Vézère Valley, Dordogne

Plazac is a small but beautiful, medieval village in the Périgord noir in the south-west of the Dordogne; at its centre is an imposing church above a grid of narrow streets below. Plazac sits just to the north of the Vézère Valley with its pretty riverside towns such as Montignac, Saint-Léon-sur-Vézère and Les Eyzies. To the south and west is the large and equally ancient town of Sarlat. Each has its own market day; Plazac is just a few stalls, Montignac is larger and probably perfectly-sized , whereas Sarlat has acres of canvas awnings and a huge crowd to match.

Les Eyzies has a world class museum, the National Museum of Prehistory in the old Château des Eyzies de Taillac and, like many of the adjacent houses, it is built into the high cliff overlooking the town and the narrow river valley beyond. This holds most of the local archeological finds from nearby caves including Lascaux with its famous cave paintings. The Vézère Valley was a major human settlement around 12,000 years ago and the history of human occupation has been traced back over 400,000 years. From the stone walkway at the top of the museum, the view of the river, water meadows and the cliffs beyond gives a feel of what our ancestors must have known.

A walk from Plazac village runs down to the small stream below and then runs east along the valley before heading up into a forest of pines. Most of the riverside fields are pastures and grazed from time to time by herds of brown cattle. One parcel of land has recently been cleared but then left alone; the result is a vivid mix of purple loosestrife Lythrum salicaria, yellow fleabane Pulicaria dysenterica and apple mint Mentha suaveolens. Here there is wonderful collection of butterflies including dazzling, male large copper Lycaena dispar and a distinctly tatty, large blue (Phengaris arion), both of which are never common because of their particular habitat requirements. Large copper is a classic wetland species, in my limited experience always found nectaring on fleabane, and famously extinct in the UK. Large blue has an equally famous and more successful UK history; it must have been visiting from the nearby dry grassland on the slopes above.

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