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Kristin's visit: Southwest of France 2008

A ten-day respite from All That -- Kristin's visiting and we're in Sarlat for four or five days and trying not to miss any of the medieval castles still open for viewing in late November.

You may not find this terribly rewarding unless you're included here, so this is a good time for casual and random browsers to turn back before they get too caught up in the sweep and majesty of the proceedings and can't let go.

Castle-hopping along the Dordogne

The Château de Castelnaud

The Château de Castelnaud ("new castle"), just across the river Dordogne, was built by the Cathar-sympathizing Casnacs in the early 13th century and then, like most castles and towns in the region, seized and largely wrecked by the ubiquitous Simon de Montfort and his northern French gangs. The keep and the curtain wall round the courtyard survive from that period.

We make our stealthy approach through the village below the walls, called Castelnaud-la-Chapelle.

From the tiny village, we're trotting up that alley on the right to the front gates (€7.50 each, we're lucky they haven't closed down for the winter -- nearly everybody else has).

Just past the ticket-taker, we can either pass through that main gate (the "facile" tour) or clamber up the narrow staircases of the 16th century "artillery tower" behind us. We'll clamber.

-- Present your ticket please.
Castelnaud has an impressive museum of medieval military technology, including crude artillery from the early 14th century and a lot of much-improved pieces from the 16th (like this "organ"), and a display (and short film) about catapult-style siege engines, as will be seen.

The Dordogne below

We've topped out on the artillery tower, built in the early 16th century to support cannon on this top deck.

The residential block and the keep or donjon rise just above.

The Caumont family supported the English during the Hundred Years' War and fought a Hatfields-and-McCoys with the Beynac Castle Boys throughout the 14th and 15th centuries. Castelnaud actually changed hands seven times in a century, but was finally captured convincingly by the French in 1442 after a three-weeks' siege.

Kristin and a wasp-waisted friend

The village below the walls

The facilities: functional if not comfy. Too bad about those villagers below the walls.

That's that, then.

Reconstructed siege machines, one on the curtain wall, three on the bastion across the way that was belatedly built in the early 16th century to cover the castle from farther along the ridge. Seems like a real oversight -- the hillside up on the ridge looks right down into the castle, and according to the 1442 maquette reconstruction in the museum, that's where the besiegers set up, not down at the foot of the impregnable cliffs. Duh!

The keep from the curtain wall, or "courtine".

The castle courtyard, or inner bailey, from the curtain wall.

Kristin running laps around the curtain wall

-- Duck.

A farm across the river

The well -- key to any impregnable castle's success

Outside the curtain wall but still behind the 15th century barbican, looking for daylight.

We're emerging out into the lower bailey, but not much daylight even so.

Just across the river -- the Château de Marqueyssac and its gardens (we'll be stopping in there tomorrow). Beynac is off to the left, La Roque-Gageac is just along to the right. This is a "target rich environment" for us sightseers.

Out on the 16th century bastion, drawing a bead upon the castle keep. The impressive siege weapons are working reconstructions of an array of models -- trebuchets, mangonels, perriers, and couillards, built according to surviving 13th century engineering plans. There are very entertaining films in the museum showing how these nasty things worked.

The keep and courtine, and the lower barbican, and the exit out the 15th century "enceinte" or outer walls. The artillery tower is on the right, with the flag flying.

The Caumonts got the castle back after the Hundred Years' War and, perhaps foreseeing the Wars of the Religion, added much to the fortifications. The family went Protestant but rode out that terrible period (roughly 1562-1598) because they had a trump card -- the Huguenot warrior Captain G. de Vivans, who struck terror throughout the Périgord with his military excesses on behalf of Henry of Navarre (the future French king Henri IV after 1594 (of pragmatic "Paris is worth a mass" fame)), was actually born here, and gave the place his special protection.

It was widely understood at the time that anyone who insulted upon Castelnaud would be toast.

Nonetheless, even during that time the Caumonts had left for more modern and commodious premises, chiefly the nearby Renaissance establishment, Les Milandes, that the Caumont heir of the day built for his new bride named Claude. Les Milandes was subsequently purchased by Josephine Baker, of Black Bottom fame, who installed her 13 adoptees, the Rainbow Tribe, here in the 1940s and hid people out from the Nazis.

In the meantime, after the Revolution the Château de Castelnaud became a stone quarry -- it's said that guys building stone piers along the river would shove blocks of stone off the castle walls and watch them tumble down right into place. The Rossillon family has been shoring up and restoring the place since the mid-1970s, and they've done a fabulous job of it.

Now it's time for dinner in Sarlat. And, ummm, another BBC sitcom on the DVD.

Next -- Gardens of Marqueyssac

1. Sarlat
2. Roque-Gageac, Beynac
3. Castelnaud
4. Gardens of Marqueyssac
5. Castle of Fenelon
6. Carcassonne
7. Castle of Peyrepertuse
8. Carcassonne by night
9. Meyrueis, Tarn

Feedback and suggestions are welcome if positive, resented if negative, . All rights reserved, all wrongs avenged. Posted 17 December 2008, 29 December 2013.

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SW France, November 2008