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Brantome Dordogne, France is a Story of Stone
Stone - The Cave of the Last Judgment in Brantome
Who am I?
I am beautiful. I am one of the most beautiful even though I am as old as the hills. I am the hills. I am the very earth and this is my story.
I begin not with the earth but with humankind because without them I would not exist. Not exist as I do now anyway. When they emerged I gave them shelter. I sheltered them within my body, within my very being. They entered into the earth to live in caves. Not the sort of caves this word might conjure up your imagination. Dark yes, but not dank, not running with moisture, not cold and cramped. These caves are like palaces within the earth. They are as small as parlours, as large and as high as ballrooms and as extensive as castles. They are dry as bones. The floors are hard and dust-dry. There is light. There are fissures in the rocks and light pours down into the caves every now and then and at night they would gaze on a black sky awash with stars and would have been bathed in the cool light of the moon.
More beautiful pictures of Le Brantome Frace
You might like to read this story in conjunction with the sister article An Illustrated Guide to the Town of Brantome, in the Dordogne, South West France
All images ©Barbara Walton unless otherwise stated. Please apply in writing for permission to use.
An elemental town
Fire - Brantome has a heart of fire
The humans came to live in the dark caves, but they brought with them light in the form of fire. The fires gave them heat in the winter and lit up the caves with a cheerful, warm, red light. A light full of movement, of shadows. Your light is dead. Hard and dead. These caves were full of light that was alive. In the summer the fires were small and used only for cooking, but tiny pockets were hollowed out of the stone walls and candles and oil lamps were placed inside these, along with decorations, coins and jewellery. Oh yes, they had all those bits and pieces that you have now. They were not very different from you, believe me. The main difference is that the world then was a thing of beauty and people were happy.
Today fire is still at the heart of Brantome. Trees surround the town and feed the burners at the heart of each home. Fire is still warmth. Fire is food too. You can see the traditional bread ovens, still in use today. The brick domes are heated by fire and this heat bakes our food.
Bones - the bones of Brantome
They lived well. In the winter the caves were warm, in the summer they were cool. The walls twinkled with a thousand tiny lights, and the air throbbed with the cooing of birds who lived in the niches, also carved by the people. The people loved the birds, the sound of the birds and took a delight in them. They roasted them and ate the eggs but there were always far more birds than they could eat.
These people revered the dead. They cared for their families, their ancestors. They preserved their bones in chambers formed of stone and covered with earth. There they visited them. The bones in niches carved in the stone.
Bones and stone and earth.
Sky - Brantome reaches to the sky
When they left the dark of the caves they were hit by a wall of brilliant light. Winter and summer, though in summer it was hot light. Brilliant, hot, thick sunshine. Drowsy, heavy as honey and droning with insects, and skies so deeply blue it was looking into the heart of a sapphire. In winter the light was brittle, fragile as ice, clear as crystals. The sunshine now thin, piercing, sharp. Ice cold sunshine in the morning but warm in the afternoon and even in the deepest winter the children would run naked, playing in front of the caves until the hour when the temperatures plunged and the people would retreat into the caves, arms full of twigs and branches to light their fires and roast their roots and pigeons and tell stories inspired by the pictures in the fire.
I also gave them water. There were wells in the cave – oh yes! You think you have bathrooms and kitchens with running water.They did too, only theirs was pure and clean. They were too much the animal to drink your water; polluted and dead. They would have sniffed it as the sheep sniff the grass and they would not drink. I gave them sweet water that was as alive as the fire. Full of movement and life. Just in front of the caves, only a few long strides from the caves, I gave them a bright, small river. Bright as the sunshine which was reflected in its lively waters. Clear and bright as the winter sun and, even today, you can see the fish swimming, basking and enjoying the warmth of the sun on their backs. Then the river heaved with fish and the people caught them with ease. They were clever, the people animals. They could catch the fish with their hands, like bears can, but they made nets and strings and all sorts of contraptions to catch the fish without effort. Later they would eat loaves and fishes.
