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French Connection: 48 Hours in the Dordogne
When you say 'Bergerac', many would picture the 1980s police TV drama and John Nettles in a Triumph Roadster. It’s not a flawed association, but does do a bit of a dis-service to this charming slice of French indulgence, history and adventure.
A favourite for Brits with second homes and Francophiles with a taste for wine, it's now easier than ever to get to Bergerac from London, thanks to British Airways' new seasonal service from London City Airport, which operates until 1 September 2016.
The sharp contrast of London's historical Docklands to the lush greenery surrounding Bergerac Dordogne Périgord Airport is immediately apparent as you step off Flight BA 8745. It’s described as the gateway to the Dordogne for good reason, and we headed straight for the town of Monzabillac, where our culinary adventure began with samples of local goat's cheese, charcuterie and terrine at La Maison Vari. With heavy stomachs and under the hot May sun, we embarked on the first and last physical pursuit of the short break, with a cycle through stunning pasture, vineyards and agricultural land, passing vintage Citroen 2CVs and sleepy farmhouses. The venture was made less challenging by the fact that these were electric bikes, quietly offering a surge of energy as we pedalled through the French countryside and onwards to Château de Monbazillac, with a short drive from here to dinner and accommodation at the grand Château des Vigiers.
The following day offered two of the most impressive sights in the Dordogne. The jaw-dropping gardens at Marqueyssac comprise more than 6 km of shaded paths, edged with 150,000 hand-pruned boxwoods. The topiary temple surrounds a beautiful stately home, with panoramic views of the Dordogne Valley thrown in for good measure, which we later explored aboard a Gabares Caminade boat tour from La Roque-Gageac.
It is from the River Dordogne where the layers of fascinating history which define this region are crystallized - from tales of medieval legends to heroic Nazi resistance. But it’s at the prehistoric caves of Lascaux, one of 15 UNESCO World Heritage sites in the region, where the magnitude of the Dordogne's ancient past becomes stunningly apparent. Discovered by chance in 1940 by a group of school boys, the cave complex contains beautiful paintings by early man, depicting hunt scenes and a glimpse of prehistoric life. The original cave is now closed to the public to protect it, but visitors can enter a reconstruction, which took over a decade to painstakingly design and hand-paint, and is faithful to the every millimetre. The result is a thoughtful and atmospheric window into the most famous Palaeolithic sanctuary in the world.
At no point during this exploration was French gastronomy more than a stone’s throw away however, and in the historic town of Sarlat a bustling food market provided the opportunity to sample fresh produce, wines and local wares before the drive north to Périgueux, an unmissable labyrinthine town steeped in history.
In the centre of Périgueux sits Vesunna, the Gallo Roman Museum, which contains the remains of a wealthy Roman house, protected in an impressive glass structure by French architect Jean Nouvel. From elevated walkways we viewed this time capsule of luxurious Roman life before a final night at the Hotel Mercure Périgueux.
As if we required further evidence, the final day in the Dordogne confirmed its status as arguably the most beautiful region of France. Brantôme and its 8th century caves, created by Benedictine monks, sits on the River Dronne and has been dubbed “the Venice of the Périgord”, while the nearby medieval village of Saint Jean de Cole holds the crown for the “most beautiful village of France”, with colourful pedestrianized streets and a river setting which could be straight out of a Disney film.
A packed weekend itinerary allowed us to sample many of the delights of the Dordogne in a brief space of time, but this is a region to linger, explore, sample and unwind. Taking advantage of the frequent flights from London City Airport, just 20 minutes from the Shard and with stress-free speedy check-in, you could soon be doing the same and finding your own patch of French rural escape.
British Airways launched its new summer-only service from London City Airport to Bergerac at the beginning of May, with three flights per week, increasing to four flights per week from June 23 until September. Each way hand baggage fares are available for £57, based on a return journey, and are available to book on www.ba.com/londoncity.
London City Airport is the only London airport situated in London itself, just three miles from Canary Wharf, seven miles from the City and 10 miles from London’s West End and linked to all via the Docklands Light Railway. The airport offers a short check in (door to lounge) of around 20 minutes, and a shorter arrival (tarmac to train) of around 15 minutes.