La Dordogne et la Cere
A nine day circuit through
'les plus beaux villages de France'
The Dordogne is a very popular area for walking. It is rich in GR's: the GR 36 and 46
run in a north/south direction; the GR 6 goes from east to west; and various
offshoots of these and a number of GR de Pays also criss-cross the region.
In 2001 we undertook a popular circuit on the GR 480, following the Dordogne and
the Cère rivers upstream, passing through a host of very pretty villages, many with
the designation "un des plus beaux villages de France"
There are forests, causses and spectacular limestone cliffs. On the northern stretch
between Beaulieu-sur-Dordogne and Turenne the route takes you through pleasant
farming land and orchards. Along the rivers the track alternates between the high
ridges above limestone cliffs, from which there are superb views, and the river
valleys themselves. Along these stretches there are some challenging hillclimbs.
This region has experienced many of the horrible excesses of French history, in
particular the wars with the English that culminated in the 100 Years War, the Wars
of Religion and the Albigensian Crusade.
Access is easy. Take the train from Paris to Brive and then change to a little local
train which goes, eventually, to Aurillac - first stop Turenne Gare.
Le Château de Coutinard
The Hotel La Promenade, right at the station, looked like a good
overnight option, but we were booked into a chambre d'hôte at
the Château de Coutinard, a few kilometres away. Before
setting off to find it, we had a beer in the garden of the hotel and
admired the stamina of a group of Sunday diners, just starting
to think about desert and another bottle of wine at 3.30 pm.
They, in turn, drank to our stamina, or perhaps foolhardiness,
setting off with a backpack when we should have been enjoying
The Château was a classic fairy tale castle in a huge domaine
with lovely gardens and extensive forests. As a chambre d'hôte
it was a bit weird. First, there was a bell attached to the side of
the house and a notice which instructed guests not to ring it till
4.30. When we rang the bell at the appointed hour there was
dead silence, and then lots of animated chattering before a
head appeared at an upstairs window and a voice said "J'arrive,
Inside, the château was full of old furniture and knick knacks
with no sign of any other people except for an occasional
creaking floor board. Our room, up a spiral staircase, on the
third floor overlooked the valley beyond with a magnificent view
for miles, taking in lots of other castles and farmhouses.
The château didn't do dinner but it was only a short stroll in the
evening back to the hotel at the station and a splendid meal.
The darkness on the way back to the château was lit up with a
full moon rising to magnificently illuminate the valley. We were
ready to go walking
Day 1. Turenne to Martel - 15 km
Day 2. Martel to Carennac - 25 km
(13.5 km from Montvalent)
Day 3. Carennac to Autoire - 14km
Day 4 Autoire to Laval de Cère - 24 km
(12 km via Bretenoux and Biars sur Cère)
Day 5. Laval-de-Cère to Camps (17 km)
Day 6. Camps to Beaulieu-sur-Dordogne - 17 km
Day 7. Beaulieu-sur-Dordogne to Curemont - 12.5 km
Day 8. Curemonte to Collonges-la-Rouge - 13.5 km
Day 9. Collonges-la-Rouge to Turenne Gare - 8.3 km
Turenne to Martel
An easy walk through the Domaine du Château led up to Turenne and there was
time to look around while waiting for the single shop in town to open. Turenne is
prettily perched on the top of a steep hill, dominated by the ruins of an ancient
château-fort. Its streets are narrow and many of the slate roofed houses date from
the 15th century.
We made our purchases and then set off, armed with a saucisson sec, a couple of
cabécous, a bottle of wine and a frozen baguette. The baguette was frozen as the
shop hadn't opened the day before and it was still too early for the morning's
deliveries. It seemed likely that it would thaw before lunch.
The track followed stony paths and wound through forests, passing by farms and
several little villages. Some of the pathways run between stone walls constructed
over the centuries by the farmers of the stony landscape. At one stage the signs
completely disappeared but instructions from a tractor driver and an ancient farmer
saved the day. It was a clear, sunny day and we suffered a little as this was our
first walk with a full pack for some time. At the end of the day there was a long
descent and then a very steep climb up to Martel where the Hotel le Quercy was
very welcome with comfortable rooms and a good restaurant.
