For chateaux, vines and historic towns, a Dordogne cycling holiday ticks all the boxes. Mike Hams has this guide to cycling in the Dordogne. (We also have a separate article on cycling in the northern half of the Dordogne and another dedicated to the Vézère Valley.
The Dordogne, which lies in the department of Aquitaine just north of the Pyrénées, takes its name from the 300 mile river that runs through it. Blessed with miles of scenic rolling countryside, fascinating ancient bastide towns, and delicious gourmet delights, it's easy to see why it's such a popular region for cyclists.
Likened to the Cotswolds, the Dordogne is largely rural with beautiful stone buildings, reminiscent of bygone years, and a slower pace of life. And it's cycle-friendly – even given its massive tourist appeal, you'll still find quiet country lanes and forest tracks with very little traffic.
The Dordogne is also extremely accessible, especially for touring cyclists pedalling the 1,400 km Vélodyssée bike route as it lies just east of the Bordeaux and the Atlantic Coast. Another popular option is to follow the river routes from the Vézère to the Dordogne – lined with fairytale châteaux – to where the Dordogne River passes through the northern area of the Lot.
For cyclists arriving for a shorter spell in France, there are good airport and train connections too.
The southern part of the region is more frequented than the comparatively quieter north. The area known as ‘le Périgord noir’, in the south east of the department of Dordogne and around the town of Sarlat, is considered by most as ‘classic’ Dordogne. For this reason (and because we have this article dedicated to cycling in the north of the Dordogne), we'll concentrate here on the Sarlat Triangle, the valley out towards Eymet and Duras, and how the Dordogne links with the Lot.
When to cycle in the Dordogne
Cycling in the Dordogne is pleasant from April to October. The beginning and end of the season has temperate weather, while things can get a little warm in high summer as the sunlight gets particularly strong. It is always advisable to pack a good sunscreen – and to remember to use it!
Key places to visit
A particularly fascinating village is the ancient pilgrim town of Rocamadour, which sits over the Dordogne border in the Lot. Built into a cliff, with a castle perched precariously on top, it is one of the most visited attractions in France. It’s also the perfect stop-over point, and at sunrise, early risers who make it across the valley in time are rewarded with amazing photo opportunities when the light hits the top of the cliff and gradually illuminates the whole face. An extra memory card or roll of film is recommended just for this!
For cyclists who like to see quirky and unusual places, La Roque-Gageac is also a must-see. The village nestles uneasily under cliffs – hoping that the next rockfall is nowhere near an occupied house! If you have the time, it is well worth taking a trip on the traditional ‘gabare’ river boats, which are replicas of the 18th and 19th century gabare boats, to see the village at its best.
Another key tourist attraction is Les Eyzies, which is famous for its pre-history; it's a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and the gateway to a network of prehistory caves and gorges that culminates in the Lascaux site near Montignac. Les Eyzies also falls on the waypoint on the Compostela pilgrimage route , with the Via Lemovicensis branch coming down from the north of the Dordogne on its way from Vezélay to Santiago de Compostella in Spain. In the 18th and 19th centuries, Les Eyzies was also a production centre for kaolin used in Limoges pottery.
Elsewhere, Sarlat is a lovely base, with its reknowned gourmet scene, while anyone visiting the hilltop Domme and Beynac-et-Cazenac will want to do it with some energy left in their legs. Les Jardins de Marqueyssac at Vezac are another popular stopping point.
Gastronomy in the Dordogne
The Dordogne is well-known for its cuisine, much of it still originating from the region's farming roots. There are restaurants, cafés and bars to suit all budgets. The best value for money tends to be the menu prix fixe, which normally consists of one main course, a starter, and a dessert, and you can decide on a two- or three-course meal. A basic carafe of wine may well be included in the price, and tap water and bread has to be provided by law. Note that local restaurants may be closed on Mondays and public holidays so plan ahead if you're arriving on these days.
Truffles and foie gras feature heavily on the menus as, along with chestnuts, they are local specialities. The local wines are not as well known as those from neighbouring Bordeaux, but the look out for appellation Bergerac and Cahors, plus Monbazillac for sweeter whites to accompany foie gras and pain d’epicés. These white can offer excellent value for money.
Push the boat out with lunch at the Hotel Pont de l’Ouysse, a Michelin star restaurant with a good wine cellar in Lacave.
Campers and self-caterers should look out for local markets, and also beware that many shops and supermarkets either do not open on Sundays and public holidays or close at 12.30, so plan ahead and stock up.
Road cycling in the Dordogne
A feature of the Dordogne is that the buildings are "olde-worlde" and tend to be stone-built. Whereas the richer, original occupants used stone shingled roofs (which require bigger timbers to support the weight), the less well off used thatch or clay tile roofing material, which has equal charm.
Towns and villages were built either on the hills for defence or alongside rivers to defend the crossing. Just 160km east of Bordeaux is the medieval town of Sarlat, which has fortifications that date from its time as a frontier town during the Norman Invasion and the Hundred Years’ War. A 30km cycle ride east from here is the small town of Souillac, which has a museum of Automata and a fine church in the square.
Cyclists can enjoy long stretches of open rolling countryside between Sarlat and Souillac and Souillac to Rocamadour (a distance of about 25km by bike). These journeys are suitable for novices or experienced cyclists as the routes are fairly flat.
In this part of the Dordogne you can expect short sections of cycling on off-road routes, although you will be mainly cycling on country roads and specific cycle ways. The routes are mostly unpaved, although they will have a compacted gravel/stone surface, so it may be a bit of a bumpy ride on occasions.