These people had time on their hands. They made necklaces and pots and decorated them. They painted the walls. They made big, important paintings showing their lives, their animals. They told stories in paint on the walls of the cave, stories of hunting and fighting. It was the men who did the painting. The women, then as now, too busy caring for children and putting the everyday food gathered from the forests onto the table. It was they who collected the nuts, and the ceps and other fungi that grew plentifully when the weather conditions were just right; warm and moist. They dug for roots, picked herbs and gathered in the fruits. There was so much fruit. At night they prepared the fruit while the wolves howled in the forests outside.
The people were happy but they were not content. I had given them shelter, food, sunshine, warmth and good, sweet water to drink, but their heads were full of hopes and fears and aspirations. They farmed and built and multiplied. They fought. The land became property and food became wealth. Something to own and to trade. This was an age of kings and druids and warriors.
They used fire to heat the earth and make weapons of metal. First the soft and beautiful metals of tin (fine and white as silver) and copper fused into glistening bronze, but then they crafted hard and lethal metal from molten iron. Hard and dark.
The people turned their attention from the good things I had given them and they looked into the darkness and saw ghosts. They looked into the water and saw, not only the fish, but spirits. They looked into the earth and saw the gods. Instead of enjoying the natural things they tried to take control of nature herself. The world in which they lived became a fearful place. The Christian bible describes this as knowledge. When the first people ate from the tree of knowledge they fell from grace. I know that it was not knowledge but superstition that brought about their downfall.
Invasion from without. The Romans tramped through half the world, or so it seemed. They mined gold in France to bribe and buy the northern tribes of Britain. They gave us glass for tiny vials, and beads and glass for the windows of our houses. Precious glass. They brought taxes and new gods, amongst many other things, good and bad.
At first they looked to the earth and the waters to find their gods and ghosts, but, as they grew as a race, (for I see them as my children), they turned their faces to the sky. They no longer see just the stars and the sun and the infinite, clear blue but they saw gods that ruled their lives. They felt the spirit inside them. Over time the gods became one, almighty god. A god to be worshiped and obeyed. They aspired to be near that god. These children with feet of clay wanted to fly into the heavens. They changed the juice of the grapes and water into wine.
They began to cut into the stone. Quarrying and mining and cutting the rock into blocks. They used the rock of the caves as foundations and they began to build towers and spires and walls of devotion in the vain hope that they could live in the light of their sky god. They moved out of the bowls of the earth, where they had lived in comfort, and they laboured to build houses with roof of clay and walls of stone. They built a great abbey and church white stone quarried from within me.
They captured the light in soaring windows that pointed to the heavens. They filled the vaults with sunlight and music and singing. They lit the depths with a thousand candles, some great some small, made with rendered fat of the animals they killed. All of this did not bring happiness. The light could not penetrate the darkness of their fear.
They carved their hopes and fears into the stone of the church and the stone of the caves. The images from the natural world were replaced by the strange figures, animals, angels and devils if the imagination. They caught their spirit world in stone. They sweated and laboured to carve and decorate and cut into the stone. They added bells made from metal. They used the fire now to smelt the metals that they pulled from the depths of the earth. The air rings with the sound of bells and the sound of hammers. Water was harnessed in the same way that the beasts that used to roam freely in the meadows and woodlands were harnessed. Fire was put to work in furnaces. They made fountains and they filled the fountain bowls with fish that used to swim freely in the rivers.
They were afraid. They strove to please the God, to be good, but they failed, in their own eyes, to be good enough. They punished themselves with penance and walked long distances to be cleaned of their sins. They carved fonts and bowls of stone and placed them in their churches and cathedrals. Water was used to cleanse their sins and the sins of the children just as it used to cleanse their bodies. It quenched a different thirst now. Under the sign of the cross lay the symbol of the scallop shell, the symbol of St James, or, as I know it, Saint Jaques. People came here. Flocked here on their long, dangerous and arduous walk towards Compostel in Spain. The route passed by here. The fountains and fonts were carved into the form of the shell and the pilgrims would wet their foreheads with water. And my children joined them and flowed south to atone for their sins.
