Being hard to find is obviously not one of the basic qualifications for a town to get on the list of “Most Beautiful Villages” in France. It just happens that some of my favorite places in this elite company are difficult to access – I think immediately of Apremont-sur-Allier and the tiny fortress town at Arlempdes.
In fact, it makes sense that a village so far from the normal tourist paths would go through everything required to be designated as a “Most Beautiful Village” – it’s a great part of their marketing strategy to get people to come visit. So it wasn’t unusual to find that the little fortified village of Carennac in the Dordogne River’s valley is also one of those places that’s hard to reach, but well worth the trip!
I drove out from Brive-la-Gaillard, following the narrow, tightly-wound, and sometimes scary departmentale roads that lead to Carennac. It was a Sunday morning, so I shared these difficult little paths with a number of weekend bicyclists, creeping across several bridges that were strictly one lane wide. Carennac itself is no easier to navigate – the streets are narrow enough to justify a speed limit of 20 km/hour (12 miles/hour), and parking is not as well marked or as obvious as it is in many of France’s “most beautiful villages”.
At Carennac: A Rich Architectural Heritage
Only 370 people live here now, but for such a small place Carennac has an unusually rich collection of historic buildings at its center. My favorite was the little church of Saint Pierre – a plain building put up to serve the priory established here in 1047 C.E. as an outpost of the great Abbey of Cluny. And although the interior decorations are mostly in simple (but simply beautiful) Romanesque style, two specific elements of the architecture caught my attention:
The exceptionally rich stained glass rising behind the altar...
... and the carvings in the tympanum archway over the main door, with Jesus surrounded by an angel, an eagle, a lion and a bull (symbols of the 4 gospel writers) as well as remarkably individualized sculptures of the Apostles
For an additional fee, you can also visit what remains of the cloister attached to the church – and it’s definitely worth the time and expense! It must have been a remarkable collection of monastic buildings in the Middle Ages, but most of it was destroyed in the Hundred Years War (1337 – 1453 C.E.); one of the signs notes that it had fallen into an almost complete state of ruin after the French Revolution, used as a stable, a barn, and a storehouse for old farm equipment until a restoration project was started in 1928.
Today, what remains of the cloister is pretty enough in itself – but the reason to visit is to see the amazing sculptures on display there. (The meeting room of the old Priory is now a museum.) The most remarkable is a grouping of five figures shown laying Jesus to rest in his tomb; it was almost certainly richly painted when it was created at the end of the 15th century, but even in its current monochrome state I found the detail and the emotional expressions in the faces of these figures to be especially moving.
A castle with a distinguished occupant
Next to the church and its cloister is a small chateau. It’s not exactly a noble’s castle, though – it’s really the luxurious house given to the doyen of Carennac’s religious order. A doyen, according to the chateau’s displays, was an honorary title given to the director of the monastery. Carennac was first awarded the honorific in 1295 by the Abbot of Cluny, but the castle you see today wasn’t built until the early 1500s.
From 1681 to 1695, the doyen here was a man named François Fénelon. Known for his work as a theologian and as a missionary of sorts dedicated to converting France’s Protestants to Catholicism, he eventually became an Archbishop. But he was also known as an important figure in the French Enlightenment. While he was here in Carennac, he was undoubtedly working on his famous novel Les aventures de Télémaque (The adventures of Telemachus), which came out in 1699.
On the surface, the novel is just an elaboration of a part of the story in Homer’s Odyssey – but everyone who read it understood it to be an attack on the absolute monarchy of King Louis XIV and all the artificial luxury, unfair taxation, and waging of wars that went with it. Fénelon published the book anonymously (but still got in trouble for doing it), and over the decades it became known as one of the key documents of the Enlightenment in France, influencing the thinking of Rousseau and earning Fénelon a seat in the Academie Francaise.
Today, the Chateau of the Doyens has been turned over to exhibits about the history and culture of this part of the Dordogne Valley, and it’s worth the time to walk through. The whole village can be covered in a half-day, and you would still have time to visit the great cave at the nearby Gouffre de Padirac, or the incredible little village hanging on the side of the cliffs at Rocamadour.
And although it’s not easy to get to, driving to Carennac comes with the distinct pleasure of driving through this exceptionally beautiful part of France. In the Dordgone Valley I always have that sense of a place that has been settled and appreciated for as long as there have been humans living in western Europe. And the visit to the “most beautiful village” of Carennac? It’s the highlight of a perfect day in that setting!
Do you have a favorite among the “most beautiful villages of France”? Or a place you think should be added to the list? Please share your experience in the comments section below – and take a second to share this post with someone else who loves traveling in France. Thanks for reading!