Exploring Brantôme, France (Caves, Waterways, and More)
Brantôme Is One of France's Most Beautiful Villages
Brantôme is a beautiful French town situated in the Perigord region of Dordogne in southwest France. It's officially classified as one of the most beautiful villages of France, although it is more a town than a village. The old town itself is built on an island, surrounded by waterways, crossed with ancient bridges and bordered by quaint, stone houses. The streets are narrow and lined with traditional French shops and cafés and the whole town is bedecked with flowers. Brantôme is nothing if not picturesque.
But it is so much more than picturesque. Historically, it has its origins in Neolithic times when humans first inhabited its extensive caves. This was a time of the troglodytes, the cave-dwellers, but as time went on, people emerged from the caves and began to build monuments to the sky gods.
An abbey rose from the rocks; the rocks themselves became the foundations. From the earth, the people came into the air and began to build a town surrounded by water. Dwellings were made from earth fired into clay tiles, metals smelted from the stones and glass made from earth and fire. Brantôme was born.
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The Troglodytes of Brantôme en PerigordClick thumbnail to view full-size
Brantôme's Neolithic Origins
Cave dwellings are found all over the world, and in France, they often play an important role in the development of towns. Many French towns and cities have grown up around a subterranean sanctuary, sacred cave or cave temple, examples can be found in the Loire Valley, in Mescher in Gironde, Aubeterre in Charente and Puy Saint-Front, Perigueux in the Dordogne. In the early days of Christianity, the caves offered secrecy for the first preachers and refuge from persecution.
The earth has nurtured Brantôme and its human inhabitants for over 40,000 years. The waters of the river Dronne have carved out cliffs with natural caves formed from limestone rocks high on the Aquitaine plateau. The caves, enlarged by quarrying and excavations, gave shelter against the wind and rain while the fertile river teemed with fish providing food and fresh, pure water.
The Neolithic peoples lived in these caves and created the Dolmen of the Pierre Levée, sited just outside the town, from large slabs of stone forming walls and roof of a burial chamber that would have been fleshed out with earth mounded over it. Here they would have placed and revered the bones of their ancestors.
The Celts, and their mystic Druid priests, gave Brantôme its name, a combination of the Celtic words for water and rocks. A 17th-century monk of Brantôme wrote in one of his letters:
The caves of Brantôme, which were famous in pagan times as places of worship for false gods, were rendered illustrious by the presence of several persons who converted them into hermitages. These places were as well adapted as places of habitation as they were for worship and the sacrifices which, as we have said, the pagans made to their idols. And of all these such usages, traces may still be found.
You can visit the caves for a small fee, access is through the Tourist Information Office within the abbey buildings. They have plenty of notice boards with good information.
Soaring Towers and Spires of Brantôme Abbey ChurchClick thumbnail to view full-size
Religious History of Brantôme
As the people turned from the earth to the sky for their spiritual inspiration, so the caves began to represent material for the servants of God to use to climb towards the heavens, raising buildings to the glory of their new deity.
The cave of the Last Judgement bears witness to the emerging early church. Deep within the shelter of the earth and on the cave walls themselves, there are wonderful carvings that redefine dwellings as places of Christian worship.
The first abbey, built by Benedictine monks, is said to have been founded in 769 by Charlemagne, who, according to legend, donated relics of Saint Sicarius (or Sicaire), one of the infants in the Massacre of the Innocents, to the church, however, it's thought unlikely that the relics came to Brantôme before the 12th century. It is certain, however, that a Benedictine abbey existed here in 817, as it's mentioned in the acts of the council of Aix-la-Chapelle. It remains unknown whether the abbey owes its foundation to Charlemagne, Pepin the short or Pepin of Aquitaine.
The holy building grew from the rock itself, but there is very little of this is left today. The abbey was laid waste in 848 and in 857 by Vikings and again in 1465 and in 1480 after the end of the Hundred Years' War. Gradually, over time, a new abbey evolved, now away from the rocks and facing outwards towards a village growing within its shadow.
Let there be light. The abbey was built, with bell tower rising from the rock and pointing to the sky. The tower is one of the oldest and finest in France. Windows and vaults pointed heavenwards; the dark interiors were illuminated with coloured glass where light streamed into the shadows. God illuminates the darkness. Light became a symbol of God.
Pilgrims make their way to worship, on the route to Santiago de Compostela. The Middle Ages were a time of busy enterprise for Brantôme and the abbey church, belfry and cloisters remain to bear witness even now.
In the 17th and 18th centuries a grander and more secular building rose, this time, not the house of God, but the house of lay abbots. Now, it serves the town and tourists. How times change!
