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Ah, the Dordogne. A winding river gently slipping by lush forests and vertical cliffs. Ancient castles rising from hilltop towns. And, best of all, if you’re of an epicurean bent, geese locked into little cages and force-fed until their livers are near bursting. Those livers become foie gras, the crowning achievement of this region in Southwestern France. The culinary heights are rivaled only by the scenery: At times, the region feels like something created by Disney, not medieval Gauls. The Dordogne begins in Bergerac, about two hours’ drive due east of Bordeaux, and extends about 100 miles further east. The area was a battleground during the Hundred Years’ War; the Dordogne river marked the dividing line between the English and French forces. Today, Chateau Beynac, the foreboding French stronghold, still keeps a close watch on its archrival across the river, the imposing Chateau Castelnaud, home of the English infidels. (Both are open for tours.) Once you emerge from the gloom of Beynac’s 20-foot-thick stone walls, you can stroll through the honey-colored stone streets of the town below, or have lunch in a restaurant overlooking the river. Just down the road, the village of La Roque-Gageac is built into the cliffs overhanging the river. The caves that honeycomb those cliffs have provided shelter for everyone from prehistoric troglodytes to World War II resistance fighters. Canoes can be rented, and guided boat tours are available. And a little farther east is the comically picturesque town of Domme; neither the town center nor the spectacular views has changed much since it was built in 1281. These villages aren’t overrun by tourists, but they’re hardly undiscovered. Fewer cameras are seen in towns located slightly north or south of the river. Belves, for example, is every bit the classic hill-top village, but it feels more like a living, working town. Forty thousand years ago, a species of Paleolithic man settled in the Vezere River valley, which stretches north from the town of Les Eyzies. They were attracted to the caves that riddle the area, and by the bison and reindeer that migrate through the valley. The village where five of their skulls were found: Cro-Magnon. Cro-Magnon man may be gone, but his surprisingly graceful cave paintings remain. They can be seen at the Font-de-Gaume in Les Eyzies and the Grotte de Rouffignac, about a half hour north. (Reservations are recommended for the Font-de-Gaume: Tel. 05 53 06 8600.) Cro-Magnon man’s tools and bones can be seen at the Musee National de Prehistoire in Les Eyzies (Tel. 05 53 06 9703). The sights are nice, but let’s be serious — you came here to eat. Dinner in the manicured gardens of Le Vieux Logis (Tel. 05 53 22 8006) is a good place to start. The chef doesn’t stray too far from classic French cuisine, here executed to perfection. Start with the flawless foie gras terrine, finish with the well-chosen cheese course; everything in between is, well, magnifique. After dinner, the lounge inside, stuffed with antique leather chairs, is perfect for brandy and cigars. At Le Centenaire (Tel. 05 53 06 6868) in Les Eyzies, the chef is clearly shooting for the stars (two in the current Guide Michelin). Dishes like foie gras angel food cake, sturgeon in truffle foam, and basil ice cream let you know that he’s not afraid to experiment. To be sure, the Dordogne also abounds with less formal restaurants serving good, hearty fare and plenty of foie gras. Try Le Pres Gaillardou (Tel. 05 53 59 6789) just outside La Roque-Gageac or the Manoir de Bellerive (Tel. 05 53 27 1619) near St. Cyprien. Still, if you do all your eating in restaurants, you’re missing half the fun. The best way to start each day is in the markets, where an abundance of vegetables, local cheese, wild mushrooms and the ubiquitous foie gras is available. So are the regional red wines: Bergerac, a lighter, less expensive version of its famous neighbor, St. Emilion; and Cahors, an inky powerhouse. Sarlat hosts the biggest market in the area every Wednesday and Saturday; most of the smaller towns have a market one day each week. After market, you’ll want to make lunch, which is tough to do in a hotel. Renting a house is a good option: Find one on the Web at At Home In France (www.athomeinfrance.com), where the plentiful listings come with pictures of the properties. If you insist on a hotel, La Vieux Logis in Tremolat has plush accommodations in addition to its outstanding restaurant. L’Esplanade in Domme is less luxe, but features a panorama of the valley below. La Plume d’Oie in La Roque-Gageac has only four rooms, two of which look out over the river. The Dordogne isn’t for the weak. With the aroma of lunch still lingering in the air, it takes real determination to sit down to an afternoon snack of wine and cheese. But as the English learned when they were defeated at Castillon, the battle that ended the Hundred Years’ War, the rewards go to the strong.

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