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Footloose in France

Rich History, Cuisine of the Dordogne Valley

July 24, 1988|BEVERLY BEYER and ED RABEY | Beyer and Rabey are Los Angeles travel writers .

LES EYZIES, France — While the discovery of the Lascaux Cave and this town's Font de Gaume Grotto have established the Dordogne Valley as the birthplace of man in France, what is more important to the visitor is that this valley has remained relatively undiscovered, a green and gorgeous stretch of countryside inlnad from Bordeaux.

Known as Perigord until the French Revolution, this land afterward became the Dordogne, but the two names are used interchangeably. However, the distinctive and very rich cuisine is still known and beloved by Frenchmen as Perigourdine, a cornucopia of truffles, sauces, several commendable wines, foie gras and duck and goose.

The French have an expression, repas de battage, meaning that the cook must prepare for a ravenous group eating as if it were their last meal. One often gets that feeling here.

Bucolic is certainly the word for the Dordogne. It is rich in history, even richer in pretty little 13th-Century towns, many of which sprang up during the Hundred Years' War. And Les Eyzies is one of half a dozen villages that makes a great base for exploring this captivating area.

Here to there: Fly Air France nonstop to Paris, or Air Canada, American, Pan Am, TWA, Delta and Continental with changes. Air Inter will get you down to Bordeaux, or get a France Vacances rail pass for visiting most towns in the country. A train also will take you from Bordeaux to Les Eyzies.

How long/how much? A day will do it for the town, but if you're using it as a base, plan on at least a week. Lodging prices are moderate, dining costs will depend on your budget.

Fast facts: The franc was recently valued at about 17.4 cents, your dollar buying about 5.7 of them. Very late spring to late fall are best to visit, July-August the most crowded. Good idea is to fly or use your France Vacances pass to Bordeaux, then rent a car for sightseeing along the river.

Settling in: Cro Magnon ($52-$66 double) has been one of our favorites for many years, where three generations of the family have turned a vine-covered and flower-filled house into a most comfortable hotel.

The kitchen has a Michelin star, gigantic flower arrangements in every corner, bedrooms with a French-formal feeling. An annex across the road has a swimming pool in a five-acre park, and the owners, Jacques and Cristiana Leyssales, grow most of their vegetables and herbs.

Le Centenaire ($50-$82 double) is a member of the Relais and Chateaux group and another delightful place. More expensive rooms in the annex are large and comfortably furnished, those in the main building on the small side. There's a flower-filled conservatory for breakfast, a handsome pool, and a little stream nearby lulls you to sleep. Its kitchen rates two Michelin stars.

Hotel du Centre ($35-$40 double), a step off main street, in a rustic stone building that captures the town's aura perfectly. Pleasant lobby and terrace with views of the river, moderate-size rooms, and the owner of 10 years is very proud to have made it into Gault Millau with his food this year.

Food and drink: It's practically impossible in the Dordogne to pick up a menu without foie gras of duck and goose as well as the same pates and confit of these two fowl, the last a preserve loaded with the bird's fat. Hors d'oeuvres of these come in the form of grillons and grattons, the former a finely chopped version served cold, the latter a more rustic form, both spread on toast or crackers.

Magret de canard (sliced breast of duck) and charcoal-grilled breast of duck are both specialties. And a salad of cabecou (local patois for chevre cheese) served hot with walnuts is something to remember long after, particularly if served with walnut bread.

Begerac, from Cyrano's hometown at the beginning of the Dordogne, is a lovely and full-bodied red wine, while Cahors has a little less finesse but is nonetheless excellent with local fare.

Moderate-cost dining: Dining at moderate cost in France on a day-to-day basis isn't the easiest exercise. Our answer usually calls for a midday picque-nicque, for which servings of pate, salami, cheese, a baguette of French bread and bottle of good wine costs $5-$6 for two. In restaurants, decide if you really want a four-course, fixed-price meal or less-pricey dishes a la carte.

Cro Magnon's restaurant offers you three locations for your meal: inside a warm and inviting dining room with large fireplace, country-antique furnishings and loads of Christiane's incomparable flower arrangements; within a glassed-in terrace of the same ambiance, or beneath trees in a lovely garden.

This is the place to try the region's marvelous omelet with truffles, fresh duck and goose foie gras or pates, perhaps the warm chevre with walnuts on a bed of greens with walnut oil. Four set menus at Cro Magnon from a four-course $17 to the six-course gastronomique at $52.

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