On the banks of the soft-flowing Dordogne, the gold-hued medieval town of Bergerac is the perfect spot for a quaint weekend escape. Surrounded by postcard-pretty villages and idyllic châteaux, this hushed French hideaway is famed for its heavenly vineyards, flower-filled hills and first-class food.
Offering visitors a quintessential Gallic experience, afternoons can be spent ambling along cobbled streets, sipping on celebrated wines and nibbling on organic delights, though Bergerac’s historic past as a centre of France’s tobacco industry and the tranquil pull of the lazy river should appeal to weekenders too.
The best of the Bergerac wine world can be found at Maison des Vins (1 Cloître des Récollets, 05 53 635 755), a wine library housed in a former 17th-century monastery by the river. Connoisseurs can trace the local vino from its Gallo-Roman origins to its status as the only wine-growing region in France that produces an almost equal amount of red and white wine. Before leaving, be sure to try and buy one of the 13 appellation d'origine contrôlée (controlled designation of origin) wines produced in the area. If you have a car, consider visiting at least one of the 900 or so vineyards that frame the town. The Domaine du Haut-Pécharmant (Pécharmant Haut, 05 53 572 950) is noted for its fine reds and hosts daily guided tours in English at 10.30am and 3.30pm; you can even stroll through the vines.
Situated around halfway along the Dordogne, Bergerac has various ways of exploring the region from the water. Les Gabarres de Bergerac (Quai Salvette, 05 53 245 880) run several 50-minute cruises a day in a traditional barge from April to October, which take in the town’s history and the flora and fauna of this UNESCO Biosphere Reserve. The more adventurous can navigate the river in a canoe with Balade au Fil d’Eau (L’Ilot, Porte-Ste-Foy, 05 53 247 628). However, you don’t need to take to the water at all to find out all about it: just head to the Musée de la Ville (5 rue des Conférences, 05 53 578 092), which traces the town’s development including its fluvial heritage.
Bergerac has been recognised as a Ville d’Art et d’Histoire (a town of art and history), a national network that honours French towns which look after their architectural, natural and industrial heritage. A tour organised by the tourist office shows off Bergerac’s main highlights, but visitors should also check out the Musée du Tabac (10 Rue de l'Ancien Pont, 05 53 630 413), which looks at the history of the tobacco industry and its role in the town’s fortunes. Elsewhere, the Musée Costi (Place de la Petite Mission, 05 53 630 413) is where art lovers can swoon over works by the Greek sculptor Constantin Papachristopoulos who trained with Antoine Bourdelle in Paris. Back in the 21st century, the Benedicte Giniaux Gallery (3 place du Docteur Cayla, 05 53 234 951) specialises in contemporary figurative art, while Arts Terres (24 rue Neuve d’Argenson, 05 53 242 500) is a pottery shop, art school and creative studio.
Bergerac and its surrounding area have no shortage of excellent restaurants, which make good use of the local specialities such as truffles, goats’ cheese, walnuts and foie gras. Arguably the best food in the region comes from Monbazillac’s La Tour des Vents (Moulin de Malfourat, 05 53 58 30 10), 8 kilometres south of Bergerac, serving Michelin-star cuisine in an elevated setting with stunning views over the countryside. In the old town, Le Vin’Quatre (14 rue Saint-Clar, 05 53 223 726) is a tiny hole-in-the-wall plating up sophisticated local cuisine accompanied by quality local wines. For an authentic good-value lunch, head to La Cocotte des Halles (14 Place Louis de la Bardonnie, 05 53 241 000). If you like animals or have kids, pay a visit to organic goats’ cheese farm Chèvrerie d’Antryca (Impasse des Charmes, 06 44 950 099) where visitors can meet the herd before sampling the produce.
There is plenty of characterful accommodation in Bergerac. La Chartreuse du Bignac (Lieu-dit, 05 53 221 280) is a gorgeous 4-star hotel and restaurant about 20 minutes’ drive southeast of the town in Saint-Nexans. This former 17th-century monastery has 12 rooms and is set in 12 hectares of bucolic parkland with a fabulous outdoor swimming pool. In the old town, 3-star Hôtel de France (18 place Gambetta, 05 53 571 161) is a bewitching boutique option with 20 rooms, 10 of which overlook the square. The others face the courtyard and heated pool. Camping La Pelouse (8 bis Jean-Jacques Rousseau, 05 53 570 667) is a 3-star campsite in a countrified riverside location with 60 spaces and five mobile homes for rent.
Although neither the novelist Cyrano de Bergerac nor Edmond Rostand’s fictional version had anything to do with the town, there are nonetheless two statues of him here – both with huge noses.