the balance of colours within the frame in ways that are not always desirable. But with such long summer days in France I found I had to use my polarizer to make use of the bright light and clear skies in the late mornings and afternoons. It's essential, not optional.

Towns of the Dordogne

The definition of what is or isn't in the Dordogne seems to be rather loose, and getting looser each time a neighbouring commune decides their truffles and towns need a bit of a boost in tourism. The heart of the region is really the Périgord Noir, where the town of Sarlat is a beautiful and comfortable base for exploring smaller villages, medieval chateaux and getting lost on small farming lanes. All roads lead back to a modest town of some sort and you quickly find once back on the major routes that you'll be keen to make a diversion that disappears into a shady forest or rolls through fields of sunflowers.


This is a major town that has retained much of its architectural style. The old town is cradled into a hillside so you have inclines and view points to aid composition. There is a lot to photograph in the town in the way of lanes, chapels and medieval facades. The tourist services are extensive in Sarlat, and so are the tourists. You can always get a meal at night and there are lots of great accommodation options around the edge of the town within walking distance.
Parking around town around €2 per hour.

Château féodal de Beynac

Beynac itself is a pretty enough town, etched into the side of a cliff along the Dordogne River and lit up in the afternoon light. The castle above the town is spectacular, a fortress of stone with stunning views across the surrounding farmland. Beynac is located on a bend of the Dordogne River and from the castle the view south looks onto two more chateaux at Faynac and Castlenaud further down stream.
Entrance fee of €7.50

Les Jardines de Marqueyssac

This beautifully restored 17th century chateau looks deceivingly simple as you drive up to the carpark and walk to the entrance gate. On the far side of the hill is a sudden cliff-edge with a manicured box-hedge garden hugging the terrain. The viewpoints are fabulous although not necessarily photogenic, with views to three nearby chateaux around the valley and the town of La Roque-Gageac. The box-hedges themselves are very pretty in the early morning light and there's ample subjects around the restored chateaux to kill a few hours. On a very misty morning you might be lucky enough to find only the Marqueyssac and the Chateau de Beynac pop out from the layer of white. The gardens will be closed that early but you can still shoot from outside the gardens with views to Beynac and the castle.
Entrance fee of €8.50

Canoes and Views

The towns of Domme and La Roque-Gageac are popular with tourists and the ratio of architecture to souvenir shops is a little testing. I liked the views from Domme in the morning, and the view of La Roque-Gageac in the early light as well. This section of the Dordogne river is also popular with canoe rentals, which is another great option for photographers looking for a unique angle and time enough to take shots. You drive upstream to villages such as Castlenaud, spend the afternoon paddling downstream to Beynac and then get driven back to your car at the other end. Every tourist office in the region has details for canoe operators.

See Le Lot

Next door to Périgord Noir is the Department of Le Lot, and they have a few nice towns as well. Most famous of all is Rocamadour which has been the sight of Christian pilgrimage for centuries. It's a dramatic sight in the mornings (sounds like repetition I know but it seems the best chateaux in the region were always designed to greet the morning light) with cracker views down to the town and the castle from the designated view points near the carparks. The walk down through the pilgrims way and into the sanctuary also offers fascinating subjects to photograph. Further afield from Rocamadour are two quiet little towns that make the list of France's most beautiful villages. Loubressac and Autoire are charming but not compelling for the photographer. They have lovely aspects and elements but are no slam dunk if you're looking quintessential scenes of the Dordogne region.

Northern Exposures

Dordogne is a broad designation for tourism purposes and further north of Sarlat are a few towns worth a closer look if you have time. Collonges de Rouges is a small but pretty little town that has embraced tourist crowds who come to admire the red coloured stone from which the town is built from. It is pretty for a lunch stop but not necessarily compelling for photographers. Further along the road Curemonte is less touristy and less interesting but worth a stop if you're passing through.

The highlight of this patch of the Périgord is Turenne which boasts a massive chateaux high on a peak with commanding views across the town and valley. The village rises up from the green hills very abruptly and makes for great photos when the sun is out. There's also a charming Chambre d'Hôtes just out of town hidden off one of the farming lanes. Domaine de Coutinard has rooms for just €51 a night, has a thousand lovely photos to shoot on the property itself and comes with early morning views of Chateau de Turenne.

Head further north still to the town of Hautefort where the chateau has been restored inside and out to its former glory. No photos of the interior unfortunately, but the morning gives lovely scenes of the flower garden and facade if you're after something aristocratic for your collection. Brantome is also noted in many travelogues but fails to impress the camera with such a vast flurry of tourists and signage around what was once a gorgeous town surrounded by a bend in the river. Further along the road the small village of Bourdeilles has a lovely afternoon shot of the town bridge with the castle in the distance, plus a lovely 3-star hotel and restaurant called Hostellerie Les Griffons serving food good enough to photograph.

Enjoy my photo essay on this region here:

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Self-Drive Itinerary

This guide to Dordogne assumes you are comfortable hiring a car and touring about the landscape by road. There's really no other way to get about with your camera. The distances within the Périgord Noir region of Dordogne are very small however, and you don't need to drive far on any given day. The compact geography of the towns means you can pick one town for your base and avoid moving hotels every night. Our research uncovered a charming and affordable 2-star hotel less than 1km walk from downtown Sarlat, but hidden away behind walnut tress with lovely owners running the place. They spoke enough English, had free wi-fi available and prepared breakfast under the shade of those walnut trees each morning.

Internet access is very useful when planning your day as opening hours for chateaux and tourist offices vary greatly by days of the week and time of year.

Getting to the Dordogne

Rail travel in France is brilliant, and while the Dordogne doesn't benefit from the high speed TGV service it still only takes 4 hours on the regular fast train to get from Paris to Brive La Gaillard. Rail passes are a great way to get around the country in comfort and on a budget. We booked a 4-day rail pass for France for under €250 and then booked a series of seats for each of the 4 travel days in that month. It cost just €3 for each seat reservation once you buy the pass. So you can train to Alsace, Burgundy, Dordogne and back to Paris for less than the cost of your luggage.

In Brive you arrive metres from the car rental offices and can be on your way driving through rural France having avoided the traffic and chaos of Paris. You have two options for car rental at Brive, Avis and Europcar. I met the most surly and unhelpful woman in all of France. They didn't have anything like the car we booked and we got stuck with a horrible little shoe-box on wheels instead of a sexy French sports car. C'est la vie.

Do note that very few rental offices are open on Sundays, so be sure to check carefully when making a reservation.

Planes and Trains

THAI International were my choice of carrier to get me and my wife from Australia to Paris. Not only because their fleet is very modern and the in-flight entertainment is kept properly up to date with good movies, but because their schedule arrives in Paris around 7:30am which gives you plenty of time to catch a TGV service direct from Charles de Gaule Airport to the countryside of France.
This feature was last updated on Monday 23rd August 2010
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