Journey to Périgord

Recently, Jehan du Lac had the opportunity to "go home" to Périgord, his native province. He was, of course, a largely invisible presence but his commentary, emotions, and memories were a vivid part of the experience. The following are photos from a recent twentieth century journey, informed by a sixteenth century sensibility.

La Rochelle

Jehan finds a great comfort in city walls, and even with the boom of cannon in his ears there is probably no place on earth that conveys to him a sense of comfort and security more than La Rochelle. Most of the walls are down now, of course -- a thing Jehan find totally bizarre about modern cities. The fact of walls creates communal space, the very essence of civilization. They are a sign of a town's pride and independence. It is within the walls that wealth is created, that the ordering of human life according to the will of God is so sharply contested. The wars of his age were wars for the control of cities, and Jehan has spent a great deal of his life both inside and outside their walls in the struggle.

La Rochelle is in the Aunis region, which is not exactly Périgord, but is key to the French Southwest. Its prominence as a stronghold made it the de facto capital of the Protestant community in France for almost two centuries. It became a refuge in the aftermath of the St. Bartholomew's Day massacre (1572), and was besieged for refusing to admit the royal governor in '73. Jehan has spent many long, cold, rainy hours on the parapets looking out toward the sea, with its inscrutable vastness. Lucky for him, he didn't live to see Cardinal Richilieu's dike across the harbor starve the town into submission in 1628. An amazing feat of engineering, it took 18 months to reduce the city. Of a population of 30,000 people, less than 5,000 lived to surrender. It was a crucial step in the path to absolute monarchy in France.

The statue in the Place outside the Hôtel de Ville is of Jean Guiton, the heroic mayor of La Rochelle in 1628. It was donated by the citizens of New Rochelle in the United States, which was founded by Huguenot refugees fleeing the town after the revocation of the Edict of Nantes in 1685.

St. Emilion

St. Emilion is named for a hermit who settled here in the 8th century. The church in the center of town is carved from the living rock around the grotto where the hermit made his home. As wine-lovers know, the town is renowned for its soft, exquisite claret which includes such great names as Château Petrus. Part of the Bordeaux region, it was under Catholic control in the wars of religion. Protestants often harried and destroyed the outlaying vineyards in an attempt to cut the economic lifeblood of Bordeaux. It is a soft and gentle countryside, and even Jehan has to wince now at the thought of tramping through it on a warhorse, hacking and burning...

Montaigne's Tower

Michel Eyquem de Montaigne might have been an exceptional man in any century, but in the 16th century it must have been even more of an achievement to be a rational, tolerant, sceptic with a fine sense of judgement in an age of hatred, intolerance and savagery. He wrote that it was setting a high price on one's own opinions to burn someone else for them. His Essais paint the picture of someone with whom you would still like to sit and have a friendly after-dinner conversation over a good bottle of the local wine. A Catholic himself, he got on well with both his Protestant and Catholic neighbors (which included Jehan's uncle Raimond), and was a faithful supporter of Henri de Navarre. In fact, Navarre stopped at his house on his way back from his great victory at Coutras. Most of the original chateau burnt in 1865, but the tower which housed Montaigne's library survived. He describes it in his Essais, and talks about the Latin and Greek quotations he had carved into the roof beams to inspire him.


The Battle of Coutras in 1587 was a stunning Protestant victory.  Henri IV made the quip that after Coutras, no one could say that the Protestants didn't know how to win a battle. There is little recognizable of the place where Jehan and his well-worn companions made their charge against a much larger host, but you can sense its outlines. Coutras is still a town at the junction of the Isle and the Dronne rivers, but the little pavilion in the photo (located near the Mairie) is all that is left of the chateau that used to stand on this high ground between the two rivers. The church spire is still the same one whose bell rang for the battle, but one has to work hard to see through buildings to the imagine the glittering Catholic army stretched out along the road that approaches the town...


The chateau at Monbazillac is quite impressive to Jehan's eyes. The latest thing in elegant design, it was built in 1550. Even then it was famous for its sweet white wine, which became particularly popular with the Dutch (fellow Protestant entrepreneurs).

Nobles with the rights of high justice on their domains could hold religious services on their own estates even when they were banned in public. The Seigneurs de Monbazillac protected refugee Protestant pastors, and the chateau was used for religious meetings and consistories. The Périgord was heavily Protestant, a fact reflected in the Salle de Protestantisme in the chateau today, where various artifacts such as maps, engravings, letters, medals, and personal mementos of the Protestant movement are preserved. The design on the copper warming pan shows the "Huguenot cross" and a dove, popular Protestant symbols.

