Châteaux visits make a great day tour
CHÂTEAU DE BEYNAC
One of the most impressive castles in the Dordogne region, a simple glance at the clifftop position is sufficient to understand the naturally defensive position occupied by the castle. It dates from the 12th century and is a very good example of medieval military architecture. Naturally defended by the cliffs towards the south, the other sides of the castle are defended by ramparts and a deep moat.
Château de Beynac played an important role in the Hundred Years War at which time it was in French owned territory but on the border with Aquitaine, at that time owned by the English. Indeed, Château de Castelnaud that you can see the other side of the river was an ‘English’ castle at this time.
Of course, with the end of the Hundred Years War the castle reverted to French ownership. It is a fascinating castle to visit and explore. You can see the large 12th century keep and living accommodation, a further large building when the castle was expanded in the 14th century, several terraces and yet more rooms added during the 17th century.
You will also see several of the ancient rooms – dungeons, kitchens, living quarters etc – in the castle, as well as the various open courtyards. One of the rooms contains some interesting medieval frescoes and several have been furnished in a style appropriate to the period.
CHÂTEAU DE BIRON
Château de Biron was built in the 12th century, undergoing various periods of improvement that continued until the 18th century, and being owned only by the Gontaut-Biron family, who only relinquished ownership in the 20th century after 24 generations.
An active castle from the 13th century with the Cathar wars and ending after the Hundred Years War during the 15th century, after which it was made more comfortable with the addition of windows and many other enhancements, often in the renaissance style. Troubled times were to return with the wars of religion in the 16th century, until the 18th century when the Gontaut-Biron family were able to continue with their improvements to the castle.
With the revolution in France the castle again fell to neglect, and the family once again had to fight to keep and improve the Château de Biron. They retained the castle until 1978 when the family sold it to the state.
Within the walls of the château you will see some beautiful rooms, dating from the different periods of construction that Biron has passed through, with a wide range of architectural styles. Most interesting perhaps, there is a fascinating 16th century chapel, on two levels – the lower chapel was for the villagers, and the higher chapel for the lords, who believed they should be a little bit closer to heaven at prayer time.
CHÂTEAU DE BONAGUIL
This is one of the best looking, best located, most visited castles in France and has been classified as a historic monument since 1862.
The castle was originally constructed in the 13th century, and then extended substantially in the late 15th and early 16th centuries. The owner, Bérenger de Roquefeuil, felt a need to build an extensive castle using all the most modern defences to protect against an enemy that was not expected and never did arrive. As a result the castle never saw action, but is one of the best examples of military engineering that can be seen in the region. After Bérenger died his family squadered his money and the castle fell into a state of disrepair, changing hands during the Wars of Religion when the two grandsons of Bérenger fought on different sides in the war. Another period of abandon and damage followed during the French revolution until the second half of the 19th century, when the local council took ownership of Château de Bonaguil. Between then and now the castle has undergone various periods of renovation.
CHÂTEAU DE BOURDEILLES
There are two parts to the Château de Bourdeilles; the older part which was a defensive fortress and the newer part built as a luxury residence not a defensive castle.
A sturdy fortress dating back to the 13th century, constructed on a rocky spur and dominated by an octagonal keep. The octagonal keep is 35meters high and has walls 2.4 meters thick and it dominates views of the village. It is possible to climb to the top and get some superb views of the village of Bourdeilles below. The 16th century renaissance castle has richly furnished rooms such as the sumptuous ‘Salon Doré or ‘golden room’ with a beautiful painted ceiling. There is a prestigious collection of furniture from the 15-19th centuries, including the gilt Spanish bed of Charles V known as the ‘Paradise Bed’!
The rooms to visit include the armoury, a dining room and two bedrooms.
Both castles are surrounded by sturdy fortified walls. Inside the walls next to the Renaissance Palace is a beautiful courtyard garden, lined by trees and with borders full of flowers in shades of blue and yellow.
In the early days of the château when only the fortress was built it was highly prized for its strategic position and much fought over. It changed from English to French ownership several times over the course of the Hundred Years War.
