Having been thrown out of the ancient province of Périgord by the French at the end of the Hundred Years War, the English are quietly buying it back.
Divided in two by the river Dordogne, once the historic frontier between England and France, Périgord’s temperate climate and spectacular countryside is an unbeatable combination for many purchasers. However, they often overlook the Périgord Vert, a crescent-shaped area in the less well-known north of the region, which owes its name to the abundant forests of oak, beech and spruce trees and the rolling-meadows. Even in the driest of summers, it is always green.
Five small rivers add to the Périgord Vert’s ceaseless charm: the Auvézere, the Baniat, the Dronne, the Isle and the Tardoire. Surrounded by a loop in the Dronne, the delightful little town of Brantôme is known as the Venice of Périgord. Its superb Benedictine abbey dates back to Charlemagne and the belfry of the church of Saint Pierre, erected under the Visgoths and 60 metres in height, has a strong claim to be the oldest in France. Brantôme’s Friday morning market has a history almost as long.
Another town with a Friday market, Ribérac, also on the Dronne, is noted for its confit de canard and foie gras, specialities of the area. Ribérac has several bustling restaurants offering dishes made from local delicacies, including asparagus, strawberries, truffles, walnuts and cèpes, a mouth-watering wild mushroom. The local rosé is among the best of the excellent Bergerac wines, and for those with a sweet taste, the white Monbazillac is smooth and golden. It owes its unique taste to a fermentation process that dates back to the fifteenth century and allows the wine to be successfully preserved for up to thirty years.
The Dordogne has the largest number of castles and châteaux of any French département and three lie close to Brantôme. Seven kilometres away on the Angoulême road, the tranquil château de Richemont was started in the sixteenth century by the celebrated chronicler, Pierre de Bourdeille. Killed falling off his horse while in a drunken stupour, he is buried in its chapel. To the southwest, the menacing feudal keep of Bourdeilles, built by another branch of the family, dominates a stone bridge over the Dronne. Just to the southeast lies the Renaissance château of Puyguilhem, as exquisite as any of the castles of the Loire.
On the River Isle to the northeast stands the Château de Jumilhac, which lives up to its title of Le Grand. It has a bizarre variety of turrets, consisting of cones, pepper-boxes and pyramids adorned with dormer windows, grand salons and manicured gardens. In the sixteenth century Louise de Hautefort, imprisoned there for more than twenty years by her jealous husband, spun secret messages into the cloth she wove from the wool brought by her lover, the château’s shepherd.
In the west of the Périgord Vert, a settlement has existed at Saint-Aulaye almost as long as pre-historic man, making the charter of 1288 that converted it into a bastide seem almost modern by comparison. Bastides were the new towns of the thirteenth century, the first economic centres set apart from the seigneur’s castle. Freedom from many taxes and a grant of land to its settlers came hand in hand with novel penalties for those who broke the rules. Any couple caught committing adultery were tied together and made to run naked through the bastide from sunrise to sunset.
Photos © Pays Périgord Vert