1 Get your own wheels When travellers think of holidays in France, Paris or the sunny and glamorous southern coast usually springs to mind. But if you fancy the sort of freedom that comes with hiring your own vehicle, this southwest corner of France's friendly rural core, known as the Massif Central, has a lot to offer: sweeping fields of corn and sunflowers, limestone caves and medieval villages following the course of the Dordogne River close to the famous Bordeaux wine region. There are no arrogant Parisians here, just relaxed country people who greet passing strangers. The two airports in the Dordogne region, also known as Dordogne Perigord, are Limoges to the north and Bergerac to the south. Car-hire firm Hertz offers plenty of options but Europcar ( www.europcar.com ) is cheaper, with vehicles starting at Euro25 ($262) a day, including insurance. Cars can be picked up at both airports. 2 Domme Village Offering one of the most impressive panoramic vistas of the Dordogne River basin is the village of Domme, improbably perched a few hundred metres up on a large limestone escarpment. This village has no formal fortifications, although many others do as a legacy of the Hundred Years' War of 1337-1453, when Catholic France battled Protestant England. Being so high up offered Domme a vantage point that was considered protection enough. 3 Le Roque Gageac Across the river from Domme, on its north bank, is Le Roque Gageac, a more compact village pressed into a less towering river cliff face. Lying as low as it does, look-out windows and ramparts for archers and catapults were cut out of the sheer face, making use of small natural caves several metres above a line of buildings, which are now shops, restaurants and small hotels. 4 Beynac-et-Cazenac Close to Le Roque Gageac is the stunningly preserved Beynac-et-Cazenac, a village of haphazard cobbled streets that sharply ascend a cliff whose top is crowned by a 13th-century castle. Like numerous fortresses in the region this one is open to visitors, who can explore its interior chambers in the company of a knowledgeable volunteer guide living in the village. The owner of Beynac Castle is a local 93-year-old man, who won't see the final restoration of this magnificent building, scheduled for completion in 2063. But until then, the oil lamp-lit rooms, many with original furniture and decorative wall tapestries, will remain impressive enough drawcards. 5 Hotel Bonnet Beynac-et-Cazenac is home to the outstanding Hotel Bonnet (Beynac-et-Cazenac 24220, tel: [33 5] 53 29 50 01, fax: [33 5] 53 29 83 74). It is difficult to understand how this qualifies as only a two-star establishment. The converted riverside residence has charming traditional 19th-century-style rooms, many with river views and a superb restaurant on the elevated decking at its entrance. Dining here is a pleasure, and is enhanced during the day as boats drift by, and by the shimmering of reflected village lights at night. Dinner starts at Euro15.50 and all dishes are rustic French. Sliced country chicken with forest mushrooms, home-made duck foie gras with compote of red onions, and boiled leg of lamb in rosemary with a stew of seasonal vegetables, anybody? 6 Sarlat One of the Dordogne's best-preserved large medieval towns, Sarlat is all winding cobbled streets and alleyways that lead to the small Place de la Liberte, the town's cafe-lined hub. Around the piazza art galleries abound, as do shops selling jars of locally preserved pates and jams, wine and souvenirs, all overlooked by the grand Saint Sacerdos Cathedral. All this consumerism happens without feeling in the least bit tacky. 7 Bergerac Bergerac is the region's largest southern town, and the base of choice for many visitors exploring the region by car. Accommodation ranges from campsites to three-star hotels and suits most budgets. Meanwhile, the exquisite Chateau des Vigiers ( www.vigiers.com ), with its sprawling, landscaped grounds embracing a small vineyard, offers a gilt-edged choice of digs. Dordogne has only a modest cluster of vineyards, notably Pecharmant and Monbazillac. Their respective chateaux, dating from the 16th century, are open to visitors. Several varieties of grape are processed in the region, but blended rose is Bergerac's best-known wine. 8 Kayaks and pleasure boats At 490km, the Dordogne is one of the longest rivers in France. Serene sections at Beynac-et-Cazenac offer some of the best cliff views and kayaks are available for rent at many villages. White-water kayaking can also be arranged; one of the best-known companies afloat is Safaraid at Vayrac (tel: [33 5] 65 374 487, fax [33 5] 65 369 67, e-mail: bungalows-mirandol@ wanadoo.fr). Kayakers must wear lifejackets, which are required by French law. Pleasure boats also offer interesting village perspectives and operators' jetties are scattered along the river. 9 The Dordogne's northern fringes Sleepy villages are not the only settlements to be found around Dordogne: capital Perigueux is an exception in scale, the large town on the Isle River combining modernity and traditional, preserved shops, houses, bars and restaurants. Here you can find French designer labels, contemporary homeware and the odd nightclub, all side by side with time-honoured French bakeries and bistros. Moving north from Perigueux, the tempo changes. Brantome and Bourdeilles are picture-postcard villages along the River Dronne, with a handful of restaurants and shops each. This is the ultimate de-stress zone, an area in which to switch off the mobile phone and pick up that novel you've been wanting to read for years, perhaps in a little cafe by the river, with a coffee or glass of wine. 10 Chambres d'hote and gites Small hotels can be found across the region, but a chambre d'hote - literally 'bedroom of the host', and essentially a bed and breakfast establishment in a family home - is likely to provide a cheaper choice. Some establishments also serve excellent local specialities for dinner. These include the alluring old farmhouse near Brantome called Domaine de Puytirel (24320 Champagne et Fontaines, tel: [33 5] 53 90 90 88; pro.wanadoo.fr/puytirel/). Its manicured gardens burst with fruit and walnut trees and it serves a rustic duck-themed dinner, at which local wines and home-distilled aperitifs are served, by appointment. Look out for roadside signs advertising such places - often in the middle of nowhere. Gites - houses offering self-catering accommodation, perhaps in converted, wood-beamed farmhouses - can be found throughout France. Prices fall as distances from towns increase and some, such as Le Figuier (mysite.freeserve.com/figuier), in the hamlet of Loubazac near Bourdeilles, even have swimming pools open during the summer.