At the end of this period the Château belonged half to the Counts of Perigord and half to the King of France. An arrangement which worked well until the begining of the 15th century when the counts started robbing and pillaging the surrounding countryside using the castle as their base. The King was forced to intervene and confiscate the castle.
At the end of the 15th century Francois de Bourdeille, a descendent of the original owners of the castle bought it. Later in the 16th century the Renaissance Palace was constructed. One striking feature of this castle is that the project was overseen by a woman, Jacquett de Montbron.
In the following years the château changed hands several times and became a silk worm factory and a location for manufacturing and storing Saltpetre. It fell into disrepair until in 1962 the last member of the Bourdeille family (who were once again the owners of the castle) gave it to the Dordogne department and two benefactors, Mr Santiard and Mrs Bulteau, who restored the castle and installed their collection of antique furniture. Upon their deaths the Chateau de Bourdeilles was returned to the Department and is now open for visits.
CHÂTEAU DE CASTELNAUD
Château de Castelnaud is located in Castelnaud-la-Chapelle which is a village that has been classified as one of the ‘most beautiful villages of France’. As you approach Castelnaud-la-Chapelle you will see the castle towering up from the hillside above the river Dordogne. It is a magnificent sight. A huge medieval castle built for warfare and inside is an excellent museum of military weapons including some full scale reproductions of the larger weapons used in medieval warfare.
Indeed this stretch of the Dordogne is fabulous as along the river are a good number of medieval chateaux and picturesque villages.
With few cars in the village you can almost get the feeling that you have stepped back in time and landed in the middle-ages.
All around there are incredible views; in one direction the Dordogne river with a view over the Château de Beynac on the other side of the river. In the other direction the wide open Ceao Valley.
CHÂTEAU DE COMMARQUE
Château de Commarque sits on a rocky outcrop in the quiet valley of the Beune river and dates from the 12th century. Commarque is something of an an enigma among castles in the region. It’s exact origins are unknown, and its inaccessible location in a tree lined valley led to it slowly becoming buried in silt and dirt over the centuries. It is only in recent years that archaeologists have been reclaiming the castle from the countryside, before it disappeared altogether. The Château de Commarque forms the highlight of a 13th century village that once surrounded the castle, and is now being rediscovered, slowly and meticulously.
The lower parts of the château at Commarque are hewn into the rock on which it sits, including various prehistoric shelters and tunnels hacked through the rock, and other traces of troglodyte settlement. The castle later got sold to the Beynac family, then passed by marriage to the Commarques – a very powerful local family that brutally controlled much of the region in the 15th century.
The castle’s fortunes changed during the Wars of Religion and eventually it fell into a state of abandon, and the tales of the templars and local piracy in the castle passed into local legend, the castle little known in the region. It was only towards the end of the 20th century that the Commarque family re-bought the castle, and the slow process of uncovering its mysteries started to take place – a story that adds to the romance and sense of history that pervades Commarque like no other castle in the Dordogne.
The village below Commarque is also interesting. Apart from the troglodyte settlement you can see the ruins of several houses and a small chapel.
CHÂTEAU DE FÉNELON
The Château de Fénelon, a classified historical monument, is located in the Dordogne department in the center of the triangle formed by the cities of Sarlat, Souillac and Gourdon. It stands on the heights of the town of Saint-Mondane where it dominates the valleys of the Dordogne and Bouriane.
The medieval fortress is located on the lands of black Périgord, famous for its truffles and foie gras.
The castle was the home of François de Salignac de la Motte Fénelon (1651-1715) who became Archbishop of Cambrai but is much better known under his author’s name of Fenelon (he wrote “Adventures of Telemachus”) and who lived under the reign of the Enlightenment of Louis XIV. He was also the tutor of the grandson of Louis XIV.
