Beginning this week, our coverage of the ‘deep heart of France’ expands to include parts of the region known (since the consolidation of 2016) as Nouvelle Aquitaine. This recent agglomeration is the largest of the new administrative regions of France, so we’ll confine our attention just to the western parts – those that are still called the Limousin and the Dordogne by old-timers like me! Please let me know what you think of this evolution, and especially if there’s a particular subject you’d like me to cover in this area.
A hike up a very steep hill
By the time I reach the castle perched on top of Castelnaud-la-Chapelle, my heart is pounding at 140 beats a minute and I’m soaked in perspiration. But this is another on the official list of France’s “most beautiful villages”, and it’s worth the effort – this is one of the most historically rich corners of France, in an area inhabited for as long as there have been humans in Europe, a self-contained microcosm of the country’s past.
The Céou River and the Dordogne flow together here, and the village itself rises sharply from their banks to the castle almost 800 feet above. With only 500 people, the town is pretty enough in its own right, its rock walls smothered in honeysuckle vines and ancient red tiles poking up above tree level. As in every other small town along the Dordogne, you can find canoes to rent and plenty of picnic spots where you can pass a fine summer afternoon on the river.
Castelnaud-la-Chapelle is only 20 minutes from the medieval center of Sarlat; three other “most beautiful villages of France” (Beynac, Domme, and La Roque Gageac) are less than 30 minutes away, and the fabulous boxwood gardens of the Chateau de Marqueyssac are visible from here, too.
A 12th-century fortress
But the castle is the main reason to come. This is not one of those small family keeps that are sprinkled on almost every hill in the deep heart of France – this is a massive fortress, one of the great military outposts that figures in so much of French history. In the beginning (in the 1100s C.E.), it was a Cathar stronghold, stolen away in 1214 by Simon de Montfort, the brutal warrior, veteran of the Fourth Crusade and newly-appointed leader of the crusading army that swept through the Cathar territories of southwestern France.
From that day on, through almost four hundred years, this little village and its castle were at the center of the constant wars that ravaged the region. Bernard de Casnac, the Cathar owner, took his castle back from Simon de Montfort and hanged everyone in the garrison. French forces recaptured it, and in 1259 King Louis IX (Saint Louis) gave it to the English king Henry III as part of the Treaty of Paris in an attempt to settle a hundred-year-old conflict between the Capetians and the Plantagenets.
There was no permanent peace, though. By 1337, the arrayed forces of the French king were locked in conflict with Edward III and the armies of England in the real “Hundred Years War”. Five generations of kings fought over the fundamental question of who would control France. But this was not just a sorting out of who begat whom or who promised what – England desperately needed access to the rich agricultural resources of western France to stave off the effects of a period of global cooling.
In the battles that followed, the fortress at Castelnaud-la-Chapelle changed hands regularly, as did many castles in this region – just down the road at Beynac, I saw a sign indicating that the chateau had passed back and forth between the English and the French 14 times during the Hundred Years War! France ultimately prevailed and took back Castelnaud in 1442…just in time for the Wars of Religion that wracked the country from 1562 to 1598. During the battle between Protestants and Catholics, the fortress was occupied by Geoffroy de Vivans, a Protestant captain “who had such a fearsome reputation that the castle was never attacked.”
Still, despite its ability to withstand the ravages of two centuries of all-out war, Castelnaud could not resist the social forces of the French Revolution that swept most of France’s aristocratic families from power and dispossessed them of their holdings. Abandoned in 1789, the chateau crumbled, and locals used it as a convenient stone quarry for buildings and the local river port throughout the 1800s. It was not restored again until a series of projects began in 1966.
The Museum of Medieval Warfare
Today, though, the castle is buzzing with activity. When I arrive in the huge parking lot at 9:00 a.m., mine is only the second car there; when I come back at 10:30 to pick up more camera batteries, there are more than 300 cars and the flow of traffic up from the main road is constant. It’s still a very sharp climb from the lot up to the main entrance of the castle, with several shops along the medieval street selling blunt wooden swords and toy bow-and-arrow sets.
These toys set the stage for what you’ll find inside Castelnaud-la-Chapelle. It’s somehow fitting that this great fortress, scene of so many violent encounters over the centuries, is home (since 1985) to an exceptional Museum of Medieval Warfare. There’s a collection of exotic weapons and armor, including some pieces unlike anything I’ve ever seen – the “organ” with 12 gun barrels fanned out to cover a huge swath of the battlefield, for example, a couple of “portable” cannons, and a giant crossbow capable of firing a massive bolt over 200 meters.
Among the more common weapons, the Museum has an amazing collection of crossbows, axes, spears, and harquebuses (predecessors to muskets). Many of these are little works of art in themselves, with ivory inlays and fine carvings giving an air of elegance to what would otherwise be a brutal instrument of war.
For me, though, the most interesting and unusual pieces in the museum are the life-sized reproductions of some of the great “siege engines” of the Middle Ages. Built as much as possible based on original plans from the 15th century, the collection includes a 12th-century mangonel and a fearsome trebuchet. I read a lot of history and historical novels, so I’ve often marveled at how a besieging army could break through the walls of a castle like this one – and now, thanks to this museum, I can understand exactly how it works. The trebuchet could only fire one of its massive stones each hour – but an iron-banded ball of rock weighing more than 100 kilos (220 pounds) could do an enormous amount of damage as the days of siege dragged on. (The museum has a great video in which modern day re-enactors in medieval battle dress actually load a stone, crank back the massive counterweights, and fling the projectile at a rock wall. The results are impressive!)
One of the best of the "plus beaux villages"?
Back outside the museum now, I stop to take in the spectacular views from a turret overlooking the Dordogne. The castle at Beynac is visible a little further down the river – itself an impressive, hulking fortress, one-time headquarters of Richard the Lionhearted and a formidable rival to this chateau. It’s easy to imagine for a moment the great rivalries that tore this region apart over a 600-year period, but a little hard in this green, settled landscape to imagine the bloody battles that were the literal expression of those rivalries.
Castelnaud-la-Chappelle turned out to be one of my favorite discoveries among the “most beautiful villages” in the deep heart of France. Do you have a favorite? Have you seen other museums that really worked to bring history alive for you? Please share your experience in the comments section below – and, while you’re here, please take a second to pass this on to others using your preferred social-media “share” buttons!