Holidaying in the Dordogne: Périgueux

Have you packed your backpacks, taken bottles of mineral water, sun proof cream, cereal bars and, in case of a shower, a light waterproof? Have you got your walking shoes? Yes. Then all is right because today The Little Family takes you on a trip to Périgueux.

View of Périgeux from the Isle River

Périgueux is the equivalent of a State Capital City in the USA or a County Town in the UK, called in France le chef-lieu de département, i.e. the main administrative town of the département – metropolitan France being divided in 95 départements, classified alphabetically (from A -1 – for Ain to V – 95 – for Val-d’Oise) and la Dordogne is the département 24.

We think you will remember where the Dordogne stands in the South-West of France but, as a reminder, just in case, this is a map:

and this is where Périgueux stands:

in the middle of the département. When these were created after the great changes of the 1789 Revolution, it was decided that the chef-lieu, also called préfecture, would be in the middle of the département and could be reached within one day on horseback. This is why the other “big” town of the Dordogne with a cathedral, Sarlat, in the South-East of the département could not be chosen. Four towns were made into administrative relays instead: Sarlat in the South-East, Nontron in the North, Ribérac in the North-West and Bergerac in the South, on the Dordogne River. They were called “sous-préfectures”: le préfet is the highest administrative authority in a département to represent the State (République) and the sous-préfets come immediately beneath him. In Périgueux as in other préfectures, there is also the bishopric and the town is the cathedral city. La Dordogne has the particularity of having two cathedral cities, the second being Sarlat.

We must say that the design of the département is very much like that of the Comté du Périgord (Périgord County) before the Revolution.

Périgueux is sometimes called the “Little Rome” as the town is built over and among seven hills, as is Rome. Its cathedral towers over it but it is built in a loop of the Isle River and its life began close to the River.

Before Julius Caesar and before the Gauls, we must remember that la Dordogne is one of the territories of the prehistory and here as elsewhere in Périgord, Man was present very early. But we will be more interested about his particular life during another trip of ours during these holidays.

Thus, the Gauls were established on the hills around the River. They are called the Petrocorii and will give their name to the Périgord. We have met these encampments on tops of hills in the description of The Village:

and

They are called oppida  or castra, and they become very quickly major economical and politic centres. The Greek geographer Strabo mentions the Petrocorii expertise in the iron work. The Petrocorii worship the goddess Vesunna who will later give her name to the Roman town.

In 52 BC, the Petrocorii march off to join the other Gaul tribes and help Vercingetorix at the Alesia Battle against Julius Caesar. As is well known the Gauls are defeated and go under Roman domination. Caesar mentions the Petrocorii in his “Gallic Wars”.

The territory becomes one of the 21 cities created by Augustus around 16 BC under the name of Vesunna. The town grows thus in the Province of Aquitaine, in the loop of the Isle River the foot of the ancient oppida, still maintained in case of attacks or wars. Being so close to the river allows growing exchange and trade with Burdigala (Bordeaux), Divona (Cahors), Mediolanum Santonum (Saintes), etc. The town is at its height under the reign of Marcus Aurelius during the Second Century AD and the great Pax Romana. Vesunna has then around 10.000 inhabitants. It is modelled upon the map of Roman Towns with rich houses (domii) and of insulae. There is of course a forum and a sanctuary dedicated to the goddess Vesunna.

These are the Roman remains of the temple dedicated to Vesunna

still called today la Tour de Vésonne

It has given its name to a district of the modern town

And this is the model of Vesunna as it stood under Marcus Aurelius

 Near the temple, a domus has been found and researched for years: it seems to have been the Great Priest’s house. Over the excavated archaeological remains, a museum has been erected so that all rooms of the house are seen from platforms above with displays of potteries, glass, and things pertaining to each room.

The model of  the Domus as it is supposed to have been

A view of the museum with the remains of the rooms, the platforms and stairs going to the casements of the displays of potteries, glass, needles, pots and pans and things of daily life

A mosaic

The detail of another mosaic in another room

 We don’t know if there was a theatre and a harbour for the traffic over the Isle River, but we do know that there was an amphitheatre that could host 20.000 onlookers. When we, The Little Family, went on holidays in The Village and made the trip to Périgueux, we were almost always taken there for a walk in the park and there were great frights that lions or bears or other wild animals, notwithstanding gladiators, might appear round the bend of a ruin or a shrub.

Remains of the amphitheatre and the arenas

 At the beginning of the IVth century AD, the town is surrounded by a bailey with 24 half towers and 3 doors to limit the boundaries and the population of the city and to protect it against the Barbarians (mainly the Wisigoths). This is the Fall of the Roman Empire and the High Middle-Ages. From Vesunna, the town becomes Civitas Petrocorirum.

The bailey of the IVth century

(the stones were used later for other buildings)

What we call in French, la Légende Dorée, which is a Life of saints more or less legendary (both the saints and their lives) tells us that Front came to evangelise the area and dispel paganism. At his death, pilgrims came to pray on his tomb, which was not in the Civitas but on a previous oppidum, called Puy in the current dialect. A “puy” in the language of the South of France is a hill. There are thus a real city still down in the loop of the Isle River and the embryo of another one, a little on the East and on a hill, rather quickly called Puy Saint Front as Front is easily sanctified, makes miracles and has died a bishop.

