One of the biggest challenges facing the 80 million visitors arriving in France each year is deciding where to go and what to see. The country is big, nearly the size of Oregon, Washington, and most of Idaho, combined, but with a far higher density of population, historic and prehistoric sites, cities, villages, and natural wonders.
As challenges go, though, this particular challenge is not as daunting as it might seem because, as I’ve noted elsewhere, it’s hard to go wrong when you’re in France. Not that there aren’t seedy and dangerous neighborhoods in the cities. But they’re hard to stumble into, and as the world’s number one tourist destination, the French do a great job of keeping their visitors safe, supremely satisfied, and very well fed.
If your French journey should take you to the Dordogne Valley, bring lots of memory cards, because there is almost nothing to see there that’s not postcard-perfect. The ancient city of Beynac-et-Cazenac is one of many small villages built between the towering limestone cliffs of the valley walls and the meandering river. Saying that Beynac is a picturesque village is an unjust understatement.
Beynac preserves the look and feel of the medieval era that gave it birth. For those of us that grew up reading Sir Walter Sclott, Tolkien, T.H. White, and so many others, Beynac brings childhood fantasies to life.
Beynac has been the backdrop for films, including Luc Besson’s Joan of Arc. I’m sure the real Joan would have felt quite at home in modern Beynac. If much has changed there since she was busy flummoxing the English, it’s not obvious to a casual visitor.
One of the highlights of my recent visit to Beynac was finding a trail on the cliff top near the chateau that wound its way along the limestone ridge above the Dordogne river. The trailhead was not well marked, but the trail is well maintained and easy to follow down through an oak forest back to the valley floor on the east side of the town.
Not far from the cliff top, the trail passed by some caves in the sheer limestone wall of the cliff face. I ducked into a couple of them, but with no light I couldn’t tell how deep they were. Later, I met a young man from the village that told us the caves had been used by the villagers in the late thirties to hide from German soldiers that had occupied the town. The caves were apparently deep enough to keep them hidden and safe for the duration of the occupation.
If you visit Beynac, head east from the main entrance to the chateau. There are posts with yellow bands that indicate where the trail begins. Follow these to the view point (point de view), and you’ll see the trail descending to an eclectic wooden house. The trail appears to lead only to the private entrance to the house, but it continues past and into the woods beyond, winding downward for about a mile until it meets an narrow paved road that descends back to Beynac village.
Beynac chateau was the seat of one of the four baronies of the Perigord region. It was built in the 12th century. Much intrigue surrounded the chateau, and the surrounding valley in its early years, since many of the battles of the Hundred Years War between France and England were fought nearby. Castelnaud, just 2 miles to the south, lies across the river and was the English counterpart to Beynac chateau.
The fortifications and ramparts of both chateaux made them nearly impregnable to enemy attacks, but they were not invulnerable to betrayal and trickery. Both chateau are open to the public and many of the stories surrounding their long rivalry are told there in French and English. Any visit to Beynac-et-Casenac must include entry to both chateau, admission is between 6 and 8 Euros for adults.
Beynac-et-Cazenac is one of many fond memories of the Dordogne Valley. It’s high on my list of villages where I’d eventually like to own property. It’s close to many of the most scenic parts of the valley, and has good access to Sarlat-le-Caneda, the nearest town of any size. Put it near the top of your must-see-in-France list!