Château de Beynac
"Chocolat", "Jeanne d'Arc" and "The Last Duel": what do these three movies have in common? They do not have the same director, similar stories or a common cast, but are filmed, at least in part, in roughly the same location. Lasse Hallström's feel-good drama, Luc Besson's epic portrait of a heroine and Ridley Scott's historical action reel were all shot in and around the Château de Beynac in Beynac-et-Cazenac; a picturesque and award-winningly beautiful medieval village on the banks of the Dordogne River. With its unbeatable location by the water in the winding river valley, and with an impressive fortress that watches over the area from its perch atop a cliff, the municipality is a popular tourist destination. And it is easy to understand why!
Of course, the story of the castle and the village begins much earlier than during the era in which they were immortalized on the big screen. The castle's epicenter, the sturdy and heavily fortified keep, dates from the 12th century; and with its impenetrably thick walls, windowless ground floor with only a narrow entrance (and then up a retractable ladder) and corner towers that together provide 360-degree views all around, it was virtually impregnable. The castle certainly changed ownership many times over the years, but more often as a result of intrigue and family drama than in form of the spoils of a hostile occupation; the army required to penetrate this behemoth was not one many opponents were willing to sacrify.
It was the Barony of Beynac, one of four baronies in the historic province of Périgord (constituting roughly the same area as the present-day department of Dordogne), which had the Château de Beynac built to close up the river valley, gaining control over the movements of its enemies and not least to be able to estimate the merchant ships that used the river as a transport route. If the rocky cliffs of the river bank on the north side did not deter any prospective combatants, the strict aparition of the castle certainly did.
Some tried launching an attack, very few succeeded. One of those who, after a daring and persistant battle, emerged victorious over the stone mastodon was Richard the Lionheart, King of England and a close neighbor, being lord of Château de Castelnaud; located just opposite on the other side of the river. At this time, the Dordogne River was the accepted border between France and England, and fighting was widespread in the area. The castle was soon back in French hands after Lionheart died in the aftermath of being hit by an accidental crossbow dart, and then belonged to the Beynac family until the male side of the lineage died out in the 18th century. Through marriage, the castle later came into the possession of the Beaumont du Repaire family, which then took the additional name Beynac and in the future formed the marquisate Beaumont-Beynac.
In the aftermath of the hundred-year war against the English and the castle's short, albeit ignominous, subjugation under the British crown, the region was still in turmoil, now torn between divergent domestic currents. The four baronies of Périgord - Bourdeille, Biron, Beynac and Mereuille - all sought to take control of the entire province and so in while rebuilding and extending parts of the castle, a state chamber was constructed in the 14th century which oversaw many stormy meetings between them. The castle was expanded and renovated regularly during the entire ownership of the Beynac family, and to this day it boasts fantastic traces and well-preserved specimens of architecture and art spanning from the 12th to 18th centuries. After a period of neglected maintenance the Château de Beynac in 1944 received in its entirety, regarding both the exterior and interior, the label of "Monument Historique", to make sure this unique edifice is preserved for future generations.
The castle was bought in 1962 by a private individual, Lucien Grosso, who together with his wife spent most of his life dedicated to restoring the greatness of the past to the castle. Lucien died in 2008, his wife Denise in 2016, and the castle is now owned by a trustee appointed by these two zealots, who together with the French state ensures that both the restoration and the castle museum live on. The castle is a well-visited tourist destination, and we can highly recommend booking a guided tour to get the most out of your visit. Take the opportunity to really savor the magnificent view of the Dordogne Valley from the keep's roof terrace - well worth all those steps!
After a tour of the castle, a walk down to the village through winding alleys and along flower-adorned facades is recommended. The medieval city plan can be sensed through the organisation of buildings and dwellings along different castes, and eventually the road leads down to the harbor. Just before reaching the glittering surface of the Dordogne, you pass Le Petit Jardin, a classic French bistro with plenty of local flavors on its genuinely French menu. Also situated nearby is La Petite Tornelle, a family-run restaurant that offers a comforting combination of delicacies from land and ocean. And if white tablecloths and a more modern and exploratory gastronomy are what you seek, we can warmly recommend a detour to Lo Gorissado a few kilometers away in Saint-André-d'Allas.
If you are not completely tired of castles, historic architecture and fantastic views, there are plenty of pleasures to enjoy in the Dordogne. A short distance from Beynac-et-Cazenac is the site of the most visited gardens of southern France, belonging to the Château de Marqueyssac: Les Jardins Suspendus de Marqueyssac. A fantastic destination whether you are interested in gardening, design or architecture, and a relaxing walk in a prize-winning, beautiful environment. The castle also has a popular restaurant and tea room and provides space for a moment of recovery whilst out exploring the region. At Le Moulin de Trel, originally contemporary with the Château de Beynac and one of the castle's suppliers of cereals and nuts, a fantastic walnut oil is produced to this day. The mill also offers other agricultural produce in season, and the building has been carefully restored and is well worth a visit, beautifully located by a tributary of the Dordogne.
In short, there is plenty to discover here, let curiosity guide you and soak up everything this historic commune has to offer!
Video - Château de Beynac