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On Reflection - Visit Brantome in Dordogne

On Reflection - Visit Brantome in Dordogne

We recently visited the Vallée de la Dronne to discover the fascinating story of Brantôme – one of northern Dordogne’s star attractions... 



For over a thousand years the riverside town of Brantôme has been perfecting the art of extending a warm welcome to travellers. Most of today’s visitors come to see for themselves the much photographed site, shimmering amid the waters of the River Dronne, which inspired French Prime Minister Raymond Poincaré (during an official visit in 1913) to coin the inevitable subtitle of ‘la Venise du Périgord’.

Early man, however, had very different priorities when he first chose to settle here. In uncertain times the security of an island sheltered by a nearby limestone escarpment (whose curving embrace had been eroded by the now innocent looking river) made this a very desirable location. As a bonus, gushing from the base of the rock face was a freshwater spring, a miraculous feature which made this a place of early pagan worship. The ‘fountain of the rock’ is today hidden away behind Brantôme’s vast Benedictine abbey, founded in AD769 when Frankish King Charlemagne visited to donate relics of Saint Sicaire, one of the innocent children massacred by Herod. Word soon spread, whereupon Brantôme suddenly found itself an important destination of holy pilgrimage. However, it would also attract the attention of less welcome visitors, including waterborne Viking raiders, who sacked the village and decimated the abbey in 848 and again in 857. During these and subsequent troubled times, the ancient caves surrounding the spring provided the monks with shelter along with limestone with which to rebuild the abbey. During the 11th century they quarried ever deeper into the rocks to enlarge the abbey and accommodate the increasing numbers of pilgrims bound for Santiago de Compostela on the Via Lemovicensis (running between Vézelay and the Pyrenees, with Brantôme almost exactly at its mid-point).

Against all odds, the four storey clocher (the oldest such bell tower in all France) still survives from this period, and guided tours of the abbey offered by the tourist office reveal to summer visitors the tower’s innermost secrets. After a grounding in how the abbey’s long history is intimately linked to that of the town itself, the tour moves via the 15th century chapter house to the dark and cavernous abbey-église interior, which still contains the precious relics brought here a thousand years ago by Charlemagne. At this point, it’s worth glancing upwards at the stone vaults poised far above the nave by way of mental preparation for climbing the time-worn stone steps of a spiral staircase which will take you high among the vast roof timbers of the nave. When you emerge you’ll also find yourself face-to-face with the normally hidden, roughly finished upper surfaces of the Gothic stone vaults which replaced cupola-style domes during the 15th century.


Now comes the highlight of the tour. The tower itself is separate from the main body of the abbey (making it technically a campanile), and was partly constructed directly above the limestone caves. This meant distributing the colossal weight of the tower on a huge, domed stone vault, something you’ll discover at close hand, since the tour now takes you right underneath it. If this doesn’t unnerve you, then what follows will test your head for heights instead. After climbing more stone steps, first to a parapet on the nave roof and then to transfer to the tower just below the bell chamber, you’ll be rewarded with views through the Romanesque-arched masonry which are already impressive, and about to get even more so.

It’s best not to look down on the last stage of the climb, via an open-tread timber staircase clinging precariously to the tower’s rear wall (the stonework has no openings since it sits against rock face). Keep both your nerve and your legs and this rite of passage will bring you to the bell chamber, where two venerable bronze bells with a combined weight of around two tonnes are suspended on a forest of weathered timbers. Soaring high above them is the interior of the famous square spire constructed entirely in stone – a clear symbol of wealth and prestige in a time when lesser structures typically employed slates or tiles. After threading your way carefully between the timbers you’ll finally get to enjoy the definitive overview of the abbey roof, the town encircled by the River Dronne and beyond it the ancient forests of northern Dordogne.

