As you drive west down the D703 from Sarlat the Dordogne valley widens into a flat plain with ridges of hills roughly to the north and the south. The Dordogne meanders in broad sweeps through it. Off to your left is a chateau perched on a commanding promontory. The road bears right and you pass under a railway bridge before bearing left again. And there, hugging the steep northern bank, is the Chateau de Beynac. It is, in a word, stunning. I could come up with an extensive list of adjectives in a futile endeavour to describe it, but words simply won’t do it justice; well, I don’t think that those I have at my disposal will. You’ll just have to see for yourself.
The first time I set eyes on Beynac was on a chilly, bright February afternoon in 2009. Mo, Gina and I were heading to Sainte-Foy-La-Grande on our way back from a glorious day exploring the National Prehistoric Museum in Les Eyzies and the Lascaux caves. All three of us breathed a heartfelt “Wow!” , and I made myself a promise to stop to explore it one day.
It was 15 months before I was able to to keep this promise to myself. This Easter, on another beautiful day, Mo, my father and I drove east to Beynac (an hour-and-a-half keeping within the speed limit). It was worth the wait.
We were lucky with our timing. Easter had come and gone and the French school holiday had not yet started. This meant that there were a few people around, but the town was by no means thronged with tourists. We parked in the car park on the western side of the town, adjacent to the Dordogne. The tourism office is helpfully situated no more than 100 yards away. Somewhat less than helpfully it was closed, in spite of the opening times posted on the door! However, a reasonable stack of guidebooks had been left outside the door.
In Beynac there is really only one way to go, and we didn’t need the guidebook to show us. You head up. And up. And up. And then, just when you think that you’re there, you brace yourself for the last few feet. The road is narrow. A little wider than a donkey-cart. It is cobbled, smooth and slightly treacherous. The engineering of the road is a marvel, with runnels on both sides – I’m guessing for water or, perhaps, wheels. There are shallow drains that run diagonally across the road every so often. I am awestruck by the skill and work that went into creating it. It has withstood centuries of daily use and wars. It is in much better shape than contemporary roads built with all sorts of heavy equipment.
The houses that line the road are petite. They are lovingly cared for and definitely homes. That sounds silly, but it isn’t. The houses in Beynac are a remarkable contrast with those in Rocamadour, which has been turned into a medieval theme park with roving minstrels and waiters all wearing synthetic period costumes.
I think that it is this that makes Beynac so beautiful. This is without doubt a town for which people have fought (and died). Yes, Richard the Lionheart slept here having seized and held the castle for 10 years at the end of the Hundred Years war. But to me its beauty lies in the fact that while it is inevitably a highlight for tourists there are many people who call it home.