Martin Walker writes mystery books set in a fictional town in the Dordogne called St. Denis featuring local police chief Benoit ‘Bruno’ Courreges, perhaps modeled on Le Bugue and its police chief. I had read several of these books before a recent visit to the Dordogne where we stayed with friends in a cottage in the abbey town of Cadouin. Here they are in the upper window of our little cottage.
It was fun to visit the market at St. Cyprien and buy the local Monbazillac wine and walnut liquor we had read about in the novels. (The wine is sweet and not something we will buy again, but the walnut liquor is distinctive and lovely.) There is a great deal of marketing and cooking in the novels and we felt we were walking in Bruno’s foot steps as we stocked up the cottage.
Although there were restaurants in Cadouin, it was such a pleasure to shop in the markets for the fabulous local cheeses, produce, foie gras, and meats and to eat in our own little garden.
I had never heard of ‘night markets’ until I read Walker’s mysteries. In July and August, towns in the region set up tables in their town squares, invite vendors to sell a variety of local foods, and have a band for dancing. It sound like great fun but everyone we asked including the local tourist office said, ‘oh they are great but they are over at the end of August.’ I dug around on the internet and managed to unearth one only a few kilometers from Cadouin; the last market of the season in Beaumont du Perigord was on Tuesday, September 5.
People are expected to bring their own plates, glasses and silverware which we didn’t know, but the vendors were gracious and made sure we had plastic cups for the wine and paper plates and napkins for the food. Many of the locals had elaborate picnic hampers with pottery plates and glasses for wine.
The Dordogne is full of British expats, who sometimes refer to it as Dordogneshire, and we were made welcome at one of their tables which made it easy on us as our French is not sufficient for social conversation. Our group included British locals and visitors from Australia; I don’t think I have ever met an unpleasant Australian in our travels and this was no exception, they were delightful. We finished the evening in Beaumont dancing under the stars.
So we owe Martin Walker thanks for clueing us into some of the delights of the region. His most recent novel ‘The Templar’s Last Secret’ is coincidentally set partly in the ruins of a chateau that we visited on this trip. I had selected this chateau because it seemed interesting and was off the beaten tourist track and indeed there were only two or three other visitors there on the day we went. It is now fun to read Walker’s tale because I have such vivid memories of this dramatic setting including the murderous drop from the ramparts that starts the novel and the pre-historic caves underneath that figure in the story. Just a day after I posted this piece the NYT published a lovely article on Mr. Walker, Bruno and the foods of the Perigord in the Foods Section of the Wednesday paper.
The Chateau de Commarque is a half km walk through pretty woods from a parking area.
As we approached the valley of the Beaune where the chateau is situated, we could see the limestone that was so inviting to our Cro -Magnon ancestors as they made their dwellings in shallow caves and natural abris prevalent in the region.
The area where the chateau of Commarque was built is rich in archeological finds. A number of carvings of fertility figures found in this valley are in local museums and there are many caves, some yet unexplored, in the hill under the castle. There are also lots of accessible remnants of troglodyte (cave man) dwelling places.
The floor of the valley is many meters higher than it was in Cro-Magnon times and so these little nooks would have been well above the fire pits and ground level caves and shelters of that day. We are seeing the upper floors here.
The chateau was first built in the 12th century as part of the holdings of the Abbey of Sarlat by a bishop of the Commarque family. It was a military post or castrum first used to repel the Beynacs who controlled much of the area and then part of the Beynac holdings as they warred with the British during the 100 years war and later with the Catholics during subsquent religious wars. There are rumors of Templar use of the castle. The last resident Beynac lord died in 1685 and the castle was eventually abandoned and overgrown. Hubert de Commarque a descendent of the founders bought the ruins in 1968 and has been restoring the site and sponsoring archeological digs in the Cro -Magnon dwellings under the castle.
It is an awesome sight now freed from centuries of dirt and vines.
This wall is where the victim in The Templar’s Last Secret fell to her death when her terrorist companions cut her rope as she was trying to spray paint a political message on the wall. As you can see this would get the job done.
The castle above; the troglodyte caves and dwellings are below.
Access to some of the old dwellings has been opened up and items that might have been used by later dwellers placed there to give an idea of these caves as homes.
They seem surprisingly comfortable with carved benches where I assume mattresses of moss could be laid. These Troglodyte dwellings were occupied for thousands of years, from prehistoric times through medieval times.
Just outside is a seep well not unlike those we see in the US Southwest for cliff dwellings. This is the valley of the Beaune river so there is also fresh water nearby and it was undoubtedly an area rich in fish, game, wild asparagus and nuts. Our ancestors knew a good thing when they saw it.
There is a life size carving of a horse and other carvings by ancient humans in a cave deep under the castle which is not available for touring. On some of the more accessible walls there are animal carvings that have been enhanced with charcoal to make them easier to discern. I don’t know if these are ancient carvings or more recent efforts. I could not find any documentation online of their authenticity. There are ancient carved friezes in this area including the famous Cap Blanc carvings just across the valley from Commarque. These are the animals in the accessible rock faces at Commarque.
The chateau restoration has been primarily focused on stabilizing the site and making it accessible rather than reconstructing the buildings. The original chateau was wood and was replaced in the 14th century with stone. Many chateaux of this era were remodeled in the 17th or 18th centuries to make them more livable but Commarque was not remodeled before being abandoned and so gives an idea of what an authentic fortress castle of this era was like.
The chapel is fairly well conserved and easy to envision. Here I am standing in the chapel, still roofed, looking out to the bell tower facade.
Here is what the chapel interior looks like today.
The castrum included a number of houses and outbuildings. This is the remnant of one of these homes.
And here is what is left of the bakery.
This is the pathway to allow tourists to enter the great room and castle keep.
As in many castles of the era, seats are placed in the window well to allow a spot for reading or needlework with natural light.
It is possible to climb to the top of the tower to get terrific views of the countryside.
I was nervous to climb the rickety stairs so sat it out; would that I had kept to this resolve as I managed to fall down the stairs of the next fortress ruin we visited in Roquebrune Cap Martin and break my elbow for a detour through the excellent French medical system.
This is a view from the keep across the chapel and across the valley to the Chateau Laussel now in private hands. This is a valley filled with archeological wonders and stunning views. Now that Martin Walker has made it the centerpiece of his latest mystery, I suspect it will see more tourists.