Dordogne’s Most Beautiful Villages

What makes a French village so special? It’s a question that taunts many a traveller. The answer may be found in one of those many photographic coffee table books on the subject or perhaps in the long list published by the association, Les Plus Beaux Villages de France, the most beautiful villages of France. When staying in the Dordogne departement of southwestern France, it’s a delightful and popular pastime to explore these designated Plus Beaux Villages as well as the small but undesignated communes of the district, thus creating your own list. With advice from the hosts of our rental house in Monpazier, Giselle and Jean-Pierre, together with a bit of reading, we embarked on a busy two weeks of driving around the Dordogne and only now, I’m a little closer to answering that question, though I would be quite keen to do some more research on site.

Market square, Monpazier, our home village for two weeks. Taller gap between these arched walkways allows a horse with mounted rider to pass through to the square.

The association, Les Plus Beaux Village de France, was set up in 1981 by Charles Ceyrac and today the association includes 157 villages spread over 14 regions and 70 departements. The aim of the association is to

“avoid certain pitfalls such as villages turning into soulless museums or, on the contrary, “theme parks”. Our well-reasoned and passionate ambition is to reconcile villages with the future and to restore life around the fountain or in the square shaded by hundred-year-old lime and plane trees.”¹

The departement of the Dordogne has its fair share of beaux villages and if we count a few in the neighbouring Lot et Garonne, the list grows longer. Belves, Beynac, Castelnaud- la- Chappelle, Domme, Limeuil, Monpazier, La Roque Gageac, Saint- Amand- de- Coly, Saint- Jean- de Cole, and Saint Leon sur Vezere have received this prestigious title. Most villages have a market day, though after a few markets, you will begin to recognise many stall holders. Still, there will be surprises and very local specialties in each of them. The smaller villages and hamlets not on this list are often more beautiful in many ways.

And so back to that question. What makes a French village so special? It really does depend on the day. My ‘best of’ list is naturally informed by my own value judgments as no doubt yours would be too. Many factors affect that judgement, such as, the weather on the day, the density of tourists which goes hand in hand with the season, the beauty of the surrounding countryside, the proximity of the village to a river, the attraction of a market in progress, the arrival of a cavalcade of day tourists in small buses, turning your favourite village into a theme park, the blustering cajolery of les Anglais, the Dordogne’s more recent residents from over La Manche who are omnipresent in some villages, congestion or its opposite, deathly quiet, the authenticity of the architecture, signage, cuisine, and friendliness, just to name a few factors. Although food is often high on my agenda, my main interest in this area is medieval history and architecture, as well as following the course of the Vezere river, a most enchanting river, as it winds its watery way through this verdant rural land.

Limeuil from across the river
A picnic spot on the Vezere, Limeuil France

Of the 50 or so villages, hamlets and towns that I visited in 2017 and 2011, my favourite villages include Saint Leon sur Vezere, Belves, Monpazier, Issigeac, Limeuil, the small commune of Biron, and the larger towns of Le Bugue and Bergerac. During a visit to this area in 2011, we stayed in Brantôme en Périgord and grew to love that town and the little hamlets nearby. We also have a list of our least favourites, which includes Eymet ( nice architecture but oh- so -English) and La Roque- Gageac, beautifully situated on a steep slope next to the Dordogne river, but frequented by a long procession of bus tour groups. Below, a media show of the picturesque village of Eymet.

The history of the region can be read in the architecture, with castles, chateaux, churches, abbeys, bastides, and cave fortresses along with the more modest domestic architecture and streetscapes such as medieval market halls, bastide walls, village squares, fountains, laneways and half-timbered houses. In the long run, it doesn’t really matter where you stay, so long as you have a car to tour the myriad of hamlets, villages, and towns that dot the countryside.

There are 520 communes in the Dordogne, 1500 castles and 18 Bastide towns. So much to see and so little time. More research is definitely required.

Wet day somewhere in the Dordogne.

For Helen and Chris, who will be there soon enough. Tomorrow, I’ll return to my favourite village, Saint Leon Sur Vezere.

My previous posts on the Dordogne, France

A Village Church at Saint Leon sur Vezere.

Out to Lunch in the Dordogne

Another Lunch, Monpazier

French Country Markets

The Bastide Villages of the Dordogne. 

¹. les-plus-beaux-villages-de-france

 

Lombardian Stories. The Visconti Unplugged

Ambitious and successful, cruel and paranoid, the Visconti ruled Lombardy for more than 150 years (1277 -1447), an era marked by political upheaval and instability. Constant battles between warring states, ambitious condottieri with their eyes firmly fixed on a princely acquisition or a better offer from another ruler, callous despotic rulers and outbreaks of the plague featured prominently during this period.