And because they multiplied, they spewed out of the caves and the cloisters and they began to build a city, protected and fortified with stone walls and moats filled with water. Protected against their many enemies. Their enemies and their fear of losing their possessions. They took the stone now and built a town. It was a beautiful town. They quarried and carved and shaped the stone for walls. They cut down the trees from the woods and the forests and they built the skeleton of houses with them. They filled the walls with stones, and straw and mud and these walls of mud have lasted hundreds of years. They baked the earth, my earth, in great kilns to make tiles for the roofs, or they covered their roofs with slates expertly cut and shaped. The houses formed narrow streets and pretty squares.They laboured to build the town.
They built bridges of stone and metal so that people could cross the water.
Now the pilgrims come but not to worship the god. They come as tourists in buses and cars. They come to look at my caves. They look at the church and cloisters. They look at the water. The hire boats, they sit in cafés by the water. They cross the bridges, slowly, in that same sunshine. That same sunshine, and they look at the fish in the water, but I doubt that you would eat these fish. I doubt that you would like to eat them.
There are stars now, but no wolves. They killed the wolves. Killed them all. Exterminated them. Without the wolves the deer multiplied and would eat the food the farmers labour to grow. The deer and the wild boar. Now the farmers take to the fields and the forests with guns to do the work the wolves would do for free. They labour to kill the deer and the wild boar. They farm the fish. Can you imagine that? The rivers were so full of fish that all the people had to do was to plunge an arm into the water and they would pull out a fish. Now they labour to farm the fish. Laughably, they have brought their fish farm science in the form of laboratories into the caves. The symbolism is not lost on me.
They have brought fire back into the caves, but in the form of kilns where they smelt the earth to make glass. Let there be light. They craft the glass into beads and bowls and baubles and all manner of things that people don’t need but want. The tourists flock in to see the many beautiful and splendid and wonderfully crafted things and they flock in to enjoy the light passing through the glass.
You can buy all sorts of things that you do not need but want in these caves now. All sorts. If you are tired of walking and looking at the town you can eat ice creams in the caves. Dinner is served in the caves, and the houses and at the side of the water. It is so agreable to eat under the colourful awnings at the waterside and to watch the pleasure boats pass by. The Venice of the Dordogne.
The town is full of enterprise and busy and it smells of baking bread, fresh coffee and cooking. Cats bask on walls and dogs play in the streets. Green parks stretch between bulidings and along watersides. It is still how I remember it, but different now. No longer spiritual yet there is spirt. A very different spirit. There is water but you cannot touch the water now.
I am beautiful. In the contest, I have won. I'm a winner and have been crowned one of the most beautiful in France. It is true that I am adorned with flowers, wreathed in gardens and colour and the perfume of times gone by. I am wide and I am narrow. I satisfy your appetite, be that for food, for art, for history or culture.
Who am I?
And here I rest. My story of stone is finished for the time being. I feel that it is a sad tale. It makes my heart heavy to tell it, but you, perhaps you hear a different story. A story of progress and faith and civilization. These are my children, within whom I am well pleased, but my heart aches for them just as every generation of mothers have ached for their children. I am no different.
Take what comfort and happiness you can from this story. I hope to see you here some time. Can you make that pilgrimage to be with me?
Who am I?
"I am Brantome"
You too can have a little piece of Brantome
Fabulous places to visit in and around Brantome Dordogne
There are so many wonderful places to visit in the Limousin-Perigord area but here are just of few of the main ones: Chateau de Brantome, Moulin Brantome, Champagnac,the caves at Villars, Thiviers, Limoges, Angouleme, Rochechouart, Casinomagus the roman site at Chassenon and Perigueux.
Where to stay?
Where to Stay in Brantome - Hotels and B&Bs
There are so many places to stay in Brantome, the easiest way of getting information would be to contact Brantome Tourist Information Office. There are some great hotels right in the centre of the town, and plenty of B&B's and gites both in the town and in the countryside around. Gites de France is also a good place to find guest house and gite accommodation.
Where is Brantome?
- Ville Brantome
- 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.