Brantôme is often described as the 'Venice of The Dordogne'. That's a bit over the top!! Well, sure, the centre of the village is an island surrounded by the river Dronne and no less than five bridges enable you to reach it. But Brantôme doesn't need any excessive comparison: its architectural wealth makes it a must-see destination. In Brantôme, you step back in time: Renaissance, Carolingian, Gallo-Roman eras and even prehistorical times ! Amongst the most famous monuments, Saint-Peter's Abbaye, a former benedictine abbaye founded by Charlemagne, no less, destroyed and rebuilt several times. On the premises you can see troglodyte caves that formed the first Benedictine monastery, with the impressive 'last judgement' cave decorated with two bas-reliefs carved in stone.
Brantôme is also a gourmet destination: plenty of good restaurants and quality food emporiums for you to try!
A must-see as well is the medieval village of Bourdeilles overlooked by not one but two châteaux: the 13th century castle, with fortifications and keep and the delicate 15th century château, also named Renaissance pavillion. Two châteaux, one astonishing contrast. You'll be delighted to walk around Bourdeilles and the landscape from the beautiful bridge is just enchanting.
You won't see many tourists in this town and that's unfortunate because Nontron has a lot of assets. First, because of its singular topography, the city offers 'Tuscany landscapes ' according to Détour magazine. In Nontron you'll find the cutlery factory whose production originated in the 15th century and is still producing knives with a worldwide reputation. It is said the Nontron knife is the oldest in France ! Every year the 'fête du couteau' - the knife festival - attracts enthusiasts from around the planet.
There's also a château in Nontron which is very interesting, not only because it overlooks the beautiful 'arts garden' and the valley, but mainly because it shelters an impressive handicraft, art museum and shop selling local jewellery, ceramics and other gifts of unique design. Five times annually, a themed exhibition promotes the talented local craftsmen through their contemporay vision of their art: ceramics, design, woodwork, textile, mosaic, engraving, copperware, etc.
And don't miss the permanent exhibition of knives, you'll be suprised to realize that knives can actually be works of art !
Saint-Jean de Côle
Saint-Jean de Côle, another medieval village is known, not surprisingly, as one of the 'most beautiful french villages'. It consists of splendid 12th and 15th century château (château de la Marthonie), a Roman-Byzantium church, an adorable medieval bridge, half-timbered houses and spectacular views over tiled roofs. So many enchanting sites in such a small place. There are four restaurants for those that need a break.
This small village presents three very different tourist attractions. First of all, the magnificent beautifully restored Renaissance Château de Puyguilhem often described as a small Chambord château. Good guided tours, in English too.
Then, the Villars cave, one of the best in Dordogne, with breathtaking limestone concretions: stalactites, stalagmites, columns, 'curtains'... a travel in time and nature's artistic geometry. A small prehistoric painting from the same period as Lascaux and the indentations of prehistoric bear claws does the trick!
And finally, Boschaud abbaye: the ruined building in the middle of woodland and fields creates an incredibly romantic and poetic atmosphere that encourages reverie and meditation.
On the northern side of Mareuil-sur-Belle village, stands proudly a 15th century château, replacing the middle-age one. Partially restored the vestiges allude to a former defensive past: a stone bridge that took the place of the former drawbridge, filled moats, machicolations... and a flamboyant gothic chapel.
Aubeterre sur Dronne
The same Dronne river we met in Brantôme and Bourdeilles leads us to an amazing village further downstream, actually in another department, la Charente. Like Saint-Jean de Côle, it is another one of France's most beautiful french villages. You won't regret the one hour drive, especially when you visit the largest subterranean church in Europe, also know as the monolyth church, with impressive height (20 meters !) and contemplating the masterpiece you wonder how the hell did the workers cope with the tools of the 12th century. Still more to see in this gorgeous village: other religious buildings, lovely houses, charming streets and good restaurants.