This morning The Smiths wrote a lovely post about their experiences in France and I thoroughly enjoyed reading it. They reminded me of my trip to the Dordogne last summer with Mr Thrifty. As a French teacher I was lucky enough to be given a British Council grant for an immersion course to refresh my language, but we managed to have a great holiday too - how's that for frugal living? We paid for hotel (cheap ones) stays for a couple of days either side of the course and drove down to the Dordogne very slowly. It was delightful. This is an area that I didn't know although it is apparently extremely popular with the British.
The trip included lots of cultural excursions including the famous caves at Lascaux with their amazing paintings showing evidence of prehistoric settlements:
You can find a history here if you would like to know more:
The life of the Celts (Gauls as they were then known) was disrupted by the arrival of the Romans. In 56 BC, they moved into the Dordogne under Publius Crassus, a lieutenant of Caesar, and rapidly conquered the Gauls.
In AD 16 Aquitaine was born, as Aquitania, covering a large part of South West France. The fertile land rapidly attracted new Roman settlers, who brought more advanced agricultural techniques to the region, and constructed sophisticated towns and cities.
The Romans also brought their language and culture to the Dordogne, and introduced the first vines to the region. The wine growing flourishes today with some of France's most famous wines coming from the area - we were more than happy to taste them whilst we were there - in the spirit of cultural discovery of course. It is also an area rich in culinary delights.
Constant attacks on all fronts weakened the Roman empire, and these intensified after about 300 years of occupation. Various tribes from eastern europe invaded the region, constantly attempting to take the fertile lands from the Roman occupiers. The Vandals and Visigoths were the most successful at displacing the Romans. Many of the fine villas and towns that had been established were destroyed, and new towns started to be developed with defensive walls and fortifications. There are many examples of fortified towns to be seen in the Dordogne region. The pictures below and right are Sarlat, a charming town which we wandered around one evening watching street performers and sampling local delicacies.
The Vandals and Visigoths had a short lived victory, because by the beginning of the 6th century they too were defeated by the Francs. The Moors from the south were soon to follow, and took control of the area in the eighth century, before being themselves defeated. This was a tumultuous time of change in the Dordogne region of France, with Charlemagne expanding the boundaries further. The Vikings then invaded from the north during the 10th century, burning villages and destroying everything else in their path as they moved along the Dordogne and Isle rivers.
The Vikings too were eventually repelled. As part of the repulsion of the Vikings, four ‘baronies’ were established – Beynac, Biron, Mareuil and Bourdeilles. This provided the backdrop for much of what happened in the region over the following centuries, with powerful central families controlling much of the Dordogne.
During the Middle Ages, Eleanor of Aquitaine was next to cause problems in the area. She inherited much of Aquitaine, and married the King of France, Louis VII. But this marriage was annulled after 15 years, and Eleanor married Henry Plantagenet. Henry then became king of England, and a large part of France thus fell under English rule. Not surprisingly this caused some tensions! The problem was to cause rivalries that lasted hundreds of years. The problem was compounded when Eleanor and Henry had a troublesome son – Richard the Lionheart. When King Henry died, Richard inherited the throne of England and all its French lands.
In 1328, following the deaths of the 3 sons of Philippe le Bel, the French selected Philippe Count of Valois to be king, in place of Edward III. Edward III was the king of England and was also the nephew of the deceased French king.
Later, things got worse still, and in 1337 Philippe VI ordered that the lands of Aquitaine be taken from the English. In 1340 Edward III declared himself King of France. Thus the Hundred Years War began. During the Hundred Years war there were numerous ‘famous’ battles including the Battle of Agincourt in 1415. The war was all but lost for the French, and it was agreed that Henry V was the heir to the French throne. But then Henry V died unexpectedly, leaving only a baby as his heir.
Soon after the young Joan of Arc appeared on the scene and remotivated the French king – now Charles VII – and his armies. It was in 1451 at the Battle of Castillon the English were finally defeated (a battle now spectacularly recreated each year for the enjoyment of tourists).
The 16th century saw further troubles, with numerous sieges, battles and unlimited cruelty during the Religious Wars (between the catholics and the protestants) that ravaged the region. Several massacres of entire towns took place, and much of the earlier heritage of the Dordogne was destroyed. It was only in 1598, when the Edict of Nantes granted certain freedoms to the protestants, that the battles came to an end.
The 17th and 18th Centuries were hard times. Centuries of battles weakened the region, the Black death was rampant, and there were many years in which the harvests were poor. Food shortages, price rises and falling wages all made life very difficult for the poor, while the rich appeared to get ever richer, based in part on a series of unpopular taxes. Meanwhile the region experienced enormous population growth, further compounding the problems. It is hard to imagine the desperation of a people who can simply see no escape from the terrible poverty, the high mortality rate and the daily struggle to survive. The final straw was the imposition of a heavy salt tax on the region, and many people were living in constant destitution, virtually enslaved to the landowners and state.
This poverty also encouraged bands of ‘pirates’ to cross the countryside, pillaging villages as they went. The villagers were especially aggrieved that the landowners, despite receiving large amounts of tax, were unable to prevent these attacks. This was more than could be tolerated and in 1594 there was a peasant revolt, touching much of the region between Bergerac and Sarlat.
A small victory was obtained, with a slight lifting of the taxes, but the victory was short-lived and for many years there were frequent uprisings against the landowners, almost always met with excessive force and reprisals. The revolts usually pitted peasants armed with pitchforks and agricultural implements against much better armed forces, so the outcome was not surprising. These uprisings continued more or less sporadically until the time of the French Revolution in 1789.
So you see, an area rich in history and pre-history and overflowing with French culture. It is well worth a visit. I particularly enjoyed a trip to the village of Beynac-et-Cazenac where some of the scenes from one of my all time favourite films were shot:
Beynac-et-Cazenac is utterly charming and I was spell-bound.
The trailer from Chocolat shows Juliette Binoche walking up the road of the town at the beginning of the film:
....which reminds me, I still have my Secret Sister chocolate to enjoy - thank you Justine.
Love Mrs Thrifty