After hanging out in the fabulous town of Sarlat, it was time to visit a genuine feudal fortification. In the vicinity of Domme, the choice of castles is manyfold, just like Les plus beaux villages, one finds any number of castles lined up along the banks of the Dordogne river like pearls on a carefully knotted silk string. We chose to visit the Castle of Beynac, which has dominated the Dordogne Valley from its seemingly impregnable position 150 m above the river for the last 900 years.
The approach to the Castle of Beynac presents quite a vertical challenge for an elderly tourist. A part of the community of Beynac-et-Cazenac, one of the most beautiful villages of France, stretches along the river with twisting and turning lanes gradually climbing around a massive limestone rock formation. Sitting on top of this sheer cliff, the castle looms above the lower village and the river. Crowded behind the stronghold lean the small houses of the upper village between an outer defensive wall and the castle installations proper. Braver men than us have climbed from river to castle, some with good intentions, many with treason in their hearts. We simply drove up.
[* a Bourg is a village with market rights]
We entered through the open gates of the outer wall that has protected the Bourg through many a skirmish. Most of the businesses, cafés and artist studios, were closed for the season, so we walked directly toward the next line of defense, another wall with a massive gate. In one of the narrow lanes of the ancient village, we noticed this sign in Occitan.
Not being able to find anything on the Gascon version of the Langue d’Oc, I used the Catalan variety in which Barri del cap Baïnac translates to “Neighborhood of the Head of Beynac”. Barri was easy to interpret, as it sounds like the Spanish barrio meaning neighborhood. Cap apparently means head or top, both literally and figuratively. It reminded me of Capo in Hollywood mafia-speak so it could refer to the Barons of the castle. Alternatively, it may mean the upper village, since the head is usually on top, right? Barry believes it means it’s his village, referring to him in his black hat, but I’m not so sure about that. The main impression is simply that I have too much time on my hands. Off to the castle, we go, finally!
As we worked our way through the village, Barry acted as a yardstick to illustrate an especially severe disparity in human dimensions between now and the Middle Ages.
With one last look back, we entered the fortification, first investigating the Basse-Cour, the lower courtyard, the space between the defensive wall and the fortification itself which was used for stables and general housekeeping, as well as a shelter for the villagers in times of trouble.
The Castle of Beynac overlooks the fertile “Valley of the Five Castles”, the medieval châteaux de Marqueyssac, Feyrac, Castelnaud, Lacoste, and, of course, Beynac. Straight ahead in this picture, just left of center, you can dimly discern a newer addition, the Château des Milandes. This was home to the remarkable Josephine Baker and her 12 children for many years. It can also be seen in the photo with the scaffolding above and our introductory panoramic picture.
Following along this quite intimidating wall, we entered the compound on the far side of the original 11th-century Keep.
We’ll come back to that small doorway on top of the ramp at the end of our tour through the castle. For now, let’s climb the stairs toward the upper courtyard between the castle and the chapel.
We entered Château de Beynac through the arched doorway in the Oratory Tower, the staff entrance, so to speak, because we stumbled straight into the dimness of the Guard Hall where the Baron’s personal troops hung out. After the Keep, the Guard Hall is among the oldest structures of the fortification.
It was connected to stables for the mounts, the Keep, the kitchens & mess hall and sleeping quarters. The pile of rocks on the left isn’t really a pile at all. It’s the bedrock peaking through the floors here and there throughout the lower levels.
From the Guard Hall, our tour led us next into the so-called Spur Building, Le Logis de l’Éperon. This part of the castle added more comfortable living quarters for the baronial family with window seats in larger windows so the ladies could do their needlework and scripture studies without going blind.
Another modernization was the installation of baronial privies. These suspended personal comfort stations were stone boxes with machicolations to provide the necessary, ah, opening to the countryside below [see also picture 9 B].
Access to the roof terrace was discouraged, so we continued into the vast Hall of States or State Hall or La Salle des Etats.
The State Hall was the nucleus of the Château Feodal de Beynac, la première Baronnie du Périgord, or so the Lord of the castle proclaimed – although all Périgord barons put forth the claim of first dips on a barony. It was here in this magnificent State Hall that the council sessions between the four barons of the Périgord took place. Here, in this great hall, the lords of the Houses of Bourdeille, Biron, and Mereuille sat down with the Lord of Beynac to set policy for their realms.
To the right of the fireplace, a door connects to the original Keep. Off the State Hall on the left, we find the Oratoire, a 14th-century mini-chapel adorned with frescoes.
Above this prayer-chamber stretches the Oratory Tower to lofty heights. It’s the tallest observation tower of the castle with unobstructed 360º views over the Périgord Noir.