On the approaches to some of the bigger towns and attractions, you will need to negotiate some traffic, but French drivers tend to be courteous towards cyclists. Some of the sections from the route from Rocamadour to La Roque-Gageac via Gourdon (a former capital of the Bouraine region of Quercy) pass through wooded valleys where there is little or no traffic. This ride has a total distance of about 65km and again the route is suitable for cyclists of moderate experience.
Some routes in the Dordogne offer greater distance and more challenging hill climbing. For instance, here is a 75km loop starting and ending at Sarlat and involving 1220m of climbing and some steepish descents. However, I always feel that cycling is just one part of the holiday, and it’s always worth leaving enough time and energy to visit attractions like the Jardins de l’Imaginaire at Tarascon, the world famous Lascaux Caves with their prehistoric paintings, or just stop for a long, leisurely lunch to admire the views.
On the eastern edge of the Dordogne there's also the bike route Lawrence of Arabia took through Aquitaine.
Dordogne bike routes for the more experienced cyclist
Map My Ride records many routes throughout the Dordogne. The maximum elevation in this part of France is around 500m so there are unlikely to be any climbs over 20km or so. Some of the rides logged show elevation gains of 800+m in 120-odd kilometres; these will be on three or four climbs of 100-200m over 305km.
Mountain bike routes in the Dordogne (VTT routes)
Most of the VTT (Vélo Toute Terrain) routes in the Dordogne circulate the towns rather than go from A to B in a linear direction. The French off-road grading system takes into account distance and gradients. As a guide, 14 or 15km routes with an ascent for a fifth of the route are graded black, and a single track descent of 500m over approximately 5km may be graded red.
This site is an excellent resource for VTT routes in the Dordogne (1:25 000 IGN mapping is available on this site). The vtt-dordogne.com website (in French only) covers the Vézère Valley and Perigord Noir and has lots of information, including listings for local rides and events (randonnées).
Cycling maps of the Dordogne
The IGN 1:100 000 range of maps (Map 154 available from Stanfords travel bookshop) give just enough detail to navigate by. If more detail is required, then 1:25 000 maps can be used instead (see IGN Sheets 1936ET, 2037OT, 2036ET, 2136ET).
Mike Hams rides off-road and on-road in Suffolk, searching out tea-shops. As part of the Cycle Breaks team, he has the enviable task of checking some of their overseas routes, including routes through the Dordogne. It's glorious when the sun is out, but 40km in the rain can sorely try a sense of humour. At these times, he finds a great deal of comfort in a trusty espresso or hot chocolate.
How to get to the Dordogne
For anyone arriving by plane, Bergerac Airport is a busy airport just under two miles from the centre of Bergerac and offers regular flights to and from Stansted with Ryanair. Flybe also offers seasonal and year round flights to and from other UK airports.
Brive Dordogne Valley Airport is an hour from Périgueux and is served from London City Airport.
Bordeaux is larger than the two airports above and offers regular flights to and from Gatwick with British Airways and EasyJet. EasyJet also fly from Luton Airport and, like Flybe, offer seasonal flights from other UK destinations. Ryanair also flies to and from Stansted.
See our information on driving in France if you're arriving by four wheels.
Cycling from the Dordogne to the Lot Valley
One way to get to the Lot Valley from the Dordogne by bike is to cycle south from Gourdon to Cahors (approximately 27 miles). There is no recognised long distance cycle way between the two points, but the country road network should also allow cycling on quieter roads.
IGN has a range of maps covering the Dordogne. The IGN 1:100000 maps will give some idea of what is available, but to be certain of the route, the 1:25 sheets should be used. Alternatively, the www.openstreetmap.org project has a cycle layer on its open source mapping.
Cycling accommodation in the Dordogne
As with bike hire and tours (see below) cyclists are spoilt for choice in the Dordogne, with many hotels, B&Bs, campsites and gites keen to welcome cycle tourists. Zoom into our map below to find accommodation on your route, or browse the Aquitaine listing in our Where to stay section.
Note that in summer the area can get busy, so be sure to book ahead. Some self-catering accommodation suited to fixed base cycling will require a set week-long booking over summer, when demand is high. There may also be a minimum stay required at some hotels, B&Bs and campsites.
Bike hire in the Dordogne
The Dordogne is blessed with an array of bike hire options – see our Aquitaine bike hire page for our list of rental outlets. Many B&Bs, hotels, campsites and gites across the Dordogne have arrangements with bike delivery firms that will deliver bikes to your door, so enquiry about this service when reserving your cycling accommodation (nearly all properties listed in our Where to stay section have access to local bike hire services or provide bikes onsite). See also our bike delivery page – if for some reason your accommodation provider can't recommend a local rental partner, it's easy enough to arrange hire direct with the delivery company.
Organised cycling tours in the Dordogne
As with bike hire, there are dozens of companies offering cycling tours in the Dordogne. A few of these will be fully guided, but the majority will be self-guided tours, with the tour operator arranging your accommodaiton and bike hire, transporting your luggage each day for you and providing detailed route maps and notes so that you can explore the Dordogne at your own pace. See here for out list of suggested tours in the region.
Further tourist information
The larger towns, Sarlat la Caneda (also covers Le Roque Gageac), Gourdon and Rocamadour all have tourist information centres; see also the excellent leseyzies-tourist.info. There is a wealth of information provided online by the Dordogne and Lot departement tourist boards. The French Tourist Board has a special Dordogne area of its website.