At the end of the VIIIth century AD / beginning of of the IXth century Charlemagne (Carolus Magnus – https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Charlemagne) gives the Civitas a count (titles meant rank but also places in the military and Court hierarchy). Therefore he does create the real proper city of the Middle-Ages with a status and the County of Périgord, divided in baronies. The Civitas changes again as the Count builds his castle in the middle of the rests of the amphitheatre, knights build their own fortified houses upon the old bailey and the bishop builds his episcopal palace and several churches and chapels. Most of these monuments were destroyed during the following centuries – and the XIXth century was a great destroyer! -. Still there remains two main edifices, one temporal, the Chateau Barrière and one spiritual, the church Saint Etienne (Stephen) de la Cité.

Château Barrière

Saint Etienne de la Cité (front)

Saint Etienne de la Cité

(back)

You will of course note that the church is fortified and was used to shelter the population in case of conflicts or wars and to sustain a siege. It is also the first church with a cupola in the Périgord.
Meanwhile, the town around Puy Saint Frontgrows and grows. Pilgrims are good for trade and merchants and craftsmen make a good business in what becomes a town. Soon they erect walls  and towers to protect them and the two cities, the Civitas in the loop of the river and on the site of the Roman town, and the new Puy Saint Front on the hill are only separated by a stone pit that is used as their battleground. They are geographically different, socially different: one is aristocratic and based on the model of knights and bishops, the other is a trading city. Conflicts rage. In 1240, Louis IX (Saint Louis – https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Louis_IX_of_France) enjoins the redaction and signature of a treaty which unites the two cities and creates Périgueux. The counts have no more authority, the merchants in guilds are vested of the temporal power (they are called consuls). And the One Hundred Years War (1337-1453) is the end of the Middle Ages, of the Counts as military authorities, and the beginning of a new era, the Renaissance.

La Tour Mataguerre

(the last defensive tower of the Puy Saint Front)

House of the Middle Ages near the River

(at the opposite side of the Civitas)

We are not the best judges and critics of Périgueux but we do find that the end of the Middle Ages and the Renaissance are the Âge d’Or of the town. Its history will now follow the centralised history of France with its wars and peaces and rebellions and revolutions and kings and queens but we want to show you the heart of the city around its cathedral Saint Front and how harmoniously the life of our days and the architectural background with all its wealth do marry.

Street from the Middle Ages in the centre of the town

(cars are prohibited)

The most well-known of these streets

Rue Limogeanne

(with a wonderful bookshop: La Mandragore)

These streets are lined on each side by Renaissance houses or mansions, sometimes with wonderful stairs and staircases.

And life goes on: this is no museum but a continuous flow of lives and Life:
with passages half hidden between the houses and squares which join “official” streets:

All this thrives around the cathedral that was first built before Carolus Magnus, under the Mérovingiens (500-750 AD), then destroyed and rebuilt under the Carolingiens (750-900 AD), destroyed again, and rebuilt again as a Latin church (architectural mode on the model of a Latin Cross) that was burnt in 1120. It was rebuilt again after knights were coming back from the crusades and were used to the Byzantine architectural mode (Greek Cross and five cupolas – it is the only one in France).

But… but in 1852 the architect Paul Abadie (contemporary of the architect Viollet-Leduc – not well beloved by The Little Family, both of them) undertakes works of renovations. He destroys parts of the monastery … and (unfortunately) wins in 1870 the contest to build the Sacré-Coeur in Paris (which is for the Little Family a monstrosity. And very soon he will transpose what he did to Saint Front in Périgueux for the Sacré Coeur.

 

 The cathedral is on the caminos de Compostella, the roads the pilgrims took and still take nowadays to go to Compostella in Spain and has been registered at the UNESCO Heritage in 1998.

The XVIIth and XVIIIth centuries do not have great interest for our visit to the town and we can make a break either to buy postcards or to eat delicious ice creams in the Rue Limogeanne or taste the local strawberries if there are still some from the market this morning. Some of you will like a good lunch with duck and raspberry vinegar with pommes de terre sarladaises or cèpes or foie gras followed by goat cheese and figs while drinking a good bottle of Bergerac wine. I may leave you a moment to go to my favourite bookshop and converse with the new owners that I do not know, and as we are all in a dream, I shall come back with boxes of books in French (sorry, no English books there). After a light lunch taken at the terrasse d’un restaurant, place Saint-Louis, the Little Family is already in the most recent part of the town built in the XIXth century where they have THEIR favourite bookshop and they will have completed their own purchases (other boxes of books and DVDs and CDs!).

We shall regroup on the boulevards, which are the main great streets of the town and where cars are not prohibited and watch inattentively the architecture à la Zola of some of these buildings that can be seen everywhere in France, which date very recently from the mid XIXth century.

Remember Pot-Bouille by Zol

The Court

(All the Courts buildings are almost the same in France: they were built after Napoleon I, of course)

The Préfecture

(well, not the administrative offices but the residence of the Préfet)

 Let’s sit down for a last time at the terrasse d’un café and drink whatever you choose. I will tell you of the statues of four great men that we honour in la Dordogne:

and Montaigne (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Michel_de_Montaigne).

The old town with the red tiles roofs and the “new” town with the Boulevards

This is the hour to stroll and enjoy the end of the day. Do you want to wait for the festival du mime -Mimos? Or do you prefer coming back home with us to The Village? The Little Family is tired and will fall asleep while I drive us and we shall talk again about Montaigne who is a neighbour of ours. The car is full of books. We were glad to show you our capital city. We have not told you about railways and highways or motorways, about the unemployment or the economical difficulties of the population. It was a day for fun, for dreams and for friends.

 See you again soon holidaying in la Dordogne with us?

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