A seaport in a land-locked zone?
I grew up in Oklahoma, a completely land-locked state where most of the “rivers” are spindly streams running only a few inches deep most of the year. I can still remember what a big deal it was when we got our own real seaport in the early 1970s; great ships from the Gulf of Mexico could come up the Mississippi to the Arkansas River almost all the way to Tulsa, handling millions of tons of imports and exports every year.
So I found it particularly interesting to see how Saint-Léon-sur-Vézère, a lovely little village in the Périgord Noir in the deep heart of France, can trace its history as a port town all the way back to the early 19th century. As a practical matter, boats could go no further up the Vézère River because the waters became progressively shallower upstream. The only way to transport goods from the Atlantic port at Bordeaux was to offload them here and carry them on by horse and wagon.
A high point in the 19th century
A large space on the bank at Saint-Léon was cleared, a Marine House was built to warehouse and manage the flow, and the little town became an active port moving salt, grains, plaster, earthenware, and exotic foodstuffs back and forth from Bordeaux to this part of France. In the mid-19th century, fully half of the village’s 1,500 inhabitants were engaged one way or another in the activities of the port.
That peak of commercial activity didn’t last long. By 1880, railroads had become the more common and economical way to transport goods, so the port closed its operations and a narrow (strictly one lane) bridge was built to bring traffic into town.
Today, Saint-Léon-sur-Vézère is mainly a destination for tourists, especially those looking for outdoor activities like camping and canoeing along the river. It’s on the official list of “Most Beautiful Villages in France”, and the town has done everything possible to highlight its picturesque and historical qualities for the crowds who come every year.
An 11th-century Romanesque gem
Its roots are deep. The little Romanesque church, the town’s “jewel” according to its website, dates to the 11th century, and it was built on top of another Christian site that itself had been built on top of an ancient Gallo-Roman villa. Like the best examples of this architecture, the church at Saint-Léon has a remarkably perfect harmonization of all the elements that go into it – the arches, the windows, and the Romanesque columns.
I especially liked the exposed wooden beams and the delicate tracery in the painted ceiling over the altar, and (as I often do when I visit a place like this) I marveled at how something so perfectly proportioned could have been built in an era before precise measuring devices and machine-cut stones.
Light lunch by the riverside
There’s more to see on a walk through the village. Many of the medieval houses have been restored, and the ivy growing on their walls gives the sense they have been here forever. There’s a larger restaurant in the center of town, but I preferred the little place called Le Déjeuner sur l’Herbe (“Lunch on the Lawn”) on a little walking trail right next to the river for warm bread and a plate of cold cuts.
More history in the medieval streets of Saint-Léon-sur-Vézère
Of course, to make the cut as a “Most Beautiful Village”, a town must have more than one historical site to attract visitors. Here, in addition to the Romanesque church, you’ll find two other noteworthy buildings: the Chateau de Clérans (built in the 16th century) and the more military-looking Manoir de la Salle (from the 14th century). Both are privately owned now, but they give the whole town a kind of fairy-tale atmosphere that adds to its picturesque charms.
Why else would you come here? Well, in the summer the little church hosts an annual Music Festival, and a number of artists and craftsmen have set up shop along some of the narrow medieval streets. You might be surprised to find a major Buddhist center here – in fact, the major European center for the preservation and spreading of the Kagyupa (one of the four major spiritual lines coming out of Tibet). It's been in the area for 40 years now and has around 70 other “satellite” centers that depend on this site around Europe.
Paradise for outdoors enthusiasts
And, if outdoor activities are your passion, Saint-Léon-sur-Vézère might have exactly what you’re looking for as a vacation destination. The canoeing center on the river is run by Philippe Colomy, former member of the French national team. There’s also a local paragliding club and Le Conquil, a “dinosaur park” with 3 different trails and zip lines, monkey bridges and “Tarzan leaps”! And every October, around 1,000 mountain bikers (“VTT” riders in French) come for the Rando Silex, a course that takes them up and down the sharp buttes and valleys that characterize the region.
The Dordogne region, including the area around Saint-Léon-sur-Vézère, is rich in camping opportunities for RV owners and other outdoors enthusiasts. Roads are sometimes a little narrow, but there are plenty of facilities and major tourist sites are all large enough to have dedicated parking facilities for les camping cars.
Saint-Léon-sur-Vézère is no exception. When I came to town, several campers and RVs were set up in the service area right at the entrance to the village. A woman was painting a watercolor of the lovely scene along the river, while others were swimming off the riverbank or taking a canoe out to explore the region.
If this appeals to you, you might want to check out Your RV Lifestyle, a website devoted to “RV-ing around the world”. In fact, they’ve prepared a list of “100 Things to Do in France” that can help you get started planning your trip. (And, of course, you can use this blog to narrow down your search to the wild natural sites and extraordinary beauty to be found in the “deep heart of France”!)
All of this happens in one of the richest tourist regions in all of France. The great medieval center at Sarlat-le-Caneda is only about 35 minutes away (you can use it as the perfect base for exploring this whole region), and that means you’re also near the extraordinary Gardens of Marqueyssac, the prehistoric cave art at Lascaux, and a long list of other “Most Beautiful Villages”, including Castelnaud-la-Chapelle (my favorite!), Beynac-et-Cazenac, La Roque Gageac, Limeuil, Saint-Jean-de-Coly and Domme.
Do you have a favorite destination in the Dordogne – or somewhere else in the Deep Heart of France? What do you like to do when you’re here? Please share your experience in the comments section below – and take a second to share this post with someone else who loves traveling in France by using the button(s) for your preferred social-media platform(s).