The main features of Martel are its seven stone towers which can be seen from
some distance away, an imposing 19th century half timbered market (which looks
older) and the house where "Young" Henry, first son of Eleanor of Acquitaine and
England's Henry II, is said to have died after looting the treasures of Rocamadour.
The Plantagenets had a significant role in the history of Acquitaine though few
physical signs remain. Although designated as the future king "Young" Henry was
not given any real power. Impatient and angry with his father, he set about to
finding ways to make his own mark, ravishing the countryside, eventually sacking
and looting the sacred shrine of Rocamadour. In this outrage he was wounded and
carried as far as Martel where he died. Henry senior, though furious, was said to be
Le Château de Coutinard
The hilltop town of Turenne
Martel to Carennac
It is a great walk from Martel to Montvalent, descending through forests to the
Dordogne and crossing the river just upstream from Gluges, then walking along the
river before climbing up to Montvalent. As along much of its length, the river runs
beneath steep limestone cliffs. Easing into the walk, we cheated a little and took a
taxi to Montvalent.
On leaving Montvalent, you climb up into causse country, crossing over the railway
line which winds around the Cirque de Montvalent. The cirque was "discovered" during
the construction of the railway in 1864 and became one of the touristic sites to be
publicised by the railway company. Its photo along with those of other scenic
destinations was displayed in the trains and on railway stations and pretty promotional
postcards were produced.
As it was named the Cirque de Montvalent, it is told that confused railway passengers
would leave the train at Montvalent, where there was no accommodation or facilities,
rather than Floirac which could accommodate tourists. Attempts to clarify the situation
led to a battle as to whether it should be named the Cirque de Montvalent or Floirac.
Montvalent clearly won the day.
The Causse de Martel, which extends across this area, is one of the great causses
that are a characteristic landscape across the Massif Central. These are dry, arid
limestone plateaux with stony soil that supports only stunted vegetation, typically
oaks and maples, juniper (genévrier) bushes and wild herbs. The valleys are also
rough and stony but here you will find vineyards, pastures and crops. Sheep, rather
than cattle, graze in this tough country.
Floirac was just an easy walk along the ridges from Montvalent. Then after following
the pathway through farmland and forests, occasionally passing deserted farms, we
suddenly descend into Carennac.
The town remains absolutely hidden till you come down an incline and cross a
picturesque arched stone bridge over a little stream and then, there you are, wow, in
the first of "les plus beaux villages" that are a feature of this walk.
Carennac clusters around an old priory church, set back
in an attractive stone courtyard which you enter through a
fortified gateway. On one of the many routes to
Compostella the abbey here was established by the
mother abbey of Cluny to provide shelter and rest to
pilgrims. The entrance to the church is unusual with
stone columns supporting a well preserved carved
doorway from the 12th century.
There are barely 300 permanent inhabitants and their pinkish red stone
houses fit together under pitched roofs, often embellished with pretty wooden
balconies. Some of the houses date from the 16th century.
Some walkers stay an additional night in Carennac so as to visit the
Gouffre de Padirac but, as we had visited this fantastic place previously, we
did not make the detour this time.
It is very busy here, even in Septembe but we managed to find a comfortable
hotel room and ate in a simple restaurant on the river bank where the
cassoulet was fabulous.
Carennac to Autoire
Our route for the day first followed a track through the woods and then ran
along the ridge top. The town of Loubresac came at the right time for a thirst
quenching beer so we diverted off the track to have a look around and take a
rest in an open air café. This is another attractive stone town with narrow
laneways between the tiled roofed houses and dazzling displays of potted red
geraniums in doorways and along walls. From here there is a distant view of
the imposing Castelnau Château commanding the high ground.
Continuing through shady woods the track
suddenly emerged on the rim of the Cirque
d'Autoire, a huge limestone amphitheatre with a
cascade at its head dropping 30m into the valley
below. The steep sides of the cirque are coloured
red, yellow and orange and strata-ed in
interesting shapes and rocky formations. The GR
descends steeply along the western wall until
you eventually reach the bottom and walk along
the little stream and into the town of Autoire.
Autoire was once a holiday resort for the wealthy
people from round about and there are many
grand old mansions which now seem to be
boarded up. The Hotel de la Fontaine had sunny
rooms overlooking the main street and a
restaurant which provided a good meal though its
attempt to provide an English language menu
was a little over ambitious, offering such gems as
"Fat Arm of Duck".
