On the banks of the Dordogne
La Roque Gageac stretches out in a straight line along the banks of the Dordogne – an easy walk of 30 minutes will get you from one end of town to the other. But this is officially one of France’s “most beautiful villages”, and if you walk past too quickly you’ll miss some of the rich history and outdoor sports opportunities this place affords.
For this week’s visit, we’re in the Dordogne (the Perigord Noir, to be more precise), one of France’s most popular tourist regions. La Roque Gageac is only 6 miles from Sarlat-le-Caneda, a very short drive from two other “most beautiful villages” (Beynac-et-Cazenac and Castelnaud-la-Chapelle) and the extraordinary exotic gardens at Marqueyssac. (You can see a spectacular perspective on this village from the overlook points at Marqueyssac.)
A Mediterranean Paradise in the Deep Heart of France
Given the rich attractions of the region, it wasn’t’ surprising when I arrived on a steamy summer afternoon during August vacations to find all the town’s parking lots full. La Roque Gageac enjoys a beautiful setting; all the buildings in town are banked up in a long line along the north bank of the Dordogne River, backed up against an imposing limestone cliff.
The tourist bureau’s information describes the village, trapped between the water and the stone as having “an almost Mediterranean microclimate”, with tropical plants flourishing almost everywhere you look.
(The beautiful setting can be more dangerous than you might think, though: in 1957, three people were killed when a rock fall destroyed six houses and a barn, and in 2010 a 320-ton rock threatened to tumble off the cliff, forcing officials to close the highway through town for five weeks at the height of the tourist season until it could be secured!)
A Fortress for Troglodytes
There’s been a settlement here since at least the 12th century A.D. As in so many other places along the Dordogne, the cliff behind La Roque Gageac is pocked with caves – and where there are caves in this region, there’s likely been some kind of troglodytic human habitation. In this case, early settlers profited from the existence of a cave big enough to build a fortress by bricking up the opening and walling off rooms in the cave’s interior.
It must have been an effective defense: history records that this little village was never besieged, even during the Hundred Years’ War that wracked so many other towns just minutes from here. In fact, the fortress was used at least until the 1700s, when (as also happened to too many other historic sites in France) it was turned into a quarry for the stones used to build houses in the village.
You can still walk up to the fort’s site, although the interior is closed to the public. (Part of the ceiling collapsed in 2010, and officials seem to think more pieces could tumble down without warning.) Be warned, if you want to get closer, that this is a very rigorous hike, up the sharp rise of La Roque Gageac’s narrow medieval streets to a 140-step wooden staircase!
A walk around La Roque Gageac
The rest of the village is somewhat more accessible. I loved the Mediterranean feel of the light brown buildings. Surprisingly, some of the most remarkable buildings date only from the 18th century – but there are family histories behind them that go back hundreds of years. While you’re in town, you might search out these main examples:
- The Manoir de Tarde, hanging on the side of the cliff overlooking the village. There’s been a Tarde family in La Roque Gageac since the 1300s. This great house was built by Jean Tarde (1561-1636), one of those “true Renaissance men” back in the days when it was possible, even desirable, for a person to believe and reconcile both science and religion. Jean Tarde was the Vicar General of Sarlat and eventually the ‘ordinary’ chaplain to King Henry IV. His church duties took him to Rome, where he befriended Galileo and set out writing extensively about issues in astronomy; when he got back to La Roque Gageac he even built a small observatory to track the movements of smaller planets around the sun. The house is private – still owned by a descendant of the Tarde family – but closed to the public following a fire in the late 1800s and another rockslide in the early 20th century.
- The Chateau de la Malartrie on the edge of town. It looks like a real Renaissance castle, but in fact it is only a little more than 100 years old. From April to October, you can rent the entire castle for groups of 12 people, and it would be a great base for exploring not just the village but this whole rich area of the Perigord Noir with all the other castles and “plus beaux villages” in the region.
- The town’s church, the Église Notre-Dame. It’s very small and simple, built in the Romanesque style sometime in the 12th It’s worth a walk up from the river bank, though, to see the garden around the church – a “tropical jungle” with banana trees almost as tall as the building, palm trees, figs, and lemon trees.
People watching or a strenuous hike?
If watching people appeals to you (it’s one of our favorite travel activities!), La Roque Gageac has several nice bars and brasseries where you can while away the hot afternoon with an aperitif or a coffee – but if outdoor adventure is more your style, there are places to please you, too! As everywhere along the Dordogne, there are plenty of opportunities to rent canoes and paddleboards, while the cliffs are good for steep hikes.
An ancient form of river transport
A compromise between “watching” and “engaging” might be to take one of the river cruises leaving from the town’s docks. The boats here are called gabares, and they are the descendants of the long, flat-bottomed craft used for hundreds of years to carry wood, wine, cheese – any imaginable commercial good – up and down the Dordogne. Today they’re motorized replicas equipped to haul up to 48 people on a one-hour voyage (about 4 miles) round trip. Audio guides in several languages are available.
I left La Roque Gageac wishing I had planned to stay over for 2 or 3 nights. (I had rented an apartment in Sarlat for the week, so couldn’t really change my plans on the fly.) For aesthetic beauty, it is for me one of the absolute prettiest of all the “plus beaux villages de France”, on a par with Apremont-sur-Allier and a couple of others I’ve visited. And as a base for exploring one of the most interesting and historically rich areas, it is truly one of the most attractive sites in the deep heart of France!
Have you visited La Roque Gageac – or, for that matter, any of the other “most beautiful villages” in France? Please share your experience in the comments section below – and while you’re here, I’d be grateful if you’d take a second to click on the button(s) for your preferred social-media forums to share this post with someone else who might be interested.