During Covid-19 “lockdown,” a virtual visit to Monpazier, a model French bastide, feels appropriate. It all seems quite secluded and safe.
I never cared much about history when I was growing up in Charlotte, North Carolina. In fact, for years I had a recurrent dream that I’d never really graduated from UNC- Chapel Hill because of a missing history credit. The surprise came to me in my dream in the form of a letter asking me to return my diploma..
My resistance to learning history has changed since I took up residence in France. I can’t get enough of it. In fact, piecing together the names and places I’ve read about are reasons I’m passionate about visiting Les Plus Beaux Villages de France. The small towns are filled with stories and relics of times past.
Monpazier: A Model Bastide
Monpazier was on my tour of Les Plus Beaux Villages last April while on my return to Uzès from the States. Little did I know that when writing about the trip a year later, the experience would feel so real. On “lockdown” for Covid-19, I can imagine myself holed up in a tiny, enclosed village in France. This town, founded around 1284 by King Edward 1st, King of England and Duke of Aquitaine, has seen some of the worse times in history — wars, invaders, the Black Plague, and typhoid.
In the mid- thirteenth century, towns like Monpazier were springing up throughout southwestern France. The organized design of streets, houses and commercial areas, known as bastides, was ideal for life in an otherwise wild and uncivilized territory. It was a near-perfect, sustainable town. Citizens had a plot to build a home and garden, access to communal fields for farming, and a marketplace to sell their goods. Towns had charters and the people generated revenue that was taxed by the overlords — a step away from feudalism of the past.
Montpazier is, perhaps, one of the most visited examples of bastides today. Much of the town is as it was in the 1300’s — the same structures, streets and passageways.
Unlike Gaelic cities such as Carcassonne and Aigues-Mortes that were built with defensive walls, most bastides were planned without fortifications. They had gates, but no walls. Commerce was the way of life, not war. That is, until the Hundred Years’ War. Then citizens found it necessary to protect themselves from invading armies, both French and English.
In Monpazier a system of major streets and alleyways run through the town. The narrow carreyroues, or ruelles, give access to the rear gardens or outbuildings — some initially served as firebreaks, or a runoff channel for rain from gabled roofs, or even a place to place garbage. Occasionally you will see rooms on little bridges across the carreyroues where homeowners, over the years, needed extra space.
The town’s marketplace, La Place des Cornières, and its arcades are the most remarkable features of Monpazier.
The market is the center of the activity for commerce and entertainment, and it remains much the same as in medieval times. What is unusual about this square is the design of the arcades. Each corner entrance facing the market has a diagonal arched opening, a cornières, that gives direct access to the central open space.
Another unusual feature of this medieval town is where the church is located. Instead of dominating the town square, the Church of St. Dominique is set off to the side. This was a town devoted to commerce, not the church. Several neighboring villages are designed the same, so it must have been a sign of the times.
Monpazier Facts and Fiction
A few tales and legends persist about Monpazier. As stunning as Monpazier is, it is not the perfect example of a bastide. Not all were built in grids. Wikipedia describes a bastide as “any town planned and built as a single unit, by a single founder”.
Another story is supposedly true. During the Hundred Years’ War, the people of Monpazier devised a plan to plunder nearby Villefranche-du-Perigord — a dastardly deed that was not uncommon during those times. When the robbers arrived in the town, it was strangely quiet. They took what they could carry and returned to Monpazier only to find their town had been burgled by the villagers of Villefranche! While bizarre, the story does have a happy ending. The residents of each town returned the things that they had taken from the other.
More than 30 buildings in Monpazier are listed “Monuments Historiques” by the French.
I visited Monpazier on a market day. Not many tourists were around so it was easy to pop in and out of the cute shops. Of course, duck for lunch was a must. This is Dordogne!
When to visit Monpazier
We may not know how or when our pandemic nightmare is over, but life will return to some level of “normal.” When it does, a perfect time to visit Monpazier is in the Spring or early summer. About an hour’s drive from Sarlat-la-Canéda, you can visit Castelnaud-la-Chapelle and Beynac on the way. Belves, a medieval town with troglodyte dwellings is nearby. Check out local events by clicking here.
- Every Thursday morning: market
- Fête des fleurs: 3rd Sunday in May
- Fête de la musique: June
- Fête Médiévale: July
Monpazier is not a big place, but plan 3-4 hours to enjoy the atmosphere. If there’s time, you might like to stop at the memorial park.
There’s a great brewery outside of town, too.
For more about Monpazier, enjoy the experience of an English transplant and recent villager: https://www.michaeldelahaye.com/monpazier.html
Categories: Around France