Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Castles, history and hounds (Epic honeymoon part 3)

La Roque Gageac upstream of Domme
Troglodyte village in cliffs above La Roque Gageac
Growing up on Midwest plains did much for my work ethic but little for my sense of geography and history past the mid 19th century. My family came west in the late 1800’s from Northern Europe and the oldest relic I can point to is an aged tintype and what is left of the family homestead that was built at the turn of the twentieth century. Most Americans have little since of history and who can blame us; we tear down the “old” and build new whenever we get the chance. Blocks of disposable subdivisions all set in the neatest grid one can imagine. Upon announcing that we were headed to walled villages and ancient fortresses, the response was “With those funny narrow streets.” Yes, we were in search of narrow streets where Americans can barely waddle through let alone drive our behemoth automobiles. Even so they were much wider than places in Morocco’s ancient medinas where houses come so close to that young lovers can kiss without leaving home. History in textbooks is valuable but no replacement for the 3-D experience of breathing it in, hiking the hills and setting foot where kings and troglodytes once stood side by side (although centuries apart). Even the famous English King Richard “The Lionheart” roamed this landscape (he didn’t speak English and only spent 6 months in Britain) and now it was our turn to stride through history. 

La Roque Gageac has been inhabited for 30 centuries in the limestone cliffs and along the Dordogne River
Entrance to Domme that once held the Knights Templers and still bares their cryptic inscriptions.

Stone streets of Domme
Our fist encounter was the walled fortress of Domme, which resides high on the hill above the Dordogne Valley. When I say American’s have no sense of history, it is because we have no physical reminders of how young our country is in a broader sense of the world. Domme’s main fortified entrance was once a prison for the Knight’s Templar after King Phillip IV reneged on his debt and used the fall back accusation of blasphemy against the order. This was 1307 and the walls still bear the inscriptions and secret codes that the Templers scribed into their cell while awaiting torture and trial for lending to the wrong guy. Eventually the pope excommunicated the whole order, and then pardoned those still alive once the debt was erased, and the remaining Templers were inducted in the Sovereign Military Hospilatier Order of St. John of Jerusalem of Rhodes and of Malta. Fascinating story and only one of many that shares the tiny streets that make up Domme’s thoroughfares. Shortly after the Knights Templar episode the Dordogne became the front line for the 100 Years War 1337-1445 between France and England, hence the castles on every strategic outcropping or river crossing. North shore was French territory and the south was held by England. Beynac was one such stronghold and was directly opposed by Castlenaud (they could see each other). Eventually the wily French bought the commander off and took the castle by financial storm. Beynac should be a bucket list item for anyone that loves history or just a good castle.  
View of the Dordogne Valley from Domme looking toward Beynac
Symmetry in Domme
Castle Beynac's ramparts above the village
Beynac lies just downstream from the former English castle of Castlenaud and is one of the most awe inspiring locations I’ve had the good fortune to visit. The main town lies directly on the Dordogne River and is only wide enough for one street and a row of houses before the village climbs the cliff toward the fortress of Castle Beynac. Stretch your calves out, the climb up is steep, but you will only stop at every turn to admire the stone houses, walls, streets, ramparts (everything including the roofs is stone here) in addition to the Dordogne Valley itself. Arriving at the castle is epic, as you know I don’t get excited about much, but I was running around and smiling like a six year old at Christmas morning. The interior is sparse, cold, and dark and feels like the lord of the manor has just stepped out on vacation. Tapestries dominate the walls and authentic furniture line the living quarters making the experience that of walking into the wrong century. For all of its grandeur and authentic plague ridden fortifications, it was a dog that dominated our visit. Unlike America, France loves its pets. From cafes to 4 star restaurants to castles, hounds abound. 

Approach to the Castle through Beynac
Village Beynac at night sans tourists hoards

Castle Beynac with ramparts and archers emplacements
This particular hound was perfectly proportioned for a meeting in a 12th century castle it was a Leonburger that stood almost a meter at the shoulder. Bred to resemble the lion of the Leonburg crest in Germany it is the finest looking castle dog I’ve ever met. The owner’s friend spoke perfect English and we were allowed to meet the regal hound in the main hall of the castle and get a brief history of the breed. Unfortunately, the dog discovered we carried no snacks and the castle, fireplaces, kitchen wares, also contained no snacks and he lost interest in Beynac. I now want a castle just to justify owning one of these gigantic hounds, the wife agrees that we need a castle and more hounds. Hey, every winery needs a mascot. That night after a luxurious dinner where my apple pie was served on a piece of raw slate (yes it is a tough life) we journeyed back up the alleys and through the centuries of the now deserted village. We did most of our exploring after dark, when things quiet down and the lighting presents a much more vivid experience in these fabled places. Alleyways became hiding places for conspirators, assassins crept in obscured doorways, archers watched Castlenaud for invaders, history lurked in the shadows, enjoy the narrow alleyways and let your imagination fill the time between you and their builders.

Ancient lanterns hang in the caste with dim light now provided by electricity, swords are at the ready by the table.
Castle Beynac a bucket list must for travelers and history buffs. 

16th century canon at Castlenaud

Trebuchet at Castlenaud
The following morning we walked three kilometers to the opposing fortress of Castlenaud. After the lived in authentic feel of Beynac, Castlenaud felt very modern and unmoving. I recommend a visit to Castlenaud first as it is more of a museum of weaponry and siege fighting than how castle would feel like to visit in the 1300’s. Rare and unique weapons, including full size trebuchets and siege mortars make it a grand experience, but the lived in feel of Beynac was much more. There was even another leonburger at this castle, but plastered walls and no tapestries made it more of a recreation experience. Follow the rivers advice and visit downstream from Domme to Castlenaud and finally Beynac. After traveling a rather short distance by kayak we had followed the Dordogne and it eons of humanity from limestone cliffs and caves to medieval fortifications and now it was time to move on. 
Artillery sized crossbow with hand held models in the case

Siege mortar and full sized trebuchets complete with siege coverings. Standing where the siege machines are really put into perspective how close combat was then and how effective archers would be on the battlefield.

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