A narrow street in Turenne
Floirac in the Distance
Arriving in Carennac
Between Floirac and Carennac
The Church in Carennac
The tiled roofs of Loubresac
Autoire to Laval de Cère
From Autoire we planned a deviation from the more established walking routes.
We wanted to go up the Cère from its junction with the Dordogne to see some of
the Gorges of the Cère. This country is inaccessible by road and only the new
GR 652 which goes all the way to Le Roquebrou and the trainline to Aurillac
provide access. We decided to catch a train from Bretenoux to Laval de Cere,
making for a very easy, but quite different day.
First was a pretty walk through farming country along the stream called la Bave
and then a gradual climb to the base of the gigantic Château de Castlenau. For
days, there had been glimpses of the château, strategically perched at the
junction of the Cère and the Dordogne but now its features became more and
more clear. Massively fortified with red stone ramparts and towers, it is a
continuing symbol of the strength of the barons of Castlenau who built and
occupied it from the 11th century.
We looked around the château and its pretty little chapel and ate a melon,
looking down at the urbanised landscape sprawling across the plain. Through the
middle runs the River Cère.
Castlenau vs Turenne
There is an interesting historical snippet
concerning the relationship between the barons
of Castlenau and the counts of Toulouse to
whom they gave their loyalty. The barons were
outraged when, in 1184, Raymond of Toulouse
did a deal that handed the suzerainty of
Castlenau over to Turenne. Apparently this was
an insult so, Castlenau began warring with
Turenne and declared its loyalty to the King
The king intervened on the part of his strong
ally, Turenne, but imposed only a symbolic
fielty on Castlenau - the annual presentation of
an egg to Turenne. This was carried out each
year with great ceremony. Legend has it that
twelve young girls rode on a bullock drawn
wagon to Turenne to present the symbolic egg
each year. Sadly it seems the tradition no
longer continues. It would be quite a tourist
Bretenoux is strategically located on one side of the Cère and on the other is its
twin town of Biars-sur-Cère. Bretenau was built and protected by the barons in the
castle above. Although the very centre of Bretenoux is a charming old bastide,
only the grid layout and arcaded central square remain. Biars-sur-Cère, across the
river, is a real working town with serious businesses and commerce.
Sitting on the castle ramparts, the prospect below fell well outside the "plus beaux
villages" category we had become used to. However, firm in the belief that you
should see a country, "warts and all" we plunged down the hillside and negotiated
a route through the urban landscape to find the centre of Bretenoux, its bastide
and some lunch.
Following lunch in a Chinese cafe, we found the station and the train duly arrived,
having passed through Turenne Gare half an hour earlier on its way from Brive to
Aurillac. It deposited us in Laval-de-Cère 10 minutes later. This is a great little
train trip and recommended to train buffs and anyone who likes to explore different
options. After Laval it travels all the way up the gorges, through many tunnels but
with an unsurpassed view of this rugged country.
The Hotel des Chanterelles overlooked the Cère and the train line and provided
one of those dinners which just "come". Soupe, salade, gigot d'agneau and tarte
aux pommes - a hearty meal enjoyed also by some workers staying at the hotel
while working on new construction at the nearby EDF site.
The Cère is one of the unheralded Dordogne rivers. It rises just below le Lioran in
the mountains of the Cantal, then flows West through rolling cattle grazing
country towards Aurillac. Beyond Aurillac and before the gorges the river is
constrained in a number of dams - part of the electricity generating works of
Electricité de France (EDF). These works were carried out progressively since
1928, culminating in a major generating facility at Laval-sur-Cère. Below
Laroquebrou the river runs unharnessed through quite wild gorges and down to the
junction with the Dordogne. There is no road access through the gorges, only the
railway, constructed to assist in transportation of heavy equipment for the
construction of the electricity works.
Laval-de-Cère to Camps
Our adventures with the Cère continued next day with two very long
climbs. First we crossed the river and climbed up behind the
hydro-electricity establishment. Forest pathways climbed 300 m,
nearly to the plateau, and then a track followed round the ridge line.
There were big brown slugs by the pathway and scary looking
mushrooms. We heard the sound of the train whistle as the morning
service ran up the valley.
It was a misty morning, but as the mist rose the town of Camps
emerged on the other side of the river at about the same height as
we were walking. So we would have to go down and back up again.
