Monday, September 10, 2012


More in the series of procrastinated vacation pictures.

As we biked around the Dordogne region, one of the things we commonly stopped to explore were fortresses.  Many and varied fortresses, some of which were quite old.  Here are just a few for you to enjoy:

Maison Forte de Reignac        
A fortified manor house, largely built in the 14th century into a cliff containing caves that have been inhabited for 20,000 years.  Quite a defensible position.  The caves go quite a way back into the cliff, and there are water sources back there.

We were amused and gratified to see how interested Nimue was in poring over the informational materials available in English, and how many little details of architecture, history, and art seemed to stick in her head.  She decided she especially liked the pise floors we saw in this room and many other sites along the trip.  (Look at how the floor is made up of a design of many small stones packed into the ground.)

This site had many little defensive platforms and other buildings built up into the cliff, like the one shown below.  I quite liked the concept of the upper-level alchemist's chamber, where one could practice one's chemistry experiments away from the prying eyes of the Inquisition (and away from anything you might not want to explode).

There was also a very interesting, but quite disturbing exhibit on instruments of medieval torture in one of the side rooms (too scary for Nim, but Chad and I took turns going in).  

Another most excellent fortified cliff dwelling was La Roque Saint-Christophe, a multi-level village built into caves in a cliff that has been inhabited since Paleolithic times.  Most of the buildings are gone, but you can see where holes have been hollowed out for beams to be attached to the edges of the caves, old markings where walls used to be, and many vertigo-inducing sets of stairs carved into the rock.  This main seam in the cliff was hundreds of feet long and several stories above the river.

Given that the cliff hangs right out over the river in spots, it is quite defensible -- all you have to do is drop rocks on invading Neanderthal, Viking, or English invaders (pick your period, as the site was inhabited for a loooong time!)  Of course, you also have to winch everything you need up the cliff. (See reconstructed winch in the background on the right side of the photo below.)

A reconstruction of what the site was like in medieval times:  The whole town is up there, including houses, workshops, a church, etc.

Other fortresses we saw were more distinctly castle-like.   The most castle-y of all castles must be Chateau de Beynac, located on a steep hill on the north bank of the Dordogne.  

This whole region saw a lot of activity during the Hundred Years' War, as the Dordogne was frequently the border between the English and the French.  Fortresses in this region were built, destroyed, shored up, taken over, improved, and rebuilt many times over, making them very fun to look at and explore.  This particular one was captured by Richard the Lionheart at one point.

Interestingly, this chateau was abandoned for all of the 19th and most of the 20th centuries, gradually falling to ruin as people pillaged the stone for other projects.  The current owners are purportedly in the middle of a hundred-year restoration project, letting tourists wander about half the castle while they live in the other half!  No interior photos allowed, but we did get to wander all over the maze-like interior and climb out on an outer wall.  One sort of wonders what it is like for the family who lives in it -- as Nim pointed out, you could play the best game of hide-and-seek ever!

The view from Chateau de Beynac.  Note Chateau de Castelnaud in the distance against the hill to the right of the photo.  We could just imagine the warring factions standing up on the walls and making faces at each other across the river.  You can actually see five major chateaux in different directions, so there were clearly lots of enemies about to spit at.

And finally, the massive Chateau de Castelnaud.  

This one has been taken over by the town it dominates, restored, and turned into a most excellent museum of medieval warfare.  We figured we would spend a bit of time here, but it ended up being most of the day, between climbing around and exploring all the nooks and crannies in the castle, studying all the armor and weapons, and watching the one set of wet weather on the trip roll in.

Like any good fortress, it was at the top of a steep hill -- everything had to be hauled up on roads like this: (photo doesn't do the grade justice, of course -- this section is probably about 25% grade -- and yes, my internal grade estimator is pretty well calibrated at this point.)

Like Beynac, this chateau is tucked into a medieval village.

What do we find up these skinny winding stairs?

Ooooh -- the crossbow room!

And chain mail.  The interesting thing about this piece is that each loop is individually riveted shut.  Lots of work went into its construction, clearly.

Will it fit?  We noticed that knights must have come in a wide variety of shapes and sizes; this was one of the few sets that looked like it would fit someone with the build of a pro cyclist.

What's in the interior courtyard?

Ah, the all-important water source.


What do we do with these fun things?  Clearly not a safe place for Mythbusters!  The museum had a jolly video inside showing one of these trebuchets hurling large stones at a big old stone wall -- definitely not something you want to be in the way of, though also not exactly easy to hit your target on the first shot.


Hmmm. Where to aim, where to aim?


The enemies across the river, perhaps.

And just so we don't end on a wildly aggressive note, here's a gratuitous wildflower shot, as they looked so nice next to the defensive rock wall.

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