This was written in the Dordogne, but, because Internet cafes were difficult to find, it was posted from California.
The Dordogne Valley, with whole towns seemingly carved out of the steep limestone cliffs flanking the river, is stunning whether viewed from a car or a bike, but perhaps the best way to appreciate the scenery is from a boat. The river provides the vantage point of traveling the boundary that, during The Hundred Years War, separated French territory from the English. The Beynac boat tour offers an ideal way to see the French and English castles that faced each other across the river banks. In two kilometers, there are five castles: Fayrac, Castelnaud, Marqueyssac, Beynac and Milandes.
We wished we'd had time to explore Castelnaud and its museum of medieval weaponry, built in the 1400s and refurbished over the past 35 years; and Milandes, owned by American Josephine Baker who raised twelve children of different nationalities there, but we had time only to see Beynac Castle.
We found a little cafe in town where we had the only unpleasant encounter during the whole trip. Usually restaurants are happy to supply, for free, a chilled carafe of water with two glasses. This man, though, said--No carafes d'eau--and pointed to a sign on the wall that prohibited bringing in your own drinks. I put my water bottle back in my purse. After reprimanding us, the owner smiled and asked what we'd like to drink with our meal. He seemed surprised when we said we wanted nothing.
Despite the unpleasantness of the owner, David and I enjoyed our meal before we started arguing about how to reach Beynac Castle itself. He wanted to hike twenty minutes through town and up a relatively steep hill, while I preferred to drive. By this time on our vacation, my whole body, not just my feet, ached. I tried to save energy for the sites themselves rather than expend energy getting to them. David finally agreed with me, and we drove up and up and up to park, free, just a few hundred yards from the castle itself.
David's photo of Beynac Castle
We paid 7.65 each for tickets and an English-language brochure (There are no free brochures.) describing the property. Beynac Castle, built in the 12th and 13th centuries, and owned by the English—Richard the Lionheart from 1189-1199—and the French, is now a historic monument that is privately owned.
We were impressed by the huge rooms, a floor made of pise, paving made of stones resembling teeth which are nailed into the floor bed, and a stunning spiral staircase, but it was the view from the top level keeps and terraces which took our breath away. At 450 feet above the river, the vista of river and valley was one of the most beautiful we'd seen. It was obvious that the owners of these castles, who built atop the highest cliffs, would have had no difficulty seeing approaching enemies.
The view from the top.
In order to see where the peasants lived, we moved on to La Roque-Gageac, a town so picture-perfect it's difficult to believe it's not a set for a Disney theme park. The oatmeal-colored buildings cling to the cliff, seemingly protected by an escarpment, and there's only one way to reach them—by going up.
The tourist office gave us a map directing us to climb a staircase which led to a tropical garden, possible because of the micro-climates existing in this part of France; a lovely rustic church; the home of a long-time resident of La Roque; and troglodyte caves.
Finishing up our visit by sitting in a outdoor cafe, eating our ice cream cones while staring at this village ranked one of the prettiest in France, was a great way to end the day.
The 50-minute Gabarres de Beynac river tour, 7.50 euros, departs from the dock located near the free public parking area in town.
From the town of Beynac, you can walk or drive to the castle. The tourist office will provide you with a map and directions.
Perhaps because it was not prime tourist season, parking was not a problem in either Beynac or La Roque-Gageac. Evidently the towns are doing their best, though, to encourage visitors because parking was free in both locations.