And if you should ever choose to sojourn in the area, the nearby guest house of La Rouquette, set amongst the vineyards of Monbazillac, is absolutely delightful, reasonably priced, and possessed of a very gracious hostess. (24240 Monbazillac Dordogne, France, tel. #05 53 58 30 60).

St. Foy-la-Grande

St. Foy is an old bastide town on the banks of the Dordogne River. It and the nearby town of Bergerac were key to Protestant control of the central Dordogne Valley in the 16th century. After the Edict of Nantes in 1598 is was one of four "free royal towns" given to the Protestants.

A bastide is a fortified town built on a characteristic grid pattern -- they were built all over this region from the 13th to 15th centuries to provide protection to the ordinary people in the wars between England and France. Bastides typically have a central square with an covered market and a fortified church. The houses surrounding the square have colonnades on the ground floor, with shops inside. The shop owners, families, and apprentices lived on the floors above.

The quay below the ramparts along the river is a peaceful spot in the evening. The air is alive with swallows, the water makes it slow and inexorable way to the sea, and the gently rolling hillsides stretch away like the curves of a well-beloved woman.


Sarlat is a more-or-less intact medieval town in a good state of preservation. It was a prosperous Protestant town in the 16th century, but it was saved from modern development in the 19th and 20th centuries as rail and highway trade routes abandoned it. A government program in the 1960's allowed the old buildings to be maintained and restored instead of replaced with cheaper modern ones -- the fate of many lovely old places. The town is built of a golden limestone, with steep, twisty streets, half-timbered buildings, archways, little corner staircases... Jehan does not expect to see flowerpots spilling from every balcony, but the effect is certainly charming.

Sarlat was the home of La Boëtie, Montaigne's dearest friend. La Boëtie died fairly young, and Montaigne mourned for him the rest of his life.



Jehan can sometimes be a tedious travelling companion -- he is constantly thinking of artillery and fortifications. The Périgord is dotted with chateaux, the relics of centuries as a war zone, but a picturesque old place does not particularly impress him. A strategic location draws his admiration, and a family with an ancient lineage gets his respect. As for the rest, he's likely to think that an old pile could use a few improvements. His taste in country houses runs to graceful Renaissance manors like Monbazillac, and his taste in fortifications runs to artillery-proof citadels like Lille (built after his time, but one he could recognize as the best of its kind).

Beynac certainly has a strategic location. Perched on a cliff in a cingle of the Dordogne (a loop in the river), it commands the countryside around. It was a possession of Richard Coeur-de-Lion, and his routier captain Mercadier who held it for him is still remembered with hostility by the locals. It was rebuilt in 1236 by the barons of Beynac, but has been added onto over the centuries. Just across the river is its heriditary enemy, Castelnaud. During the Hundred Years War the Dordogne River was the frontier between France and England, and through a good part of that time Beynac stood on the French side and Castelnaud on the English side. During the Wars of Religion, both Beynac and Castelnaud were held by the Protestants, and sealed off the valley from the Catholics. Beynac was the meeting place of the estates of Périgord, and the banners of the four great baronies of the province still hang in the great hall.


The chateaux and bastides of Perigord have a great many natural advantages, even if the fortifications are a little old-fashioned to Jehan's eyes (he spent enough time throwing up makeshift "fortifications à la Huguenotte" around medieval town walls in his day). The well-preserved bastide town of Domme was built in the 13th century and had a reputation for being impregnable (although like everywhere else in the region, it changed hands several times during the Hundred Years War). Besides its thick walls and gates, it is built at the top of a cliff, and one side of the ramparts has a sheer drop down to the river. It was captured for the Protestants in 1588 by Henri de Navarre's captain, Geoffrey de Vivans. The Protestants made a noisy demonstration outside the main gates and while the defenders were distracted, 30 men scaled the cliff in the dark, climbed over the wall, overpowered the watch, and opened the gates from the inside. Vivans finally sold the town back to the Catholics in 1592, but he blew up the church (since restored) before leaving.

Underneath the market is an entrance to the Grottes de Domme -- stunningly beautiful caverns full of fantastic stalagmites and stalactites. Apparently the populace took refuge here during times of trouble.


Cahors is not in the Périgord, but in Quercy, a little to the South. It was primarily a Catholic town in the 16th century. It was captured briefly by Henri de Navarre in 1580, in a spectacular campaign involving fierce house-to-house fighting. He stayed one night in a house that still bears his name. It is a lovely town that has existed since Roman times in a bend of the Lot River, surrounded on three sides by the water. It is famous for its "black wine." It was home to a medieval university, a pope (John XXII), and the hero of the Third Republic, Leon Gambetta. The Pont Valentré, part of the town's early fortifications, is still one of its notable features. The cloisters around the Eglise St. Etienne are still beautiful, although they show the ravages of the religious wars and the Revolution, when many of their statues and decorations were defaced.

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