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Beauties of an Old French Town

In a country that takes its dining as seriously as any place on earth, cooks of the Perigord-Dordogne region are usually considered by their countrymen to be among the best in the land, give or take a few chefs in Paris or Lyon.

One way of showing appreciation and gusto for local food is faire chabrol , the ancient custom of leaving a bit of soup in your bowl, tossing in a splash of red wine, giving it a swirl, then lifting the bowl to lips for the last toothsome drop. Alors , locals will applaud visitors as true Perigordians.

Perigueux is the capital and largest town of the region and, like much of Aquitaine province, was invaded by Romans, Visigoths, Franks and Norsemen, and endured the endless wars between England and France. Then the vineyards of Cahors and Bergerac were destroyed by phylloxera more than a century ago.

The old town remains both busy and handsome. There are several markets every weekday. The Place St. Louis and Rue de Sagesse are gorgeous, the latter having beautiful Renaissance stairwells and patios.

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One of the oldest settlements in the nation, Perigueux disguises its age well thanks to constant rebuilding. And if you take the trouble to seek out the beauties, you will be amply rewarded.

Here to there: Fly Air France, American, Delta, Pan Am, TWA or Continental to Paris, then Air Littoral to Perigueux in little more than an hour. To visit small towns in the Dordogne or other parts of France, get a France Vacances rail pass.

How long/how much? One or two days should do it for the town, but it’s a good base for forays into the countryside, visiting other towns and prehistoric cave sites such as the renowned Lascaux. Lodging is inexpensive; dining is moderate to expensive, as it is in most of France. But it’s possible to have glorious food in this town for very few francs.

A few fast facts: France’s franc was recently valued at 0.156, about 6.4 to the dollar. Late spring to autumn is a good time to visit. Light rains possible. A visa is required.

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Getting settled in: Hotel du Perigord (74 Rue Victor Hugo; $32 double) is a turn-of-the-century town house that’s a member of the Logis de France group. A quiet place in city center, it has a lovely courtyard with flowery garden and fish pond. Wonderful for dining in summer. There’s a small lobby and bedrooms are rather Spartan, but the restaurant is considered one of the town’s best. Room without private bath costs a few dollars less.

Bristol (37 Rue Antoine-Gadoud; $45 double) is another one in the central city, 12 years old, very contemporary and considered Perigueux’s best. It’s air-conditioned, with good-size rooms and furnished with period reproductions. The baths are pretty. There’s a pleasant little bar and a small breakfast room for the only meal served.

L’Univers (18 Cours Montaigne; $25 double) is also a Logis de France member although simple, with 16 small, neat bedrooms. L’Univers, like the Bristol, is only a few steps from Place St. Louis and the old town. Restaurant is noted for local specialties.

Regional food and drink: Dietitians may fling their hands to the heavens, but Perigourdin cuisine is probably the richest in France, with hot goose fat being the preferred cooking oil. The goose is also much-favored for its liver ( foie gras ), enlarged to as much as three pounds by force-feeding of maize for three weeks before its demise.

Confit (goose or duck cooked in its own fat and preserved in crocks) is also a fixture of local kitchens, while the region’s pates have been hailed as culinary masterworks since the 15th Century. And no talk of Perigord-Dordogne cooking can proceed far without an ode to the cherished truffle, so much a part of what is essentially country cooking.

Cabcou , a local chevre, is considered one of the area’s finest cheeses, while the best regional wines include the reds and whites of Bergerac and the dark and full-bodied reds of Cahors.

Anyone seeking an amalgam of the kitchen glories hereabouts might order a fillet with sauce Perigueux, an ambrosial nectar of Madeira wine, shallots, cognac, thyme and sliced truffles.

Fine dining: Knowledgeable locals head for the dining room of Hotel Univers for its Menu Regional that begins with pate de foie gras truffe , goes on to confit de canard or filet de boeuf sauce Perigueux, then pommes de terre aux cepes (potatoes with wild mushrooms), a mixed green salad with walnut oil and nuts, finishing with a generous cheese board and dessert of choice. The unbelievable part is a tab of $21 U.S.; other menus for $10 and $13.

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L’Oison (31 Rue St. Front) is a gorgeous one-room, one-Michelin-star jewel of a restaurant run by affable and vivacious Regis and Brigette Chiorozas. Chef Regis earned his star with the likes of petit panache de poissons , a civet of wild hare and salad of pigeon with foie gras . Four menus cost from $19 up to a seven-course dinner for $55.

Hotel du Perigord’s dining room is all country French, from decor to magical dishes coming from the kitchen. We counted 17 assorted hors d’oeuvre choices for the luncheon menus, which range from $10 to $20 and include most area specialties, particularly the boeuf Perigueux accompanied by a choice Bergerac red at $5 a bottle.

On your own: Perigueux has two major churches, the 12th-Century St. Etienne de la Cite, an example of the Perigord-Romanesque style, and St. Front Cathedral, which would have been the same had not a 19th-Century architect rebuilt it into something very curious. Better to spend your time wandering the St. Front quarter, hoping to find markets going on in Place de l’Hotel de Ville, Du Coderc and De la Clautre, which is the largest and most colorful.

After walking the old streets around Place St. Louis for a look at Renaissance facades, patios and stairwells, return to St. Louis and have a cool drink or coffee at an outdoor cafe.

The countryside around Perigueux is strewn with magnificent chateaux, and a day-trip will take you to those of Les Bories, Bourdeilles, Puyguilhem and Grignols, 15th- and 16th-Century marvels. The surrounding country is alive with truffles, hunted with pigs, dogs and--would you believe--flies, which gather on the ground when this subterranean fungus is at its best.

Whether hunting for chateaux or truffles you may do so in leisurely fashion for two, four or seven days in a horse-drawn Gypsy wagon (sleeps four). Ask about it at the Dordogne office of tourism in Perigueux, and bonne chance .

For more information: Call the French National Tourist Office at (213) 271-6665 or 272-2661, or write, 9454 Wilshire Blvd., Suite 303, Beverly Hills 90212, for a brochure on Perigord-Dordogne, hotel listings and a map of southwest France.

The French National Railroads, at (213) 274-6934, will send you information and costs for their France Vacances rail passes.

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