Built on a succession of rocky terraces, the Château de Fénelon skilfully combines the warlike character of the Middle Ages with the elegance of the Renaissance and builds its powerful architecture behind three fortified enclosures whose defensive system has been kept intact. The front door was defended by a first chatelet. The attackers then had to circumvent a second defensive enclosure which left them uncovered and led them to a second castle defending access to the foot of the castle. The fortress played a strategic role during the Hundred Years War and was besieged many times.
The castle was transformed into an elegant Gothic dwelling in the 15th century and was fortified again during the wars of religion. The last modifications took place in the XVIIIth century. Inside, admire a collection of weapons and armour, furniture and objets d’art from the 15th to the 18th centuries. From the terrace supported by a vaulted gallery, discover one of the most beautiful panoramas on the Dordogne valley.
GAVAUDUN CHÂTEAU AND CASTLE
The castle was built in the 11th century, in a highly strategic location – the Gavaudun Valley was the main communication route between the Perigord and Agenais regions. Hence the Château de Gavaudun played an important role in the region. The original castle was destroyed in the 12th century and rebuilt in the 13th, and it subsequently played a key role in the victory against the English occupation of France.
Apart from its military history, Gavaudun has been occupied since early prehistoric times, and for many centuries had a tradition of iron ore mining and treatment, then later (from about the 17th century) in the manufacture of paper – both industries dependent on the river passing through the valley.
In the middle ages Gavaudun Valley was also a place where lepers got sent – the ‘lepers cave’ is near the village.
CHÂTEAU DE HAUTEFORT
The first owner of the estate around the year 1000 was Guy de Lastours. Gouffier de Lastours, one of his descendents, is thought to be one of the 30 knights who entered Jerusalem in 1099 alongside Godefroy de Bouillon.
In the 12th century an alliance was formed, meaning the fortress belonged to the De Born family, represented by two feuding brothers, Constantin and the famous troubadour Bertran de Born. The medieval fortress, which we only know about through writings, then consisted of a keep and several towers linked by battlements. In the 15th century, the Château passed to a branch of the De Gontaut family, who took the name and coat of arms of Hautefort.
As time and fashions changed, the fortress gradually turned into a place of leisure. The Château experienced its most sumptuous period in the 17th century.
François de Hautefort and his grandson Jacques-François worked successively with two architects from out of Périgord: Nicolas Rambourg, from Lorraine, then a Parisian, Jacques Maigret. The Château was gradually stripped of its defensive functions to become a “modern-style” château, formed of a corps de logis and two wings at right angles, punctuated by two circular towers.
In its classicism, Hautefort more closely resembled a Loire château than the castles of the region. Its imposing and majestic form simply reflects the power of the Lords of Hautefort.
During the French Revolution, the de Hautefort family did not emigrate. The château, used as a “prison for suspects” from 1793 to 1795, was saved from destruction.
The family owned the place until the end of the 19th century. The widow of the last owner descended from the De Hautefort family, Count Maxence de Damas, sold the Château in 1890 to a rich industrialist, Bertrand Artigues.
After he died without heirs in 1908, the Château fell into dilapidation, culminating in 1925, when estate agents acquired, ransacked and abandoned it, very nearly causing it to disappear forever.
In 1929, Hautefort was saved by the arrival of Baron Henry de Bastard and his wife Simone, who fell in love with it. Fascinated by the place and the history of the castle, they gave new life to the residence and its gardens. Only after the death of her husband in 1957 did the Baroness finish the work and settle in the Château in 1965. Nonetheless, she was forced to watch, powerless, when a fire ravaged the corps de logis of the Château in the night of the 30th to the 31st of August 1968.
The very next day, the Baroness de Bastard decided to restore her château again. Moved by her passion and determination, everyone worked to help and encourage her, from the villagers to the celebrities of the day, such as Pierre de Lagarde or André Malraux. So many passionate people, both anonymous and famous, took part in rescuing one of the most prestigious monuments of the south-west of France.
CHÂTEAU DES MILANDES
The castle was built in 1489 by the Lord of Castelnaud, who previously lived in the medieval fortified Château de Castelnaud. The castle combines various architectural elements, with medieval towers and gargoyles reminiscent of a medieval fortress and more decorative renaissance features such as the large number of windows and ornate surrounds to allow light to flood into the building.
