Feudal Effort

About 30 miles east of the city of Bergerac, high up on a limestone cliff face, is the most amazing and well-preserved medieval castle we have seen anywhere in our travels, the Château de Beynac.

The castle was built in the 12th century A.D. and its chapel (that’s it to the left of the castle) was erected shortly afterward in the 13th century; these were the years of the Crusades to the Holy Land.

Beynac castle, along with 3 other castles that can be seen from Baynac’s ramparts, was constructed in order to control movement along the Dordogne River and through its valley.

A feudal village grew around the base of the cliff and up to the castle walls. While many of the ancient shops and homes have been destroyed as a result of the constant raids throughout the area in the Middle Ages, many still exist, mostly from the 14th century.

We parked along the river next to the village. A popular thing to do here is to rent canoes and float down the river which I’m sure lends itself to fantastic scenes of the ancient villages and castles that line the Dordogne.

We thought about walking up to the castle and the chapel (you can see the chapel at the top of the hill in the picture, below), but decided against it and drove up instead.

Here’s the view from the top of the bluff as we approached the castle. This is the side that had to be defended from attack, the cliff face on the other side being too high and steep to scale.

There’s a cluster of well-restored medieval buildings leading into the main gate of the castle, some of which now house cafes and shops. The castle, itself, is in private ownership and most of the restoration was done privately, beginning in the 1960s.

Here’s a panorama photo of the main gate and its crenelated defensive outer wall:

We entered and explored the ramparts before passing through the inner gate into the castle’s lower courtyard, from which I took the picture, below. This part of the castle, the keep, is the oldest; built, as I said, in the 1100s.

The lord of the castle had his chambers on the top floor of the keep’s crenelated tower; the rest of the family resided in the floors below it. Take note of the solid nature of the towers and walls, built for defense.

The Luc Besson movie, The Messenger: the Story of Joan of Arc (1999), starring Milla Jovovich, was partially filmed here. And this would have been the place to film that movie which tells some of the story of the Hundred Years’ War (1337-1453) that took place between France and England; the kings of both these countries claiming to be the rightful heir to the French throne. A number of skirmishes took place here in the Dordogne valley.

We walked through the lower courtyard and around the keep to the upper courtyard, following the route that knights on horseback would have taken coming back to their quarters. As we rounded the castle keep on its western flank, two features of the castle became apparent to us: the river side had windows; and, the architectural style seemed different on the river side.

As it turns out, the river-facing part of the castle – that part of the structure to the right – was built later, in the 14th century A.D., during the Hundred Years’ War. The windows, looking up and down the Dordogne River, would still have been secure from attackers who would have had to scale the cliffs – an impossible task – in order to access them.

At the bottom of the tallest tower is a door that was large enough for a knight on horseback to enter the interior of the castle. We went in; without our horses.

The room in the photo, below, is what we found on the other side of that door. This is the guards’ room and the battle horses were also kept here, through the door on the left in the back wall. To the right of the doorway, the back wall was lined with watering troughs and rings bolted into the wall for tying up the horses. It must have been pretty noisy and smelly in here.

To the right of the guards’ room, on the other side of the wall, is the kitchen, shown here:

And on the floor above is the great hall. It felt like we had become characters in Michael Chrichton’s novel, Timeline (1999), about some archeologists that traveled back in time to this very place in the years just after the terrible plague of the 1350s known as the Black Death.

We climbed up to the top of the main keep where we had a great view of the valley.

From that vantage point, we could look west down the Dordogne River, beyond the chapel which, though built within the castle’s fortifications about 800 years ago, still functions as the local parish church with services every Sunday.

It was a long way down: 450 feet to the river. Look at those canoers – like ants!

The English King, Richard I, popularly known as Richard the Lionheart, ruled over Beynac castle from the time of his ascension to the throne in 1189, until his death in 1199, at which time the French retook possession and held the castle until the Hundred Years’ War, during which there is a conflicting historical record, some saying that it was an English stronghold, others saying it was held by the French. I’m going to guess that there is a little truth to both accounts and that the castle changed hands at least once over that century-long conflict.

After about two hours wandering around the castle, we left and walked along the outer wall for a little way to the beginning of the lower medieval village.

And we found a type of roof that we hadn’t seen before to add to our collection of roofing materials encountered on this trip: flat stones, locally known as lauzes, that appeared to be thick slabs of slate.

There were so many things to see in the Dordogne valley, including the Lascaux cave paintings and many, many more medieval castles and villages, but we had a 3 hour drive back to Bordeaux and we hadn’t planned on an overnighter, so we decided to start the trip back.

But this region of France is definitely worth another, much longer visit someday.

Next time, I’ll bring my armor.

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