After a while, unsurprisingly, the path plunged down the mountain in
wide hairpin bends, known as lacets, and then meandered gently
along the river. This was a quite magic half hour with the sun filtering
through the trees and the river bubbling along beside the track.
Meanwhile the trainline ran along the other bank and after a while we
reached a cleared area where the GR and the train crossed to the
opposite sides of the river. Then there was a long climb, another
330m, up the hillside to Camps.
Camps is a small town with a church, a few stone houses, a shop, a
lake and a smart modern hotel by the lake - unsurprisingly called
Hotel du Lac.
Camps to Beaulieu-sur-Dordogne
Just north of Camps the GR turns east into isolated gorge country
along the Maronne River, adding another 3-4 days to the walk and
with a pretty limited accommodation choice.
Our route to Beaulieu-sur-Dordogne was more direct, made easily
with a taxi ride to Mercoeur, a tiny town with another pretty church.
Then we took an improvised route, following a minor road for about 8
km through undulating, wooded country and arriving at la
Chapelle-St-Geraud to rejoin the GR.
Heading west on the GR again and quietly walking through forests
and farmland, we were startled by the arrival of a flotilla of 4x4
vehicles. Out got a party of hunters, dressed up in serious hunting
gear with rifles under their arms, and flanked by their highly prized
hunting dogs all wearing bells around their necks. Having no wish to
add to the hunting accident statistics, we were a bit unsure about
continuing. But the hunters had no objections to us passing though
they encouraged us to be very quiet.
Apparently wild pigs, or sangliers, had been getting into the corn
crops and demolishing and eating the corn. With the corn fields
surrounded by hunters and their dogs, vengeance was about to be
brought. We tip-toed out of the way as quickly as possible and later
heard some rifle fire, so maybe the local farmers were to be
rewarded with a feast.
Walkers beware during the months from September to March.
This is the season for La Chasse when hunters take to the
fields and forests with their big guns and their hunting dogs.
Hunting is a rite of passage for French males over the age of
16. At this age, after instruction and testing, they can get a
permit to participate in this highly regulated sport.
In spite of the regulations every season starts with at least one
death as over- eager chasseurs get in the way of each other in
the excitement of the first sight of a target - often another
Seasons are also marked with violence between hunters when
dogs are accidentally run over. Hunters are passionate about
their dogs - rather silly animals with big floppy ears and no road
sense. Sometimes you will walk past establishments where
they are kennelled - apparently too valuable to be allowed to
roam freely like most farm dogs. Bored silly, they bark furiously
as you pass.
In areas popular with both walkers and hunters alternative
routes are provided for walkers during the period of la chasse.
Out-of-season hunting can take place when animals such as
sangliers are causing damage to crops
Nailed to trees alongside the track will be signs warning
"Chasse Interdit" and "Chasse Reservé".
Lunching on a grassy bank at the edge of a walnut grove, we hoped
not to become a target for more trigger happy hunters whose blasts
could be heard from time to time. From this vantage point there was an
expansive view of the Dordogne once again and the town of Beaulieu.
Many little hamlets and settlements spread out over the floodplain in
what is a quite densely settled rural area. Walking through this
countryside, first on tracks and then on little roads, we enjoyed the
semi rural environment of colourful gardens full of bright pots of
The GR followed the little roads which gradually got bigger and busier
until they became a major road which crossed the river into
This is another real town with a busy shopping centre and
attractive central square. It is also the seat of an old abbey
whose tympanum is highly acclaimed, and has an
interesting mediaeval centre surrounding the fine
romanesque church of a former Benedictine monastry. The
church has a beautiful carved tympanum.
Taking pot luck when booking hotels you are never sure of
the outcome. This time the choice was a very
grand-looking establishment, the Hotel Turenne which was
quite old and only slightly renovated, with spiral stone
staircases, heavy wooden beams and rustic uneven
wooden floors which creaked interestingly. Its young
proprietors were apparently chefs of some renown and it
was here that enjoyed a simple meal of local specialties
which was absolutely delicious. It included a tomato sorbet
that we have tried for years to replicate and the perennial
favourite, confit de canard.
