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The Dordogne Valley is a rural department in Southwestern France in the Nouvelle-Aquitaine region. Named after the river that runs through the department, Dordogne Valley is famous for its pretty little villages and well-preserved medieval castles.
This part of France is said to be home to 1001 private and public castles. The Dordogne Castles aren’t the most refined castles in France, as they were built for defense rather than decoration. As a result, they’re mostly huge and sparsely decorated, very different from the castles in the Loire Valley. However, they’re still interesting, and exploring them is one of the best things to do in Dordogne.
Castles in the Dordogne Department – Historical Background
In the 10th – 11th centuries, the Dordogne Castles were established on naturally strong points, rocky escarpments, spur points, almost always near land or river communications axes to control them and impose a toll.
In the 13th century, the Dordogne was an area of major conflict between France and England. It was the Hundred Years’ War that most marked this region. To best understand its history, you have to go back to 1337, when Eleanor of Aquitaine married the heir to the English throne and gave part of the Périgord to the English. The Dordogne River was the symbolic frontier between the two enemy kingdoms. On the French side, the Château de Beynac faced off with the Château de Castelnaud, then in British possession…
The centuries that followed transformed the architecture and appearance of the fortresses, which grew more open and took on more windows.
Today, the Castles in the Dordogne are still the guardians of the Dordogne and Vézère Rivers and they are silent witnesses of a turbulent chapter of France’s history.
Dordogne Castles Map
Best Castles in Dordogne
If you’re ready to experience this vital part of France’s history, then here’s a list of the best castles in Dordogne. A few of them are located in some of the most beautiful towns in Dordogne while others are best explored on a Dordogne road trip.
1. Château de Castelnaud
This château in Dordogne is located in the commune of Castelnaud-la-Chapelle in the heart of the Périgord Noir. It was built from the 12th to the 15th centuries and it offers beautiful views over the Dordogne Valley and across the river.
Château de Castelnaud has a tumultuous history. It was taken by Simon de Montfort during the Albigensian Crusade and then by the English during the Hundred Years War. After a siege ordered by King Charles VII in 1442, the French ultimately took it.
The castle was rarely occupied after the 17th century but was listed as a Historic Building in 1966 and extensively restored. Today it’s home to the museum of War in the Middle Ages, an important collection of weapons and armor as well as reproductions of siege machines from the Middle Ages.
2. Château de Beynac
This is one of the best-preserved and well-known Chateaux in Dordogne. It’s located in the commune of Beynac-et-Cazenac, one of the prettiest villages in all of France, and is on the other side of the Dordogne River, facing Château de Castelnaud. The two castles have been eternal rivals throughout the ages.
Château de Beynac was built in the 12th century by the Barons of Beynac and over the years has seen many illustrious defenders, including King Richard I and Simon de Montfort, leader of one of the Albigensian Crusades.
At the time of the Hundred Years War, Château Beynac was one of the strongholds of France. Not far from there, on the other side of the Dordogne Rival, Château de Castelnaud was in the hands of the English.
The oldest part of the castle, the keep, is in a Romanesque style, but the castle boasts later additions like a 14th-century residence and 17th-century apartments. It also has lovely apartments with their original woodwork and painted ceilings, a Renaissance fireplace, and 15th-century frescos.
Chateau de Beynac was bought by Lucien Grosso in 1962 and several movies have been shot there including Chocolat and Jeanne d’Arc.
3. Chateau de Commarque
The Château de Commarque looms on a hillside above the valley of the river La Beune in the Vézère Valley. It’s in the commune of Les Eyzies-de-Tayac-Sireuil and is one of the most interesting castles in the Dordogne Valley.
This fortified castle was built during the 12th century at the intersection of two important commercial roads. Originally it was just a wooden tower built to protect two important trade routes in the region: the road from Périgueux to Cahors and that from Brive to Bergerac. The ambitious Beynac family took control of it and expanded it from a wooden tower to the stone keep that stands today.
