Saturday, December 4

France: At the Montaigne tower | The traveler


In times of confinement and exhaustion, the ideas of a couple of friends who had to face wars and plagues could well serve as soothing. We are talking about Montaigne and La Boétie, who were born, lived and died in one of the most bucolic and pleasant territories in France: the valley of the Dordogne river, known as Périgord. A small country of sweet hills, covered with vineyards and châteaux which are often agricultural estates, not real castles. Intense land, soaked in wine, astonishing stories and glimpses of modernity that bring current to this fertile corridor east of Bordeaux.

Michel de Montaigne was born in 1533 in one of those castles built with the rents of wine. He entered politics and, in his late thirties, met Étienne de La Boétie, who was a couple of years older than him, in the Parliament of Bordeaux. . Montaigne was looking forward to meeting him, because that handsome young man, at just 18 years old, had written an extraordinary pamphlet of barely 20 pages that was circulating in handwritten copies: the Speech of voluntary servitude. An allegation about freedom that for some is a precursor of The social contract of Rousseau, of civil disobedience and non-violent resistance, a la Gandhi. The friendship between the two young men, described by Montaigne as “perfect”, lasted four years. It ended when Étienne, only 33 years old, died of the plague in Michel’s arms.

Michel de Montaigne published the work of his friend and when he turned 40 he retired to the family castle, in what is today the tiny town of Saint-Michel-de-Montaigne. There he locked himself in a separate tower a few meters from the castle. In it he wrote his Testing, of a stoicism that comes from pearls in these times. With this he created a new and modern genre, that of the essay; the university students from half the world who have drawn on the collection know it well What sais-heh? (What do I know? motto of the Montaigne coat of arms), which exceeded 2,000 titles and has been translated into fifty languages.

The tower, within the walled enclosure, has a chapel on the ground floor; in the upper ones are the library, a work cabinet and the bedroom. On the rafters of the studio Montaigne had aphorisms painted that some consider tweets before the letter. The tower is preserved as is, but the castle burned and was rebuilt in the 19th century. Although it is private, it can be visited, just like the tower. At the exit of the village there is a Gallo-Roman villa, Montcaret, with rudimentary mosaics. The road runs parallel to the bed of the Dordogne, which was used to transport local wine by barge.

Through this waterway, wealth came to Bergerac, which is reflected in the noble houses of its historic center, now silent and scented with wisteria. And in the House of Winegrowers, installed in an old Franciscan convent. But the fame of Bergerac is not so much due to the wine, but to the legendary Cyrano de Bergerac. Character that is and is not real. There was a type of flesh and blood in seventeenth-century Paris called Hercule-Savinien de Cyrano, and to enter the body of Musketeers he adopted the surname Bergerac, because that was the name of the Parisian farm where he trained. In 1897 the poet Edmond Rostand created the fictional character that has walked through so many stages and has been successfully taken to the cinema. South of Bergerac, the castle of Montbazillac, print of château winery, it can be visited as a museum and as an oenological shop.

The false shroud

Further on, Cadouin offers a major surprise: a Romanesque abbey and a Gothic cloister (world heritage) at the end of a deserted street. There the holy shroud of Christ was venerated, brought during the Crusades, and the pilgrims flowed in abundance. Until in 1934 a party pooper who knew Arabic saw a dedication to an 11th century caliph woven into the canvas. The bishop had the relic removed and the devotion was over.

A small detour in the river axis brings us closer to Monpazier, the best example of bastide in the region. The bastide It is an urban revolution that arose in Aquitaine in the 13th century: the center of the town is no longer the church, but the market square, with porticoes, with streets around it laid out in a grid and protected by walls and gates. There are about 300 bastides cataloged, and many belong to the club of The Most Beautiful Villages in France.

The course of the Dordogne guides us to beynac castle, whose vaults keep echoes of Ricardo Corazón de León. Recently restored, it crowns a cliff from which you can see three or four other fortresses on cliffs cut to a peak. One of the most seductive is La Roque-Gageac, surrounded by houses embedded like mollusks in the rock wall. It has hotels, exquisite restaurants, barge cruises and sunrise balloon flights. Only a couple of leagues away is Sarlat, the tourist capital of Périgord, the jewel in the crown.

A prodigiously preserved medieval-renaissance complex. In front of the solemn Gothic cathedral stands the palace house where La Boétie was born. Behind the cathedral, alleys and sloping staircases link mansions and noble coats of arms. Downstairs, in the market square where the foie gras artisans, the church of Santa María was converted into a covered market. The temple has its Gothic nave cut in half with a knife, like cheese. And the opening is closed with monumental doors by the architect Jean Nouvel, who was born in Fumel, not too far from here. In them you can read a phrase by the postmodern philosopher Jean Baudrillard that also serves as a motto for Nouvel’s work: “Architecture is a mixture of nostalgia and extreme anticipation”.

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