You should arrive at the airport to take your flight to Toulouse or Carcassonne, or you can travel by train via Paris to Souillac. On arrival you will be met and taken to the three-star superior hotel Relais de la Moussidière for four nights with dinner on the edge of delightful Sarlat, probably the most picturesque town in the Dordogne. The rest of the day will be spent at leisure, allowing you time to settle into the hotel and start exploring if you wish.
The timeless market town of Sarlat dates from Charlemagne’s time. Today it’s an architectural jewel constructed from the local luminous golden stone with 13th century buildings lining its narrow twisting alleys. Such is its striking state of preservation, Sarlat has been the setting for a host of films, including Les Misérables and Joan of Arc. The street life is wonderful - watch the locals tasting the produce on offer: pungent cheeses, fine charcuterie and the market stalls positively groan under the weight of colourful ripe vegetables. Watch friends meet in the street, kiss on both cheeks then immediately proceed to catch up on the local gossip! This is quintessential provincial France in its purest form. Unusually for this part of France, Sarlat was only under English rule for around ten years and during our morning guided tour, as we amble through the atmospheric cobbled streets, we learn how the area has stood the test of time after a long and troubled thousand year history. This afternoon we travel through the mists of time at the famous caves of nearby Lascaux, with entrance fees included. Here, 17,000 years ago, at the very dawn of European human habitation, our prehistoric ancestors established the continent’s earliest-known sacred human site and we have a staggering glimpse back into their thoughts as we discover their amazing cave art. The original cave was closed in the 1960s because of damage caused by CO2 exhalation from visitors, so what you are viewing is actually a copy. However, do not think the visit is any less fascinating for this as the entire site has been perfectly reproduced using original techniques, which is a stunning achievement in itself. This meticulous replication took six years and has been achieved to a tolerance of just 3mm! If rock has fallen from the roof revealing a cavity and different colours – the resulting changes have been reproduced! The staggering 2,000 figures, galloping herds of horses, groups of grazing deer and even a 5 metre long bull, make use of ‘perspective’ and illusionary ‘3D’ techniques to create a scene of remarkable beauty. If created today the works would not be out of place in the world’s great galleries, but more than that, recent research suggests that the positioning of the various animals reflects the celestial location of various constellations at the winter solstice. The secrets of Lascaux are still being unravelled but this incredible sophistication proves these prehistoric artists were far from primitive!
Today we follow the extraordinarily picturesque river Dordogne to one of France’s most instantly recognisable sights – the remarkable village and monastery of Rocamadour. As we round the twisting and ever-ascending lanes, the view of this eclectic, near-vertical village assaults you. Hewn from the rock itself and dominating the riverbed below, its contours and overall beauty are highlighted by the bright sunlight. Following the discovery of St Amadour’s perfectly preserved body, Rocamadour became a pilgrimage site during the Middle Ages, the ‘Lourdes of its time’, famed for its healing powers and visited by numerous monarchs. There’s time to explore the village under your own steam. We then journey west to visit the unusual ‘Overhanging Gardens’ of Marqueyssac. This beautiful formal display took 30 years to create and the superbly relaxing path through clipped box hedges and indigenous trees, plus one of the best panoramic views in the Dordogne, put these gardens in a class apart.
Within a couple of lazy meanders of the graceful river Dordogne is a remarkable collection of places embodying the fascinating melange of dramatic natural features, centuries of history and varied cultural delights which make the Dordogne one of the most special parts of France. Firstly we see the great fortress of Beynac, towering above the river and once captured by Richard the Lionheart. With amazing views, cobbled squares and a maze of narrow alleys, the village is recognised as one of the ‘Most Beautiful Villages in France’. A short drive then takes us to Domme, a magnificent walled town with several fortified gates, yet more stunning views, an array of fine medieval dwellings plus goldsmiths’ houses and a delightful covered market. Afterwards we drive back towards the river to discover one of France’s prettiest villages. With its riverside location and cream-coloured stone houses, La Roque-Gageac is a delight to explore. Here we board a traditional ‘gabare’ boat, once used for transporting wine, for a sense of the way of life that once dominated the region.
This morning we bid farewell to the Dordogne travelling south to delightful Cahors, with its splendid 14th century fortified Valentré Bridge majestically spanning the River Lot. Continuing, the countryside gradually changes from rolling wooded slopes of lush green to the more pale yellows, ochres and endless fields of the instantly recognisable sunflowers so typical of southern France. You stay three nights with breakfast and one dinner in Carcassonne. We use two hotels, both owned by the same family who are third-generation hoteliers and very professional in their approach. Enjoy a stay at either the four-star Mercure Carcassonne La Cité Hotel or the three-star superior hotel Le Donjon.
There are many historic ‘old towns’ in France but none quite compares to Carcassonne with its magnificent medieval citadel, its fairy-tale-like, cone-topped turrets and serrated cream-coloured Battlements. You will have a guided tour during which you will experience a wonderful sense of timelessness, wandering ancient cobbled lanes founded by Romans and trodden over the centuries by Visigoths, Saracens and rich medieval merchants. The citadel remains a living village and this afternoon you will have time to discover its more peaceful corners, absorbing the unique atmosphere of this truly special place.
Albi came to prominence as a centre of Catharism, an unusual Christian sect but with some rather ‘strange’ views including the worship of two gods with the Pope being the representative of neither, all men being equal – as wealth itself should be and all should have a vote - including women. Obviously this was pretty radical stuff for the 12th century! The Pope declared them heretics and initiated a crusade against them. Today, on approaching Albi, you will see the stunning brick built city, dominated by one of the finest gothic cathedrals you will ever see. The overall ambience here is different from the Dordogne, more Mediterranean in character and during our guided tour we will learn all about this once independent state featuring a visit to the cathedral, arguably the largest brick building in the world. Its sumptuous interior is breath-taking in its detail and boasts one of Europe’s most important medieval works, an enormous mural of the Last Judgement. This afternoon you are free to explore as you wish. The renowned artist Toulouse-Lautrec was born here and a museum houses a rich collection of his most famous works. It is just lovely though to amble around Albi’s old town, one of France’s largest conservation areas. Please note that for tours staying in Albi, Days 6 & 7 will be operated in reverse order.
You will be transferred to the airport or station for your return journey at the appropriate time.