Since the dawn of time, humans have set up camp in the Valley of the Vézère, a verdant corner of southwestern France where the river meanders along the base of forested limestone cliffs. While the Vézère brought an ample supply of water, the galleries it hollowed into the soft stone offered secure shelter against predators and harsh weather conditions. They also provided the canvas upon which the first stone ages artists came to express themselves. Within a radius of 25 kilometers (15 miles) from the village of Les Eyzies de Tayac-Sireuil, there are 15 major archeological sites now rated UNESCO World Heritage Sites. Half of them are painted caves, including the world-famous Lascaux.
Layers of Time
While the painted caves say much about the sophistication of the people who created them and the fauna of their time, the archeological sites are no less fascinating. The early inhabitants of what was to become the Perigord Noir (thus named for its dense forests of dark oaks) have left proofs of the existence and way of life of layers upon layers of civilizations that succeeded here. Artifacts uncovered in La Micoque indicate occupancy of the area by our Paleolithic predecessors over 400,000 years ago. Then the Neanderthals showed up around 150,000 B.C. and left abundant clues of their lifestyle in Le Moustier. And finally our direct ancestors, the Homo Sapiens settled in Cro-Magnon some 30,000 years ago. While these sites only have reference value today, as they have been thoroughly excavated since late nineteeth century and are currently closed to visitors, a number of other sites are inviting us to visit our history.
The Magdalenian Age
La Madeleine is a 250-meter (820-foot) long rock shelter complex within a 45-meter (150-foot) high cliff on the right bank of the Vézère. Its southern orientation and easy access to the water made it especially desirable to inhabitants that occupied the site from prehistoric times to the nineteenth century. Tucked within the base of the overhanging cliff, the Abri de la Madeleine (Magdalene Shelter) sits just a few meters above today’s river bank. It is recognized as having been densely occupied from five millennia, starting in 17,000 B.C., by tribes of semi-nomadic hunter-gathers.
Discovered in the mid-nineteenth century, it yielded a treasure trove of silex tools for domestic and hunting use, bone needles and jewelry, harpoons and spear tips made of antlers, many decorated with engravings of animals. So important was the find that archeologists officially named the Upper Paleolithic culture in Western Europe the Magdalenian Period. In total, some 500 pieces were found, most are on display at the Musée National de la Préhistoire in nearby Les Eyzie, with the remainder shared with museums around the world.
A Troglodyte Village
The next major occupancy of La Madeleine began in the ninth century. The local population, long settled in villages along the river in spite of a millennium of successive invasions (Romans, Visigoths and assorted barbarians) were now having to face waves of Norman river-born pirates (a.k.a Vikings). Some wisely took to the hills. In this case a long horizontal shelter carved halfway up the cliff, just upstream from the Abri. It offered a natural stronghold and an unlimited supply of stone. Over the next centuries, they set out to make it the secure troglodyte community we can still see today.
Beyond the fortified guard post at the top of a steep lane so narrow it can only be managed by one person at a time, the village stretched along a “street” protected from the abyss by a sturdy stone parapet. Already provided with a common floor and roof, the inhabitants fashioned their individual homes with external walls of rough hewn stone and internal adobe partitions. The layout of the dwellings varied, dictated by the shape of the rock, but all followed the same two level pattern. Pigs, sheep, goats and poultry were kept in the lower level “barn,” with the family living in the loft above. An area of the village was allocated to craftsmen, traces of their tools still visible.
The supplies to sustain the village came mainly by barges, and were hoisted up by a system of pulleys. There was also a kitchen garden within this fortified enclave, to provide vegetables even in times of siege. The most spectacular feature of the village, other than its panoramic view of the valley, is its gothic chapel. Built in the fourteenth century at the edge of the precipice, on the foundations of a previous Romanesque chapel, it is dedicated to Sainte Madeleine. Walking along this stretch of cliff, it is easy to imagine the vibrant life of the medieval troglodyte community. The village flourished thought the Hundred Years’ War and the Wars of Religion, then showed a marked decline in the seventeenth century. It did, however, remain inhabited until the nineteenth century.
The Cliff Manor of Reignac
A mere three kilometers (two miles) upriver from La Madeleine, La Maison Forte de Reignac offers an other important insight into the medieval life of the area. While the site is known to have been settled since Magdalenian times, and a number of its prehistoric artifacts are on display in the large underground antechamber of its original entrance, the uniqueness of the cliff manor is its medieval history.
This fourteenth century citadel emerges from the face of a sheer cliff. Built first as a stronghold for the ruler of the area, it evolved into a fortified cliff manor in the sixteenth century when windows replaced the arrow slits and a proper façade took shape. Little has changed since then, although Reignac was occupied until the nineteenth century. Today, it is the only remaining intact cliff mansion in France.
Seen from the outside, it is impossible to evaluate how large the manor really is. The bland façade with its fortified gatehouse conceals a multi-level maze of spacious chambers, including a main hall, weapons room, kitchen, dining room, several bedrooms and a guards’ dormitory. And de rigueur accommodations in any self-respecting medieval castle, prison cells and a dungeon. All the rooms are fully furnished with antiques of the period. The hour-long guided visit is well scripted and informative, well worth the steep climb from the valley-floor parking lot.
La Grotte du Grand Roc
Another cave not to be missed while in the area has nothing to do with either our stone-age or medieval forbearers. Rather, it is a gift from nature. Just five kilometers (three miles) from Les Eyzies, and once again halfway up a cliff overlooking the Valley of the Vezere, La Grotte du Grand Roc is a narrow, winding fairy grotto filled with thousands of small stalactites hanging from its ceiling and stalagmites rising toward them, in the most improbable shapes. A few of them have connected to form columns, but mainly they display an amazing array of eccentric rock formations. In case you are wondering, eccentric rock formations have to do with the velocity of the dripping droplets of calcite-laden water and how they land on the floor, projecting sediments randomly in all directions. They must have done it just right in Grand Roc, because the cave is filled with star and spike-shaped concretions that defy gravity and strain the limit of imagination!
The guided visit is lead by a geologist and take about an hour, I think. Time seems to stand still in this surreal environment.
Good to Know
- Getting There – Les Eyzies de Tayac-Sireuil is located 5.5 hours by car southwest of Paris, 2.5 hours northeast of Bordeaux and 2.5 hours north of Toulouse. Nearest commercial airports are Brive Vallee Dordogne Airport, 55 minutes northeast and Bergerac Dordogne Perigord Airport, one and a half hour west of Les Eyzies.
- Getting Around – All these and several other remarkable sites are within a few kilometers of each other. Unless you are an avid hiker or cyclist, a car is necessary to get around.
- Visiting – Village de la Madeleine 20260 Tursac, Dordogne, France. Contact: e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org. Tel. +33 (0) 5 53 46 36 88. Maison Forte de Reignac – 20360 Tursac, Dordogne, France. Contact: e-mail email@example.com. Tel. +33 (0) 5 53 50 67 28. Grotte du Grand Roc – 24620 Les Eyzies de Tayac, Dordogne, France. Contact: e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org. Tel. +33 (0) 5 53 06 92 70. All three sites are open year-round. Opening hours vary with the seasons and can be found on their individual websites.
- Staying There – There are lodging options to suit all tastes and budgets within easy access to all the main sites of the Vézère Valley. We opted for the Chateau la Fleunie, a fully restored medieval castle turned three star boutique hotel in for its bucolic setting and superb gourmet restaurant in Condat-sur-Vézère.