We investigated the bright stairwell past the doorway later on, first stepping into the Keep to experience the confines of the bellicose Middle Ages close up. This fortified tower, first built in 1050 by Hélie de Beynac on the rocky cliff high above the river, and then expanded, is just a vertical series of square rooms enclosed by thick protective walls – not very comfortable accommodations! And not as posh as the octagonal donjon in Bourdeille.
Back in the State Hall, we passed the fireplace on the headwall once more,
to enter a spiral staircase to ascent the height of the Keep.
Escaping this fierce fellow by the skin of our teeth,
we scrambled up yet another worn-out flight of stone steps,
to finally attain the terrace atop the castle’s main structure, where we found this rusty plaque attached to an old wooden door giving access to the top tower room in the Keep.
Salle Haute, it said, Tower Room of the 12th-century Keep. It further stated that this room with its croisées d’ogives, its ribbed vaulted ceiling, was the residence of the Barons. As such, it was occupied by [King] Richard I [Lionheart] in 1194.
The date given for King Richard’s occupancy was a bit vague, historically speaking. After having been taken prisoner on his way back from the Holy Land at the conclusion of the 3rd Crusade in 1192, Richard Lionheart was nowhere near the Dordogne for the next few years. However, following the death of the Baron Adhémar de Beynac without issue in 1189, the English king of the House of Plantagenet who, through his mother, the most revered Aliénor d’Aquitaine, was also the crowned Duke of Aquitaine. Therefore, the masterless castle was automatically added to the duke’s portfolio. Richard gave the castle to one of his loyal retainers, but after both their deaths, the castle came back into the family fold in 1200 through Baron Pons I of Beynac, where it remained till 1962. Technically only till 1753 when Pierre, the last Marquis de Beynac died. But his daughter’s husband added Beynac to his name thus continuing the line into the 20th century.
The breathtaking, sweeping views from the roof terraces of the castle.
Slate roofs are quite common in France. All through the Dordogne, though, one notices roofs with a very steep pitch that are covered with thick and densely packed shingles made of limestone. Up here on the castle terrace, I had the perfect opportunity to study these amazing roof shingles called Lauzes up close. Depending on the thickness of the lauzes and their degree of overlap, the weight of such a stone roof may be as much as 900Kg/sqm. The artisanal skill to build stone roof structures was passed down through the generations, but it is a dying art. Equally, the stone that was quarried locally, now has to be imported, sometimes from as far away as Norway.
Walking around the roof terraces we looked down into an enclosed courtyard that stretched all the way to the ground floor level of the castle. This atrium in the very core of the castle connects the Keep with the Guard Hall and the kitchens and stables on the ground level, while it connects the State Hall with family apartments through the addition of an open staircase.
From the State Hall, we took the doorway leading to the elegant Renaissance staircase which allowed easy access to the “modern” family quarters.
Back in the central courtyard, we passed beneath the columns of the staircase and returned straight to the Middle Ages when entering the castle kitchens.
These facilities for the day-to-day running of the baronial operations were literally built right into the bedrock. Especially before the addition of the spacious opening to the court above, it was quite dark down here. On the other hand, there was always a warming fire and left-overs from the family’s table. The large hooks allowed food to be hung safely out of reach of vermin. A stone ramp connected the kitchen with the courtyard and the Guard Hall beyond for the soldiers and their mounts.
Mounted on the kitchen wall, we couldn’t help but notice the display of helmets and shields, not to mention a battleax, and swords, and crossbows, allegedly used by Baron Adhémar during the 3rd crusade in 1190.
Being a bit of a nitpicker by nature, I have to say that the date 1190 in conjunction with Baron Adhémar’s personal arms presents a small problem. Adhémar de Beynac is said to have lived from 1147 to 1189. While the 3rd crusade officially ran from 1189 to 1192 neither French nor English troops arrived in the Middle East before 1191, thus the good baron must have died on route.
It was time to finish our castle tour. As we left through the backdoor of the kitchen, we stepped into a barbican. Yet another defense structure!
Barbicans were fortified gateways or gatehouses to protect otherwise vulnerable parts of a fortification, as, in this case, a kitchen entrance that had to be easily accessible through less critical times. As we left the barbican, we recognized the stone ramp with its feature bedrock, we saw at the beginning of our tour.
To conclude this feudal discourse, I’d like to add some explanatory material. Firstly, a couple of floorplans of the castle which I lifted from the Beynac website:
Secondly, I wanted to draw your attention once more to those Plumpsklosetts we mentioned earlier: