The Dordogne...much more than just a river!
The 483-km-long Dordogne is the fifth longest river in France. The river rises on the flanks of the Puy de Sancy and, at the Bec d’Ambès, it merges with the turbulent waters of the Garonne where together they form the estuary of the Gironde. In terms of habitats and species, the catchment area of the Dordogne boasts a rich, diversified and highly-conserved heritage. Several emblematic species living there illustrate this: European sturgeon, salmon, otters... The Dordogne is a natural site registered under Natura 2000 and its entire catchment is listed as a UNESCO Biosphere Reserve.
From Urval to Mauzac
When it reaches the Pays de Bergerac near the village of Urval, the Dordogne widens and becomes less rushed. Between Le Buisson-de-Cadouin and Lalinde, its clear waters have steadily carved out the rock since time immemorial and have formed impressive meanders bordered by cliffs: the Cingle of Limeuil and the Cingle of Trémolat. Along the foot of the cliffs, the river provides shelter and food for a host of winged creatures, as the environment is peaceful: ducks, herons, kites, kingfishers, swans, common coots, cormorants, grebes, egrets... When it reaches Limeuil, listed as one of the ‘Most Beautiful Villages in France’, the Dordogne swells with the waters of the Vézère which, prior to arriving here, has also covered great ground. The Dordogne then reaches Mauzac’s extensive body of water where it runs into a dam built at the beginning of the 20th century.
Back in the days of inland waterway transportation...from Mauzac to Bergerac
On the other side of the port, a lock marks the entrance of the Dordogne’s side channel : this 15-kilometre-long infrastructure, engineered in the middle of the 19th century, enabled “gabarres” (traditional flat-bottomed boats) to reach Tuilières safely, as they avoided the fearsome rapids of the Grand Thoret, of the Gratusse and the Pesqueyroux with its legendary dragon, the Coulobre. When the water was high, heavy cargoes of wood, cereals, paper, iron and wines produced in the region, as well as salt, sugar and spices which were obviously from far-distant lands... paraded by upstream and downstream… Then the railway arrived on the scene and, just a few decades after it was commissioned, it went on to replace the waterway, elegant craft made way for trains, deckhands became railway workers…The channel bears witness to the inland waterway life of the Dordogne through a hiking trail which begins at Mauzac, takes in the bastide de Lalinde, the Port-de-Couze catchment, Saint-Capraise-de-Lalinde port and channel-bridge and ends at the Tuilières Dam; here, an ingenious staircase of locks prompts the channel to flow into the river. There is also an amazing elevator reserved exclusively for migrating fish, and a self-guided signed interpretative trail relating the history of the channel and its “gabarres”.
At the heart of the vineyards...from Bergerac to Port-Sainte-Foy
Bergerac’s history goes hand-in-hand with that of the Dordogne River because, although the town developed around its castle, which no longer exists, its real heart was down by the port — an ever-so generous heart, beating wildly in time with the movements of the many gabarres which moored there. Just a stone’s throw from the port, the streets and alleyways of the historic centre are an invitation to stroll around and discover the magnificent architectural heritage overflowing with history. And, why not head off from Bergerac’s charming port on the Dordogne for…a gabarre trip; a wonderful way to view the town from another perspective. You can also go trekking along the towpath, along the riverbanks, to Bergerac’s dam, then continue on to Prigonrieux, by following the river flow. Not very far away, the village of Le Fleix, nestling in the “cingle” (river bend) that bears its name, invites you to discover its reminders of the inland waterway activity; in particular the hold of a gabarre and timber-framed houses, some of which were built using wooden frames that were recovered when the gabarres were disassembled... and were too heavy to be used in reassembling.
Through the vineyards… From Port-Sainte-Foy to Lamothe-Montravel
Facing the bastide of Sainte-Foy-la-Grande, Port-Sainte-Foy is home to the Dordogne Wine and River Museum, which relates the history of the river and the Bergerac wine trade during the Golden Age of gabarres, as well as that of wine export to England and Holland. The Dordogne pursues its route through hillsides and valleys, criss-crossed by vines, and arrives at Montcaret, where vestiges and precious mosaics of a Gallo-Roman villa are preserved. If you wish to continue on to the Tour de Montaigne, you must leave the Dordogne Valley and follow one of its tributaries, the Lidoire which, for a certain time in the past acted as a border between protestant and catholic obedience.
Heading for the ocean...
The Dordogne becomes much wider as it flows along, adorns its ‘great river’ apparel and bathes the world’s most famous vineyards. The influence of the ocean becomes increasingly strong and, with the tides, the Mascaret (tidal bore) offers us a show beyond compare... the most powerful are a real ‘treat’ for water-sport lovers. As it reaches Libourne, the Dordogne swells much more as the waters from the Isle River flow in. Further on, at the Bec d’Ambès, after having travelled some 500 km, the mighty Dordogne finally merges with the turbulent waters of the Garonne; this marriage gives birth to Europe’s greatest estuary: the Gironde.