Discovering a rural retreat in Sarlat-la-Canéda, France

We visit Sarlat-la-Canéda, the gastronomic capital of France’s Dordogne region and hometown of Louvre Abu Dhabi architect Jean Nouvel, plus its surrounding delights

Château de Castelnaud-la-Chapelle in Sarlat-la-Canéda. The hillsides of this area of the Dordogne region are filled with chateaux, ancient villages and lush gardens. Corbis Documentary / Getty Images / Phocal Media
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It’s a sunny Saturday morning in the medieval town of Sarlat-la-Canéda, and I’m in the middle of the teeming weekly market of the ­Dordogne’s unofficial gastronomic capital, surrounded by tempting stands piled high with girolle mushrooms, freshly picked apricots, juicy peaches and cherries brought in from nearby farms, pungent summer truffles, and gourmet stalls of goose foie gras.

Sarlat’s narrow cobbled streets are lined by opulent yellow sandstone mansions and palaces, perfectly preserved since the Middle Ages and Renaissance, but just off the main square, the interior of a 14th-century bell tower has been converted into a panoramic modern lift by one of the town’s most famous sons, world-renowned architect Jean Nouvel. Nouvel, who has designed the new Louvre Abu Dhabi, as well as the Paris Institut du Monde Arabe, lived in Sarlat from when he was a young child, and said the town’s monumental historical buildings marked him profoundly, influencing the way he approached architecture.

The lift zooms me up to a 360-­degree glass cube with breathtaking views over the town and idyllic Dordogne countryside. Sarlat is the perfect place to begin a few days touring the area – within an 80-kilometre radius, I can take in the whole spectrum of attractions that make this region so unique. Every hillside seems to be topped with an ancient bastide village or magical château encircled by lush gardens. Sheer cliffs that overhang the meandering Dordogne River are the home of strange troglodyte villages, while deep below, in hidden grottoes, lies the world’s biggest collection of prehistoric sites, 15 recognised as Unesco World Heritage Sites. And then there’s the food – ­Sarlat’s market only whets the appetite compared to the choice of gastronomic restaurants and rustic fermes auberges (farm inns) waiting to be discovered.

Driving out of Sarlat, along a quiet woody lane towards the Dordogne River, my eyes are suddenly drawn upwards to the looming presence of Château de Castelnaud, a massive 13th-century fortress. Castelnaud draws huge crowds of visitors for its terrifying collection of medieval armaments, dominating one bank of the river, while opposite is the equally impressive Château de Bernay, once home of Richard the Lionheart. But I find both of them more impressive from afar, and end up concentrating on two less well-known but far more personal sites: the nearby Château de Commarque and Château des Milandes.

Following signs to hike along a dirt road through a bewitching forest, my breath is taken away as I emerge in front of Commarque, a towering clifftop mass of ruins that could come straight out of The Lord of the Rings. Jean and Aude de Commarque – the castle has been owned by their family for 600 years – tell me the castle's history, which explains perfectly why this tiny corner of France has been inhabited since the early days of Cro-Magnon man. Pointing to a small spring bubbling out of the ground, Aude explains that "first there is water here, then there would have been reindeers providing meat and skins for clothing, wood from the forest for fire, and caves below the rocks to shelter. Then men would have started to make troglodyte homes in the cliff, until medieval times when the château was constructed atop the cliff."

The owner of the far more ornate, perfectly restored ­Château des Milandes is equally emotional about her castle, but for different reasons. The wonderfully named Angelique de la Barre de Saint-­Exupery (the author of Le Petit Prince also had a château nearby) has pursued a passionate labour of love to transform Milandes into a shrine to its previous owner, entertainer Josephine Baker. Everyone in France has heard of the "Black Pearl", but this stunning collection of costumes and mementoes reveal a very different personality. "This is a labour of love for me" Saint-Exupery says," as I am determined that visitors discover the real story of Josephine – not just a risqué dancer, but a fearless spy for the Resistance during the War, and a tireless campaigner against racism, from marching alongside ­Martin ­Luther King to personally adopting 12 children of different ­nationalities."

My last two stops are not even proper chateaux, more stately manor houses, but both ­Marqueyssac and Eyrignac are must-sees for their unforgettable ornamental gardens. ­Marqueyssac’s Jardin ­Suspendu lives up to its name – these ­hanging gardens offer wonderful views across the Dordogne valley. Designed by a student of André Le Nôtre, the gardens are a hypnotic maze of 150,000 swirling, looping box hedges, clipped just low enough so you can always see over the top. The whole place can be rented out for weddings and private events, and it’s open at night for one evening each week, magically lit by 2,000 candles.

Eyrignac is a more sedate affair, with perfumed rose gardens, but visitors have the unique possibility, at a cost of €200 (Dh812) per person, to reserve a private meal with the owner, Patrick Sermadiras, whose family have lived here for 500 years. “Apart from the thousands of visitors who come to Eyrignac,” Sermadiras says, “my wife, Capucine, and I enjoy hosting a personal lunch or dinner, prepared by our own chef, Gary, who may come from England, but who cooks wonderfully.”

While all the castles have casual cafes and brasseries, I happen on two contrasting spots on the road that are perfect to savour regional specialities. The no-frills Table du Chaffour is typical of the dozens of fermes auberges dotted around the countryside. Nicole and Jean-Marie ­Verlhiac run a busy working farm, growing vegetables and raising ducks and geese. Using only their own produce, their hearty three-course Menu Tradition costs just €14 (Dh57), while the €29 (Dh118) Menu Gastronomique includes foie gras, delicious duck confit and garlicky Sarladaise potatoes smothered with plump cep mushrooms.

The ambience and clientele is very different in the sleepy village of Trémolat, where the luxurious Vieux Logis is one of the founding hotels of Relais & Chateaux. The Michelin-starred restaurant’s chef, Vincent Arnould, is a rising star of the French culinary scene. He creates tempting vegetarian dishes – a timbale of crunchy baby artichokes, beetroot and radishes, a millefeuille of black truffles and wafer-thin potatoes with delicate quail eggs – and surprising pairings such as crispy tête de veau (veal head/brains) topped with a creamy langoustine tartare. The seven-course gourmet tasting menu is outstanding value at €110 (Dh446).

While there are a host of outdoor sports on offer around Sarlat – canoeing along the ­Dordogne, mountain biking, paragliding and hot-air ballooning – I spend my last day deep below the ground, exploring some of the Dordogne’s 147 prehistoric sites and cave paintings, some dating back more than two million years. Most are concentrated along the Vézère River, and a tour of the National Prehistoric ­Museum in Les Eyzies gives the perfect ­introduction. After that, there’s a choice of sites open all day to the public, or others, such as the Abri du Poisson, where I book a private visit in a small group of eight to wonder at a 20,000-year-old ceiling painting of a giant salmon.

I reserve most time, though, for the jewel in Dordogne’s prehistoric crown, the Lascaux Cave. It’s a reconstruction – the original cave paintings are off-limits – so I don’t expect to be impressed. But for a copy they’re incredible, immediately transporting me back 17,000 years, confronted by exquisite coloured paintings of animals, humans and abstract signs. The space is quite limited, however, and on December 15, a huge new complex will open, reconstructing the whole maze of caves, complete with multimedia special effects and iPad guides. It’s a good reason to organise another trip, especially as this period is also the truffle season, with a food fair in Sarlat dedicated to the “Black Diamond”.