Castello Sforzesco, Vigevano

Histories often dwell on the intricate details and dates of deals, reversals, betrayals and reprisals in the battle for power in Northern Italy: this is hard going and tedious reading for many. It’s no wonder that most Renaissance scholars gravitate towards Florentine history, a safe and fertile ground for research. Florence was blessed with relative order (once the Guelfs and Ghibellines had settled their disputes), prudent and astute bankers, graceful and relatively modest buildings, as well as talented architects, artists, writers and poets. The prolific documentation pumped out by the Humanist writers of the Republic gave rise to an historical obsession with Florence. The Renaissance history books on my shelves reinforce this idea: Milan, one of the Big 5 of Italy during that era (the others being Venice, Florence, Rome and Naples) receives scant attention.

Castello Visconteo, Pavia

During the Visconti era, the following cities came under their rule: Bergamo, Novara , Cremona, Como, Lodi, Piacenza and Brescia, as well as Pavia, and smaller towns nearby. With each new acquisition came more cash flow, more gold florins to spend on castles and palaces. They brought a period of wealth and glory to Milan and, like other dictators and warlords of the period, extracted hefty taxes from the locals, not only to build and maintain their castles and lifestyle, but to continue to pay the condottieri ( mercenaries). Often famous, admired and wealthy in their own right, the condottieri commanded private armies to fight territorial battles as well as providing the Visconti with personal protection. It is estimated that half of all gathered revenue was spent on this. As the saying goes, paranoia is just being careful, and you can never be too careful.

Castello Sforzesco a Vigevano, Lombardia

The Visconti rulers were feared, not loved, and their cruelty was legendary. One of the early Visconti, Bernabò, was passionate about boar hunting: anyone who interfered with it was put to death by torture:

‘ The terrified people were forced to maintain 5,000 boar hounds, with strict responsiblity for their health and safety.’¹

A later member of the family, Giovanni Maria Visconti, was famed for his dogs though not so much for hunting but for tearing human bodies.

‘ In 1409, when war was going on, and the starving populace cried to him in the streets, Pace! Pace! he let lose his mercenaries upon them and 200 lives were sacrificed; under penalty of the gallows it was forbidden to utter the words pace and guerra.‘²

On the side of grandeur, Giangaleazzo Visconti founded the extraordinary convent, the Certosa of Pavia, the cathedral of Milan, considered at the time to be the most splendid of all churches in Christendom and the Palace in Pavia, ‘the most magnificent of princely buildings of Europe’. He became Duke of Milan in 1395 and before his death was hoping to become the ruler of the Kingdom of Italy. The Visconti were extremely ambitious.

La Strada Coperta or the covered road, commissioned by the Luchino Visconti in 1347, part of the Castello Sforzesco, Vigevano. It was built to allow the lords of Milan to enter and exit the castle without being seen by the inhabitants of the village, and to flee  during times of impending danger. 
La Strada Coperta, 160 metres long by 7 metres wide. Massive and intact from the Visconti era.

As mentioned above, a high level of paranoia was another feature of their rule, which is often noted in the behaviour of the last Visconti, Filippo Maria:

‘All the resources of the state were devoted to the one end of securing his personal safety, though happily his cruel egotism did not degenerate into a thirst for blood. He lived in the Citadel in Milan, surrounded by magnificent gardens, arbours and lawns. For years he never set foot in the city, only making excursions to the country….. by flotilla which, drawn by the swiftest horses, conducted him along canals constructed for the purpose…..Whoever entered the citadel was watched by a hundred eyes and it was forbidden to stand at the window, lest signs should be given to those without.’³

Servants distrusted each other while highly paid condottieri were watched by spies. Despite this level of neurosis and court intrigue, he managed to conduct long periods of war and dealt successfully with political affairs of the day.

The Biscione, the viper, swallowing a child or perhaps an Ottoman Turk. The family crest of the Visconti says it all! These shields can be found in all Visconti buildings. Below,a simplified graphic of Il Biscione.

Image result for visconti family crest

Beatrice de Tende, Fillip Maria’s wife, was said to have been an intelligent woman who concerned herself with the current affairs of state. Despite this and her own wealth, territory and military strength which she brought to the marriage, Filippo Maria had her accused, on trumped-up charges, of adultery with a young troubadour, and despite her confession of innocence, she was beheaded, along with her two maids and the young musician.

Window. Castello Sforzesco, Vigevano

If travelling to Milan and through Lombardy, plan to spend at least a day in Vigevano, una città ideale, one of the most beautiful Italian cities in northern Italy, bastion of the Visconti and Sforza, and probably much more accessible than Milan. A tour of the castle takes some hours and can be booked when purchasing your ticket.

The excellent  and informed guide leaves Castello Sforzesco, Vigevano.

