France’s Vezere Valley is world famous for the unique glimpse it gives us into the lives of our earliest ancestors. In a relatively tiny area, there are 147 prehistoric sites and 25 decorated caves, including the Sistine Chapel of cave art, Lascaux.
One of the most fascinating is the troglodyte fort and settlement at La Roque St-Christophe – at 1km long, the largest natural shelter in Europe. For me, the draw isn’t so much for its early history – although it was first inhabited a staggering 55,000 years ago – but its more recent past.
Fortified to provide shelter against Norman attacks in the 10th century, an entire village grew up, clinging to the 300ft high river cliff as if to life itself.
This incredible settlement housed around a thousand people on five levels. Remains found on site show they were potters, weavers, carpenters, blacksmiths, bakers, shoesmiths and even silversmiths. A cowshed, slaughter house and smokehouse can still be clearly made out, as can a simple church and a bell tower, with crosses engraved on the cliff wall, a font, tombs, a sculpted vault and ceiling rings. Down by the river, a small port provided trading links.
The village was accessed from a fortified entrance through a tunnel carved into the rock. Houses were connected by bridges, trapdoors and ladders. The logistics of building this settlement are jaw dropping – some 12,000 post holes were drilled into the back wall of the cliff – and a reconstructed medieval building site at the end of the terrace gives a good idea of the machinery and techniques involved.
Staircases were carved into the cliff to connect the levels. The biggest led to the cliff top, where the settlement’s defences, a series of projectile engines were used to hurl rocks onto hostile boats approaching along the river.
A look out system that covered the whole valley was developed. Across the river, a cave in the cliff housed a watchman, who could see or hear someone in a similar post further away. Recent experiments have shown a warning signal could be transmitted from a site 11 miles away in just six minutes.
What would life have been like here? As picturesque as the reconstruction is, it would have most certainly been far from pretty (though that could be said for almost anywhere during the Middle Ages). Cramped, probably unbearably tense in times of conflict, nevertheless, people here would have lived with some degree of security, knowing their homes were well defended and relatively inaccessible.
The village survived the Norman attacks and the ravages of the Hundred Years War, which, in this area, was especially hard fought. Although, during this time, it was besieged and captured by the English, who held it for about five years until it was retaken by the French. It’s from this period that the legend of the treasure of La Roque St-Christophe dates, supposedly a cache of ill-gotten gains hidden by the English as they fled the village. It wasn’t until the sixteenth century that the settlement was finally destroyed, when, during the bitter Wars of Religion, it became a haven for French Protestants and was obliterated on the orders of the Seneschal of Perigord.
What remains today is a fascinating reminder of human ingenuity in the face of adversity. If you’re ever planning a trip to the lovely Dordogne, I recommend a visit. It’s at Peyzac-le-Moustier, halfway between Les Eyzies and Montingac. To find out more, visit the excellent website http://www.roque-st-christophe.com.