By the 18th century the castle had become abandoned and was falling into disrepair, a situation made worse after the revolution and a subsequent fire caused important damage in the 19th century.
In the years after 1900 the Château was bought by a rich businessman who carried out very extensive renovations and modifications, including the addition of towers, arcades and turrets, and soon after the formal French style gardens that surround the Château Des Milandes were designed and planted.
It is during the 20th century that Château des Milandes reached the height of its fame. This began in the 1930’s when the castle was bought by the famous American cabaret singer/dancer Josephine Baker. Josephine and her life now dominate the château – she had a very colourful life, from her early days as a cabaret performer with the Folies Bergeres (famously performing in a banana skirt and nothing else – the skirt is now on display at the castle). With her wartime work in helping the local French resistance fighters, and also her subsequent adoption of numerous children from around the world – her so called ‘rainbow tribe’, Josephine Baker herself was ‘adopted’ and much loved by the French people.
CHÂTEAU DE MONTFORT
Montfort village is a small village dominated by the private château at the highest point. The castle sits above the village and the river and has views over the lovely countryside filled with woods and orchards. Looking at the castle from the river you will see that it is perched perilously on a rocky ledge above the river Dordogne. One corner of its defensive walls seems to be constructed on a narrow tower of rock which looks like it could fall at any moment!
Montfort has had a turbulent history, starting with the renowned cathar, Bernard de Casnac, who lived in the chateau, and swore to ‘cut into pieces all the Catholics in the region’. But Casnac soon attracted the attentions of the Albigensian crusade under Simon de Montfort, who succeeded in seizing the castle and removing Casnac. Curiously the château is named after Simon de Montfort, who burned the castle to the ground as part of his crusade in the region. Perhaps rebuilt more than any other castle in the region, chateau de Montfort has been knocked down and reconstructed four times during its 800 year existence.
There is a popular legend at the château that the daughter of Casnac was burned to death at Montfort, and that her ghost still haunts the château.
The Château de Montfort has undergone a great deal of change, rebuilding and enlargement during the 800 years that it has been here, but still remains an imposing monument.
The eventful history continued through the Hundred Years War in which the castle was greatly damaged and rebuilt on three more occasions.
CHATEAU DE PUYMARTIN
Like many of the castles in the region, the château played its key role during the Hundred Years War, and then later in the Wars of Religion. A village once stood around the castle but is no longer in existence.
The castle was originally built in the late 13th century, although significant reconstruction work took place in the 15th century after the Hundred Years war and a long period of abandon had left the castle in poor condition. After changing hands several times across the centuries, firstly between the English and the French, and later between the Protestants of Sarlat and the Catholics, the castle was again left damaged by the trials of the wars of Religion.
Legend tells us that the ghost of a young lady dressed in white (la dame blanche) sometimes appears in the castle. She is the ghost of Thérèsa de Saint-Clair, locked up in a small room in the castle for 15 years by her husband after he found her with a lover, who was subsequently executed.
She was never to leave the room before her death, food being passed through a trapdoor in the ceiling until the end of her life.
The castle suffered its last great dispute in the 17th century – as part of a family disagreement over inheritance, when Jean de Saint-Clar and his sister Suzanne spent a mere 40 years arguing over whose castle it was – Suzanne eventually took control.
By the 18th century the castle was again abandoned and falling into disrepair. The family of the current owners took control of the castle in the 19th century and once again started the long process of restoration – a process that also included quite substantial modifications to the appearance of Château du Puymartin.
Inside Puymartin, there are some lovely rooms and furnishings to be seen – above all the spiral staircase, a bedroom decorated with several fine Aubusson tapestries, and the meditation room with its paintings (in black and white) of scenes from mythology, and painted in the middle of the 17th century. The mythology theme is also continued in a large salon with large tapestries telling the story of Helen of Troy.