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Background music for this post: the Saltarello, a dance originally from Italy in the late 14th century, the word deriving from the verb ‘saltare’, to jump. I include this as a reminder that some rather nice things went on during that period also.

Notes of the old fashioned kind.

¹ Jacob Burckhardt The Civilisation of The Renaissance in Italy. 1860. Phaidon  Press, edition 1955, pp.7-8

² Jacob Burckhardt, ibid, p 8

³Jacob Burckhardt, Ibid, pp 23-4

My interest in the Visconti and Sforza was aroused many years ago when teaching Renaissance history. I recall that the Dukes of Milano were not given much time; back then, the Medici claimed all the limelight. During my visit to Pavia, Vigevano and the small towns and villages along the Via Francigena, my interested was reignited. Guided by Stefania and Lorenza Costa Barbé, and the excellent young castle guide in Viegevano who spoke such magnificently lucid Italian, I’m now looking for some modern social histories of that era. Recommendations are sought.

 

The Bastide Villages of Dordogne

Ambling through a medieval bastide village at lunchtime, the only sound I hear is the fluttering and soft cooing of pigeons in the belfries and rooftops above. It’s a soothing murmur, and one I always associate with the quiet lunchtime villages of France and Italy. Not a soul in sight. Just as well I’ve packed a picnic lunch. Shuttered windows, some slightly ajar, block out the prying eyes of the street or the harsh glare of Autumn light. Others are fully closed, now that the summer season is over.

Noted for their grid pattern, fortified walls, archways and central market squares, bastide towns were built in the late 13th and early 14th centuries, and alternated between English and French control during the 100 years war. Handsome arched entry ‘ports’ invite the walker to explore within, where il fait bon flâner, wandering about aimlessly, is a pleasant way to spend an afternoon. Each village brings new surprises: medieval architecture, fantasy ruins in need of loving restoration, shadowy narrow lanes, or carreyrous, that crisscross the gridded layout, high stone benches overlooking wooded valleys below, framed views through darkened archways, doors, keyholes, miniature windows, mossy tiles, shutters, I can never get enough. After the long postprandial silence, which can last from around 12.30 to around 5pm, life returns to the village: the local bar reopens and chairs spill out once again onto the square as locals meet for a coffee or wine. The boulangerie reopens, there’s more bread to be sold. Strollers take to to the streets.

Small, quiet bastide village of Molieres

Monpazier, the village of our current rental house, is considered to be the most well-preserved bastide town in Dordogne. A 13th-century bastide town, it begun in 1285, founded and built by King Edward 1 of England, who was also Duke of Gascony. The town was also home to Eleanor of Aquitane and Richard 11 of England for a time. After the 100 years war, the town returned to the French. Today, the English are back, they love the villages of the Dordogne. They, and expats from other countries, now occupy a significant number of the local houses. The owners of our beautiful rental house, ‘Les Portes de la Bastide’ made this very clear when we arrived. It annoys them to hear English spoken by some vendors at the local markets around the Dordogne. To be able to say ‘Je viens d’Australie’ has its advantages here: we have an excuse for speaking the language so badly, unlike those who live a stone’s throw away across the channel. To be fair, most English expats speak French very well.

Monpazier
Dordogne villages
Bastide towns often have a central covered market place in the square
Carreyrou ( ruelle) in Monpazier

There are 18 bastide towns in the Dordogne region as well as all the other small villages that demand a visit: the designated ‘Les Plus Beaux Villages de France‘, small stone hamlets, a sea of ochre coloured stone and carmine creeping vines, towns that rise above the confluence of the Dordogne and Vezere rivers, larger towns like Bergerac, still with medieval hearts, and the occasional chateau. Every day is a feast of discovery. I swear each village is more charming than the last, and then I want to re-visit them all on market day. Two weeks will not be long enough in this region of France.

Western walls, Monpazier
Market square, Monpazier
Le Bastide de Monpazier, Dordogne

Bastide towns in Dordogne and neighbouring Lot- et Garonne

Beaumont-du-Périgord, Beauregard-et-Bassac, Bénévent, DommeEymet, Fonroque, Lalinde, Molieres, Monestier, Monpazier, Puyguilhem, Roquepine, Saint-Aulaye, Saint-Barthélemy-de-Bellegarde, Saint-Louis-en-l’Isle, Vergt, Villefranche-de-Lonchat, Villefranche-du-Périgord.

Aiguillon, Damazan, Castillonnes, Durance, Miramont-de-GuyenneMonflanquin, Montpezat, Penne-d’Agenais, Puymirol, Sainte-Livrade-sur-Lot, Sérignac-sur-Garonne, Villeneuve-sur-LotVilleréal.

“Hey Mr Marie, Can I stay at your Hôtel de Ville?”my son Andrew, circa 1985.