On the way back down to the safety of terra-firma, you can ponder the great wealth generated by visiting pilgrims which not only benefited the abbey, but also financed the construction of Angoulême’s first cathedral, consecrated in 1017. While you’re here it’s also worth visiting the grottoes (at the rear of the abbey), the most impressive of which contains huge 15th century bas-relief carvings of the Last Judgement, the Crucifixion, etc. In another cave, you’ll discover the ancient spring, still flowing as forcefully as ever from the base of the rocks.

Over the centuries Brantôme witnessed both turmoil and prosperity, the rich legacy of which contributed to this fascinating place gaining official recognition as one of the ‘Plus Beaux Détours de France’. Apart from the circular Tour St Roch and the Porte des Réformes gateway at either end of the abbey, a bastion-like tower near the 18th century former hospital and some medieval stonework incorporated into grander private homes along the Quai Bertin, little survives of the fortifications which once protected the town from attack. Signs of prosperity, on the other hand, are everywhere, particularly (and not surprisingly) in the area around the abbey. The Jardin des Moines is today more park than garden, with mature magnolias and other decorative trees, but three elegant 16th century Renaissance reposoirs (shelters) and a nearby pavilion from the same period tell of former glories. In order to reach his beloved gardens, Abbot Pierre de Mareuil spanned the river with the graceful multi-arched Pont à Coudé (or elbow bridge) which has since become one of Brantôme’s best-known features.

Beside the bridge are a former water-mill (now an elegant hotel restaurant) and a broad weir, above which is the departure point for passenger-boat river cruises. Spanning the river immediately in front of the abbey is the Pont Coudé’s similarly elegant counterpart, beside which on the opposite riverbank stands the former Eglise Notre-Dame, newly restored to provide the Office de Tourisme with a new home. Beyond lies the cheerful historic heart of Brantôme, which, as countless visitors continue to discover, is a joy to explore.

Don’t miss...

Brantôme Abbey Church and Bell Tower: Guided visits (in French but with English transcription) run several times daily April - October, adult €6-50. Reserve your place at the Tourist Office. tel: 05 53 05 80 63.

Abbaye Grottes & Musée Fernand Desmoulin:
Troglodytic caves cut into the limestone cliffs, with 16th century bas-relief carvings, plus the miraculous fountain of St Sicarius, upon which the monastery and the town of Brantôme once relied.
The artistic works of Fernand Desmoulin (1853-1914), created while under the influence of spiritualism, are at times bizarre, but the extraordinary exhibition within the Abbey buildings is worth visiting. Combined entry: adults €4-50, opening times vary. Details

Bateau Promenade: Gentle cruises lasting around 50 minutes on an electric powered boat, with commentary in English and French. Departure from Le Pont Coudé. Tel: 05 53 04 74 71

L’Arche de Noë: Punt-style trips with commentary in French, departing from the Place du Marché. Tel: 09 79 71 17 16

Water-jousting, in front of the abbey from 9pm on Fridays throughout August.

Local producers’ markets Tuesday mornings and Friday evenings from 5pm until 10 September. 


Factfile - SIGHTS NEARBY...

Château de Bourdeilles (9.2km)

Perched above the Dronne river and dominating this pretty village, there are actually two chateaux to explore on the same site, one medieval and one Renaissance (known for its exceptional furniture collections), plus fine Renaissance gardens. Adults €7, child €4-50, opening times vary, audioguide available in English.
Details Night markets in Bourdeilles: Weds 7, 14, and 21 Aug


La Grotte de Villars (13km)

Discovered by local potholers in 1953, Périgord’s largest network of natural caves (13km so far explored) were formed by an underground river. Guided tours reveal a fantastic world of stalactites and stalagmites, plus original prehistoric cave paintings of horses and bison. There’s also a Nature and Prehistory Garden designed to allow families to have fun while discovering the way of life of early man, plus a son et lumière show for each visit.
Guided visits last 45min (+ 20min video presentation). Not wheelchair accessible, and take warm clothing, as underground temp is 13C. Open daily 1 Apr - 11 Nov. Details


Published in Living Magazine 2013 © All Rights Reserved.