Brantôme – the “Venice of the Perigord”
Our coverage of the ‘deep heart of France’ has expanded 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 eastern parts – those that are still called the Limousin and the Dordogne by old-timers like me!
Even as the real city of Venice looks for ways to reduce the throngs of visitors who come every year, tourist boards everywhere else seem anxious to declare their locales to be “the Venice of” wherever they happen to be. In addition to the beach in California, for example, Aveiro’s canals make it “the Venice of Portugal,” and the tour boats on the Canal St. Martin invite you to explore “the Venice of Paris.” So when I heard that Brantôme, a town on the Dronne River in the Dordogne, is sometimes called “the Venice of the Perigord,” I had to go see what it was about for myself.
Is it really Venice?
It’s true that Brantôme is in a lovely setting, next to a small island at a bend in the Dronne. On a hot summer afternoon, dozens of people are renting kayaks or paddle-boarding over the little waterfall in the center of town. But the only evidence of any Venetian character I could find were three forlorn (and unmanned) gondolas at the docks in the centre ville.
As it turns out, though, the real interest in this community of 2,200 is on the other bank of the river. The first impression is that the town is dominated by a major classical monument – a long, low white building that terminates in a great bell tower near the center of Brantôme. And that impression is not wrong. In fact, there’s a fine 12th-century church (Eglise Saint-Pierre) and the great Abbey dedicated to Saint Sicaire.
Legend vs Reality
So even on first glance, I was intrigued by the history of this town. It’s one of those rare medieval sites in France with roots going back to the time of Charlemagne. In 769 A.D., the story goes, Charlemagne founded the Abbey here and gave it the relics of Saint Sicaire– or, at least, that’s what the legend says. (Sicaire was supposedly one of the infants martyred by King Harrod just after the birth of Jesus Christ.)
Today, there’s some doubt that Charlemagne commissioned the Abbey -- perhaps it was Pepin the Short? -- and it now seems likely that the reliquary with the bones of Saint Sicaire didn’t show up here until someone brought it back from the Crusades in the 12th century. Still, in any case, this was an important site – a stop on the pilgrimage route to Saint John of Compostela and a real spiritual center in the deep heart of France.
This region has been a crossroads for as long as humans have existed here, so it’s not surprising to learn the Abbey was sacked by the Norman invasions of the 9th century, then over and over again in battles between English and French Forces during the Hundred Years’ War from 1337 to 1453 A.D. By the 16th century, the Abbey found its footing again and began to flourish – the town’s archives note that the Abbot in charge of the site “lived here like a Grand Lord.”
The most notable of these “grand lords” was Pierre de Bourdeille, who ran the place in the 1500s. I’ll let the Michelin guide describe this remarkable character:
He began life as a soldier of fortune and courtier, went to Scotland with Mary Stuart, travelled to Spain, Portugal, Italy and the British Isles and even to Africa. Wild adventures brought him into contact with the great and famous in an era rich in scandal.
This was all during the time of Catherine de Medici, Queen Margot, and the St. Bartholomew’s Day Massacre in Paris – people and events that reverberated even in the deep heart of France – and Pierre de Bourdeille became one of the main chroniclers of the age. You can’t say he was strictly a historian, since his memoirs are largely personal, lurid, and scandalous stories about noted figures of his time – but his work, collected into The Lives of the Gallant Ladies, certainly mirrors everything I’ve read about this period in France. And he was widely known across the country by the name of the town where he ruled as Abbot – simply “Brantôme”.
The surprise lurking behind the Abbey’s exterior
So, just on the surface, this was an interesting place to visit. But I was unprepared for what I found once I bought my ticket at the site’s entrance: behind the Abbey’s Renaissance façade lies a complex of caves carved into the cliff that rises behind Brantôme. And this is not just any cave dwelling – it’s a remarkably moving spiritual site, a church carved in the face of the rock, a dwelling for hermits and pilgrims.
I shouldn’t have been surprised, I suppose. After all, everywhere you go, the Dordogne is honeycombed with caves that formed naturally in the great limestone cliffs that characterize the region. People have lived here for as long as there have been people in western Europe; this is where the thrilling cave paintings in places like Lascaux and Combrailles are found, and you often see signs leading to “habitations troglodytiques”.
Some of these cave dwellings show the traces of human activity all the way back to the Neolithic period – but in fact people have been living in places like this continuously even up to the present day. They were especially popular, I believe, during times of conflict like the Hundred Years’ War or the French Revolution, providing a safe haven for people trying not to get caught in the turmoil; they’ve long been popular, too, with hermits and religious ascetics looking for quiet and isolation for their meditations.
My Visit to the Troglodytic Site
That’s how the complex behind the Abbey in Brantôme began to develop. It’s hard to know exactly when each piece of the site was built, because – as the placards indicate – the methods for setting up a cave dwelling have changed very little over the millennia. Many of the interesting points on this tour speak about the mundane details of life in the commune – storage nooks carved into the cliff face, a whole block devoted to a pigeon covey, the remains of a mill.
The religious vocation of the place emerges from other stops on the tour. What appears to be an early attempt to carve out a Romanesque archway remains unfinished as the monks left it. Faint traces of what might have been an ancient chapel to Saint Sicaire can be detected. A drawing shows how early occupants might have begun hollowing out the natural opening they found in the cliffs behind Brantôme, enlarging it and adding functions to the space as the centuries went by.
Even in more modern times, architects took advantage of the limestone foundations of the cliff to add on to the Abbey. The great bell tower looks like a self-contained structure, but in fact it’s an illusion. The bulk of the tower sits on an outcropping of the underlying rock behind the medieval church!
But the most spectacular and moving aspect of this ancient monastery is the great Grotto of the Last Judgment. Here, carved in epic scale on the back wall of one of the cave’s chambers, is a depiction in limestone of … well, it’s hard to say. Christians will see a figure of Christ surrounded by angels, judging the living and the dead. Others over the centuries have seen something more pagan, especially in the gruesome figures of Death in the center of the carving. It's sure that the scenes of Death echo some of the other morbid medieval art driven by the Plague years I've seen in my travels around France.
The accompanying placard sums it up: “There is no point in continuing such speculations. It’s surely better simply to consider the functioning of religious symbolism, while accepting that we shall never be certain of its meaning.” (Helpfully, later occupants of the site carved another scene into the wall next to the “Last Judgment” to make sure we understand this really is a Christian site – it’s the definitively Christian scene of Jesus on the Cross.)
A chill against the summer heat
In any case, I found this whole visit to be one of the most surprising, and most interesting stops on my tour of the Dordogne. Brantôme is a lovely small village, and the whole history of troglodytic life in this region is certainly worth exploring.
The day I was there was hot – 360 C/ 970 F – and it was a real labor to get from the town’s parking to the centre ville in the heat. What a pleasure it was, then, to feel a stream of naturally chilled air pumping out of the cave complex, giving relief even 40 meters from the entrance to the grotto. On top of that, to learn that the classic Renaissance façade hides a history that stretches back to Charlemagne, and even further into the obscurity of our Neolithic ancestors – well, that made my day in Brantôme well worth the detour!
Have you visited any of the cave-dwelling sites in the Dordogne? Is there one you particularly recommend? Please tell us about your experience in the “comments” section below – and, while you’re here, I’d be grateful if you’d take a second to click on one of the social-media “share” buttons to pass this post on to someone else!