Beaulieu-sur-Dordogne to Curemont
Carrying on next day was a frustrating exercise trying
to correlate an old topo guide with a reasonably up to
date IGN map and disparate balisage. It made for a
challenging day but eventually we found ourselves
walking towards the village of Curemonte, which is
strung out along a ridge and well worthy of its "plus
beaux villages" designation.
With a history going back to the 11th century when
Raymond de Curemonte went off to the first crusade
the town still has the remains of two partially restored
châteaux, a romanesque church, ancient fortifications
and a maze of old houses. In the midst of all this was
Mme Reynal's chambre d'hôte with a modern little
bedroom overlooking one of the original streets.
The three rooms of the chambre d'hôte operated in
conjunction with an excellent restaurant where Sunday
lunch was still in full swing as we arrived, in mid
afternoon, to the very great interest of all the diners.
Madame proposed dinner at a conveniently appointed
hour which would allow her to carry out her own affairs
in the village.
Curemonte was well worthy of a couple of hours
exploration after which Madame served us a five course
dinner of all the local dishes, possibly left over from
lunch. She was very excited about the exploits of her
16 year old son who, today, had gone on his first
chasse and had shot a pheasant. We tried to show
some appreciation of his skills.
Curemonte to Collonges-la-Rouge
Another fine day emerged out of a foggy morning and
we zoomed along through the fields with all maps
corresponding until we reached the hamlet of
Branceilles. Here a commune worker who was killing
weeds along the roadside redirected us - he said that
he knew all the tracks in the commune and this was
definitely not the route to Collonges.
Against our better judgement, we followed his advice
but became even more doubtful when this route was
marked with a big cross - GR language for "not this
way". After a while it became obvious that this was
an old route with all the balisage painted out - so for
the first time ever, we took the unorthodox approach
of searching for and following the painted-out signs.
After a while the real signs mysteriously reappeared
and, after lunch in a walnut orchard it was an easy,
leafy walk to Collonges-la-Rouge.
Built of an uncharacteristic red stone, Collonges is probably the plus
beaux of all the "plus beaux villages" and is incredibly photogenic. It is
also a tourist mecca full of gift shops, cafes and restaurants, most only
open during the day. One of the more unusual of these was a goose
museum, which traded on the celebrity of this Dordogne specialty and
where you could watch geese being fed and not be chased by them.
You could also buy goose products to eat and a range of other
souvenirs in the likeness of geese. Despite its weight and fragility, a
rather attractive plate, featuring an embossed goose's head, found its
way into one of our packs.
Collonges was established as an administrative centre for the viscounty
of Turenne. It is full of castles built by the ruling nobles each one of
whom had found it necessary to make his castle more gorgeous than
those of his neighbours. In reality the town is an open air museum and
a bit of a hoot but you can't stop taking photos.
We had elected to spend our last night here and, despite the
commercialism of the town and its rather stuffy hotel, enjoyed an OK
dinner and a pleasant room with a view back over the valley that the GR
had crossed to reach the town.
Collonges-la-Rouge to Turenne Gare
The last day, we spun out with a relaxed departure from Collonges and a
gorgeous downhill walk along leafy pathways, till we reached the pretty
little village of Ligneyrac. We arrived again at the Château de Coutinard
and it was just a short distance along the road to the hotel and station.
We had completed a circuit of about 123 km and marked the occasion
with a truffle omelette and a pichet of rosé.
Specialties of the region
Wines to drink are
" Bergerac and Côtes de Bergerac (red,white,rosé)
" Pécharmant (red)
" Monbazillac (dessert wine)
There is also a delicious liqueur called quinquinoix.
Distilled from walnuts and served with ice it is an
This is the land of the black truffle although it has
to be said that few walkers will partake of a diet of
truffles. More accessible is confit de canard which
appears on menus so often as to become
tiresome. Foie gras is also always there and
The Cabécou de Rocamadour comes in all
degrees of ripeness and is the perfect size for
picnic lunches. Walnut trees grow throughout the
region, so walnuts appear in many dishes and
walnut oil is a feature in salads.
The Cirque d'Autoire and Autoire
in the distance
Château de Castlenau
Château de Castlenau and randonneur
Another randonneur along the Cere
Poisonous mushrooms in the forest
A sanglier in the forest
(© GerardM from Wikimedia Commons)
Distant view of Curemont
The red stones of Collonges-la-Rouge
Return to Turenne