During the Hundred Years’ War and the French Wars of Religion, it changed hands several times and was abandoned in the 18th century.
The castle was rediscovered in the 1970s and bought by Hubert de Commarque, a descendent of the original builders. Today you can explore the 12th-century Romanesque tower and Gothic keep and experience the renovation through the meticulously kept photographic records.
4. Château de Puymartin
Château de Puymartin is in the commune of Marquay, between Sarlat-la-Canéda and Les Eyzies. Construction on this château began in the 13th century, but it boasts a range of styles due to later additions. The predominant style today is Neo-Gothic, due to the Marquis Marc de Campbell de Marzac, who restored the castle in the 19th century.
Today, the castle is privately owned by the family of Count Henri de Montbron. It’s best known for its ghostly resident, the White Lady.
According to the stories, Thérèse de Saint-Clar (one of the castle owners in the 16h century) was caught with her lover when her husband unexpectedly returned from war. As punishment, she was held captive in the north tower until her death, when she was walled there. It is said she wanders the castle at midnight, always returning to her north tower cell afterward.
5. Château des Milandes
This is one of the prettiest Castles in Dordogne and it’s located in the commune of Castelnaud-la-Chapelle. Château des Milandes was built in 1489 by François de Caumont, Lord of Castelnaud, to please his wife, Claude de Cardaillac. She transforms it deeply in the wish to live in a less austere castle than Castelnaud.
In 1947, the chateau was bought by Joséphine Baker. Joséphine was an American-born entertainer, French Resistance agent, and civil rights activist. She was also the first black woman to star in a major motion picture. She passed away in 1975 but this château is still dedicated to her memory and in 2012 was awarded a ‘Maison des Illustres’ by the French Ministry of Culture.
Today, this château in Dordogne boasts beautiful gardens designed by Jules Vacherot as well as a fascinating Bird of Prey display where you’ll get to learn more about the ancient art of falconry.
6. Château de Biron
Located in the commune of Biron in the valley of the Lède, the Château de Biron is listed as a Major Site of Aquitaine and a Historic Monument. It’s owned by the Dordogne department and boasts a surprisingly harmonious mix of architectural styles.
Originally built in the 12th century, the castle bears signs of every century from the 12th onwards. While you’re there, you can explore the 12th-century keep, the Renaissance apartments, the State chambers, and the double chapel (two floors) where some of its owners are buried.
A quick look at a Dordogne Castles map will explain why this castle changed fortunes so many times. It’s located in a strategic position on the borders of Périgord and Agenais and close to the fortified town of Monpazier. The castle was held by the Gontaut-Biron family until 1938, when the family fell into ruin and the château was sold to the Dordogne department.
7. Maison Forte de Reignac
This is one of the most unique Châteaux in Dordogne. It’s located close to the village of Tursac and is built right into the rock, with an overhanging cliff as a roof. This surprising cliff-castle is the only one in France that’s still completely intact.
Like many other sites in the Vézère Valley, this site was occupied since prehistoric times. The front of the house was built in the 14th century, but the rock shelter was occupied for long before that. Inside you’ll find a display of the prehistoric objects found at the site as well as numerous rooms with period furnishings.
This château inn Dordogne actually has a brutal history. It was once home to ‘The Billy Goat of Reignac’, who exercised his ‘jus primae noctis’ or right of the first night over the women of the area with extreme brutality.
The castle is currently home to a display of torture instruments from the Middle Ages to the modern-day that would seem to perpetuate this violent theme.
8. Château de Monbazillac
Located in the commune of the same name, in the Purple Périgord, this 16th-century Dordogne castle is famous for its serene beauty and surrounding vineyards producing excellent whites.
The castle’s layout is very simple: a rectangle with four large circular towers at the corners and access through a fixed bridge with two arches. It has a mix of medieval defensive systems and Renaissance elements of the time.
Fully furnished, the Château of Monbazillac is open to tourists for free and guided visits. There’s a glass of Monbazillac wine offered to each visitor at the end of the visit.