The Dordogne river crosses much of south-west France, a journey of almost 500 kilometres from its source in the mountains of the Massif Central to its final confluence with the Garonne River before entering the Atlantic Ocean near Bordeaux.
The river changes completely in character during its voyage to the sea but retains one very important characteristic wherever you are along its course - there are numerous towns and villages and a great deal of beautiful countryside to discover nearby.
Note that the river travels through a great deal of countryside outside the department which shares its name - and which visitors to France typically associate with the name Dordogne, rather than the river itself - so I have grouped each part of the journey by the French departments and regions that it is passing through
Travelling downstream along the Dordogne
Although I usually find myself travelling upstream along the river (perhaps because we live very near the Dordogne river in Bergerac, as it reaches the end of its journey) I have described the journey below as if you start at the source and travel east to west...
Puy-de-Dome and Cantal departments, Auvergne region
The slopes of Puy de Sancy, the highest mountain in the Massif Central and with an altitude of 1886 metres, are often grey, wet and cold - although in summertime the scenery here is very beautiful.
It is here on the slopes that two small streams emerge from the mountainside. The first is called the Dore and a little way down the slopes of the mountain it is joined by the Dogne. Together they create the source of the Dordogne river.
The river rapidly gains in size as it is joined by other mountain streams, and flows down a valley from the mountain to the first town along its course at Le Mont-Dore. Le Mont-Dore is a very typical French spa town with its centre dominated by 19th century townhouses, and is also now a winter mountain resort, best known for the nearby Super-Besse ski region. The town makes a pleasant base for hikers and cyclists passing their summer visit exploring the region.
A few kilometres downstream the river passes through La Bourboule, another 19th century spa town that is very similar in nature to Le Mont-Dore and part of the Regional Natural Parc of Volcanoes. By this stage the Dordogne is already the size of a small river rather than a big stream!
The river continues through several other small villages in Puy-de-Dome - Saint-Sauves-d'Auvergne, Avèze, Singles, Larodde and Labessette - before entering the Cantal department. It is perhaps true to say that it is the countryside that is the main attraction here rather than these small villages.
You soon reach Beaulieu (note: this is not Beaulieu-sur-Dordogne! See below for details.) Here you can see the first of several lakes along the course of the Upper Dordogne created by the construction of barrages.
On the banks of the lake near Beaulieu and Lanobre you can (and should!) see the Chateau de Val, then at the southern end of the lake visit Bort-les-Orgues where you can an unusual rock formation consisting of 'tubes' of rock that resemble the pipes of an organ. The river now forms the boundary between the Cantal and Correze departments.
The next stretch of river, between Bort-les-Orgues and Argentat, is difficult to access. There are only a few places where the river can be reached: for example there is a minor road that follows the right bank of the Dordogne river for a few kilometres as it travels between Mauriac and Neuvic (the section of river is to the west of the village of Arches), and stretches of the river can be seen near Chalvignac and Bassignac-le-Haut.
These roads are narrow and hard to reach, so we will instead resume our journey at Argentat...
The Dordogne course through the Correze department of Limousin
From Argentat there is a picturesque route that travels north-east along part of the river you have missed. Follow the road towards Saint-Martin-la-Méanne as it passes a large barrage (I have cycled this road several times - very peaceful and also plenty of shelter from the trees in summer, so recommended!)
By the time you reach Argentat the Dordogne is quite an important river, and the town itself is very picturesque and well worth exploring. The highlight is the stretch along the riverside looking across at the medieval houses and bridge, preferably while sat on the quai enjoying a drink!
A further 20 kilometres downstream along the course of the river and you reach another of the most picturesque towns on the upper stretches of the river at Beaulieu-sur-Dordogne. As well as nice scenery along the river, Beaulieu-sur-Dordogne has quite a large and well preserved medieval town centre that is a pleasure to explore.
Through the Lot department, Midi-Pyrénées region
The Dordogne river doesn't spend long in the Midi-Pyrenees region, and again it is sometimes difficult to follow the course of the river, but this is compensated by some of the towns and villages you can visit very nearby such as the pretty hilltop village of Loubressac, Bretenou and its castle, and the lovely historic market town of Martel.
The last main town you reach in the Lot department is Souillac, a popular entry point for the Dordogne department for visitors arriving from the east.
The river in the Dordogne department
At last we reach the department which has taken its name, and where the Dordogne river passes through and next to several of the most beautiful towns and villages in France. These include Domme, La Roque-Gageac and Beynac, all three of which are officially classified among the 'most beautiful villages in France'.
Just as important when you are visiting this region, be sure to explore Sarlat. Although not actually on the course of the river it is perhaps the most lovely medieval town in France and not to be missed!
Several other lovely towns, villages and medieval castle are also nearby and worthy of exploration - see our Dordogne department guide for more information.
This is also an excellent region to explore the river by canoe!
Continuing your journey towards the west, still in the Dordogne department, you pass through Saint-Cyprien, Le Buisson-de-Cadouin and Lalinde. While these are less 'historic' than the famous villages to the east they each have plenty to explore.
Hint: if you are travelling between Lalinde and Bergerac along the river I recommend you take the minor road along the left bank rather than the main road to the north - this quiet road is much more picturesque and also a nice road to cycle along.
You should also enjoy the river beach and lovely village at Limeuil and the views from the Cirque de Tremolat - not surprisingly, near the village of Tremolat - are among the best to be found anywhere along the Dordogne river.
A canal was built parallel to the river near here in the 19th century to enable navigation for boats which was not possible on the river and at Mouleydier you can see the long series of locks that join the river and the canal.
Not far downstream from here you reach the historic town of Bergerac, on the banks of the Dordogne river and with a lovely medieval centre to explore.
To the west of Bergerac the river follows the south-west border of the Dordogne department for a while before properly entering the Gironde department.
The river west of here is broad and slow, and rather less explored by tourists. It can be seen from several different towns along the way to the sea such as the bastide town of Sainte-Foy-la-Grande, and also Castillon-la-Bataille and Libourne.
Generally it is less interesting to follow here, although in places you can follow along the course of the river, such as near Eynesse to the south-west of Sainte-Foy-la-Grande, although access is limited.
One last suggestion if you are following the river as far as Libourne: be sure to also visit the pretty town and vineyards of Saint-Emilion, which is not on the course of the Dordogne river itself but is very close by, and is a UNESCO listed World Heritage Site.