Winter can be a bleak time to visit Dordogne & Lot outside of Bordeaux and Toulouse, which are always lively and full of things to see and do. Elsewhere hotels, restaurants and sights (including most caves and châteaux) simply close down, and the skies are often cloudy all day. The first crocuses often show up in January (which is also peak truffle season) but, whatever the weather, things are pretty sleepy until March. Spring-term school holidays and Easter week bring the first tourist rush of the year, but nothing too dramatic. May and June, usually warm and not too crowded, are among the best times to visit.
Hot July and August are French school holidays, when the countryside comes to life with thousands of holidaymakers. Towns and attractions are crowded, prices rise and there are scores of festivals, village fêtes, fairs, concerts and more. In late September/early October, when the tourists have gone and everyone is concentrating on the wine harvest, the vineyards turn golden and red in romantic mists. November and December can be dismal and wet, but wild mushrooms, truffles, walnuts and game dishes offer some consolation, along with the Christmas concerts and fairs.
The Aquitaine Basin, shielded from intemperate Continental influences by the Massif Central, has a fairly balmy, humid Atlantic climate, with long hot summers broken by heavy thunderstorms. Early spring and late autumn usually get the most rainfall – and it can rain for weeks at a time. Winters are fairly mild, with only 20–40 days of frost a year, although every 30 years (on average) killer frosts descend: the one in 1956 killed off 95% of the vines.
Of late the weather has been capricious and strange, so it’s impossible to predict what you might get: after five years of drought, which produced some of the greatest wine of the 20th century, the autumns of 1992 and ’93 saw endless rain and floods. December 1999 saw some of the strongest and most destructive storms in France’s recent history, and then 2003 produced a summer of relentless, unforgiving heat. Extreme April frosts have troubled the vineyards again in recent years, most recently in 2021.
Festivals and annual events
The French know how to throw a party. Every village celebrates at least once a year: up go the fairy lights and flags, the big tables and folding chairs for a feast (you must book ahead and look for your name scrawled on the paper tablecloth) and a platform for the band – larger towns can afford both a bal musette (accordion waltzes, tangos and French songs) and a local pop band that might just play until dawn. In larger villages, a travelling funfair and/or circus pulls into town; there will be fireworks if the mairie has the money to spare.
One of the oldest festivals, the century-plus-old La Félibrée takes place in a different town in the Dordogne every year, with traditional music, dance and food, organised by Lo Bornat dau Perigòrd. In 2021, the Dordogne and Lot-et-Garonne combined to create a new event, the Châteaux en Fête, with all kinds of day and night activities from late May to mid-June. On or around 21 June it’s time for the national Fête de la Musique, with free concerts in hundreds of places. The third weekend in September sees the Journées du Patrimoine, when usually closed châteaux and other historic sites open their doors.
In June, each department publishes a guide to its summer events, but check with the relevant tourist offices before setting out as dates can change.