The spirit is made visible by the paintings by the artist, Fernand Desmoulin, a symbolist born in Javerlhac, Dordogne, in 1853. His Art Nouveau works are housed within the Abbey buildings, and embrace the popular interest in "Mesmerism" and the spirit world taking us from the here and now to a place beyond the grave. Not lost, but gone before.
Glass-Making in Brantôme
You enter the glass shop of Eric Simoni at the cliff face and find yourself in an Aladdin's cave twinkling with a thousand glass baubles hanging from the roof of the cave or objects made from glass and scattered on shelves and tables within it, all alive with light.
Glass is born of the earth and is as old as the hills. Glass exists naturally, formed when certain types of rocks are heated by volcanic eruptions, lightning strikes or fallen meteorites. Stone-age tools were made of obsidian, a natural form of glass.
The Phoenician merchants first uncovered the secrets of glass in the region of Syria around 5000 BC but it was in Egypt and Eastern Mesopotamia that the earliest man-made glass objects emerged, dating back to around 3500 BC. Glassblowing was developed sometime between 27 BC and AD 14 by Syrian craftsmen from the Sidon-Babylon area.
An ancient Roman Road, Via Lemovicensis, runs through Brantôme and it was the Romans, with their conquests, trading, road building, and effective political and economical administration who spread glass-making technology. During the reign of the emperor Augustus, glass objects began to appear throughout Italy, in France, Germany and Switzerland, even in China, shipped along the silk routes. And the Romans used clear glass to illuminate buildings in Alexandria around AD 100.
Over the centuries the craft of glass was developed: first Germany then Venice taking the lead. In 1688, a new process was developed for the production of plate glass in France and with the Industrial Revolution, glass passed from craft to manufacture.
Glass represents much more, though, than light for dwellings or trinkets for tourists, as the beautiful church windows reveal. Mary conceived the Christ child but remained a virgin and glass became symbolic of the virgin birth. God passed through Mary as light passes through glass, causing no damage, and you will often see rays of light passing through a window and entering the virgin in paintings of the immaculate conception. God is worshipped in light and glass.
Brantôme's Famous Waterways
Water, the source of life, is a symbol that is used frequently in Christianity and forms key roles in worship and art. The site of Brantôme itself was formed by the River Dronne and its natural advantages would have attracted the first humans to the site. Water that has fed the town that is now known as The Venice of the Perigord or The Venice of the Dordogne. The town is on an island, encircled by the river and linked to the outside world by five bridges
The Moulin de l'Abbaye sits in the heart of Brantôme, alongside the original mill-pond. The mill itself is wreathed in ivy, and looks out over the 16th-century Pont Coudé, or right angled bridge. Today the moulin Brantome is a restaurant and you can sit and look out over the river and bridge.
Pierre de Bourdeilles, seigneur and abbé of Brantôme, (c.1540-1614), was French soldier, historian and biographer who once lived in the Moulin de l'Abbaye. The third son of an ancient family, he was appointed abbé commandataire of Brantôme by King Henri II and today he is commemorated with a bust in the fountain of the Médicis.
The fountain of Saint Sicaire, just behind the abbey, is said to have healing powers, especially to improve fertility and cure the illnesses of children.
You can enjoy the water around Brantôme by taking a pleasure boat, canoes or kayaks. If this sounds a little strenuous, then you can always relax on the river bank, fish or lunch in one of the many riverside cafés.
Is Brantôme one of the most beautiful villages in France? Well I think so, although I'd hesitate to call it a village exactly. The town is bustling, busy, full of life. Brantôme is the gateway to the Perigord-Limousin Natural Reserve and is visited by those in search of nature, of good food and the good life. The Friday market dates back for centuries, where regional products are on sale, patés de foie gras, poultry, sausages and truffles.
The town is choc-a-bloc with interesting and traditional shops, restaurants and cafés as well as shops aimed more at tourists selling gifts and niff-naffs. When you have seen all that Brantôme has to offer, why not enjoy the peace and quiet of the natural park and the tranquility of Limousin?
Two other villages on the 'most beautiful' list that are not too far from Brantôme are Mortemart and Collonge la Rouge. Both well worth a visit if you're ever in this region, and the fabulous caves of Villars are not far away.
- Tourisme Brantôme, Office de Tourisme Brantôme - Périgord Dronne Belle
Site officiel de l'Office de Tourisme Périgord Dronne Belle, Dordogne, Périgord Vert, Brantôme, Mareuil, VIllars, Agonac.
- Ville Brantome
Tourisme Brantome: Office du Tourisme Brantome
Has this inspired you to visit Brantôme?
Also one of the towns in the list of the most beautiful in France
We are almost half way between Brantome and Mortemart, and Limoges, Angouleme and Perigueux. The medieval town of Rochechouart is 10 minutes away.
© 2011 Les Trois Chenes