A long walk on a perfect day
A well-traveled cynic might call the Chateau de Marqueyssac a “manufactured” tourist experience. For Karen and me, though, these extraordinary gardens in the Périgord Noir (Dordogne) are among the best-managed, most family-oriented places we’ve found anywhere in the deep heart of France. And they are the perfect setting for a long walk on a spring afternoon.
The same family has owned this property since 1692, and they take pride in saying that Marqueyssac has been “laid out for the pleasure of taking a walk.” We’re 130 meters (427 feet) above the Dordogne, looking out across the great river’s valley. From here you can see at least four of France’s official “most beautiful villages” --
Art carved in living boxwoods
An intensely-colored peacock patrols the stone fence near the entryway, and then we are in the midst of Marqueyssac’s most remarkable feature: the immaculately sculpted boxwood hedges that surround the little chateau. Five full-time gardeners are engaged in maintaining 150,000 shrubs, all trimmed by hand (no electric shears allowed!). These dense, woody bushes are the canvas for the art of topiary, exercised here at Marqueyssac in its highest form.
The topiaries here are exotic and abstract – long sweeping curves, small perfectly-rounded mounds of green, little globes perched above larger shapes. In one section of the gardens, the shapes are edgier, more geometric, cast at different angles like a handful of dice being rolled across the plateau. From this point on in our walk, the terrain at Marqueyssac is wilder, less controlled – but for us these shrubs that blanket the entryway and surround the chateau are museum pieces of the highest order.
The chateau itself is really more a grand house than a castle. Built in the 1800s, it has no defensive pretensions, no dungeon (although the central tower is apparently left over from an earlier building on the site).
Only three of the rooms are fitted out for public display – a living room, a dining room, and a bed chamber, all done in 19th-century “Empire” style. The overall impression is of an elegant country manor – with the advantage of one of the most extraordinary panoramic views to be found anywhere in France!
Taking the Cliff Walk
From this starting point, we headed out on the Cliff Walk – one of four recommended parcours laid out to help you explore the park. There’s also a “High Walk” (a more strenuous hike up to the more elevated parts of the plateau); a “Great Walk” that still affords some spectacular views of the Dordogne valley, but on a shorter, flatter path; and a “Children’s Circuit.”
The Cliff Walk covers the full length of the gardens – almost a full kilometer long – and takes us past the small family chapel, the artificial waterfalls of the Cascades, and three huts made of stacked stones used for quiet reflection. In addition to the boxwoods, we pass many of the ornamental trees planted here in the late 1800s – lime trees, elms, cypresses, and pines. If you need it, a golf-cart shuttle will come and pick you up from the end point of the Great Walk and take you back to the entrance.
An ideal destination for families with children…
More than most places in France – and certainly more than most other “garden” spots – the gardens at Marqueyssac are laid out with families in mind. Almost as soon as you enter the park you’ll be directed to “see our skeleton” – a 150 million-year-old Allosaurus, imported from Wyoming to give the young ones a little shiver.
There are two playgrounds on the circuit around the plateau, and kids can hide away in a boxwood labyrinth or play on a netted walkway leading up to a treehouse in the center of the park. There’s even a small rock-climbing wall (with safety equipment provided) where children can test their strength while parents provide encouragement from below.
… and something for the adults
But it’s not just for the kids – we found several more “grown-up” delights as we walked the perimeter of the plateau. The sporting members of the tourist crowds will love the 200-meter-long cliff walk called the “Via Ferrata” where you hang from ropes strung through iron rings as you cling to the cliff face. (Expert instructors and safety equipment are part of the program.)
For us, the more “sedate” pleasure of walking the Belvedere at the far point of the plateau was a highlight of our afternoon at Marqueyssac. But we also liked some of the other little surprises we saw along the way – our favorite was the collection of odd little human heads that seem to be planted in the ground for several meters along one part of the path!
Although it’s not a site as rich in history as the great castles that surround it, Marqueyssac does have some interesting stories to tell. My favorite concerns the time when Baron Maximillian d’Erp invited his old friend Giuseppe Sarto for a visit to the family chateau. Sarto, it turns out, was the Bishop of Mantua and destined to become Pope Pius X in 1903. You can still sit in the “Pope’s Chair”, assembled from stones found on the site, where the future Pope sat and contemplated the gorgeous valley spread out below.
Taking in the panoramic views
We finished our circuit by stopping for lunch in the little outdoor restaurant next to the chateau. The food was fine, although a little heavy on the French versions of “fast food” – croque monsieur sandwiches, pastries and salads. You come here for the view, though – it’s easily one of the most pleasant we’ve seen anywhere in France.
The iron arbor frames that shelter the restaurant also frame your view of the great fortresses at Castelnaud and Beynac, reminding you just how important this region has been in France’s history…and reminding you, too, that this lush valley has been occupied for as long as there have been humans in western Europe.
It’s really no wonder, then, that this spectacular attraction has been called out in Michelin’s Green Guide as one of the rare “3-star” attractions – one that, in Michelin terms, is “worth a detour.” It’s only 9 kilometers (5 miles) from Sarlat-le-Caneda, so an easy drive for a day trip out of town. Depending on the time of year, you’ll find candlelit nights with music, an Easter-egg hunt, and demonstrations of topiary pruning and other crafts.
For us, these gardens at Marqueyssac were an opportunity to get away from the heavier history of the surrounding sites and enjoy a long walk in an extraordinary natural setting. The fact that they are also artistically engineered and managed for the pleasure of tourists of all ages – that came as a huge bonus and a great reason to go back again the next time we’re in the Dordogne!
Do you have a favorite “garden spot” anywhere in France? Where do you like to go when you want a good walk in the countryside? Please tell about your experience in the comments section, and take a second to share this post with someone else who might be interested in Marqueyssac by clicking on your preferred social-media platform(s) below.