Bastides of the Dordogne
Discover Dordogne one bastide at a time
Across France, countless picturesque villages and small towns are scattered like confetti. Centuries old, many once played a vital role at a time when the development of trade was a key part of France’s evolution and subsequently, they became embroiled in the politics and bloodshed of Anglo-French territorial tussles.
These are the bastides. Some of France’s most picturesque spots, rich in history and unspoilt architecture and surrounded by sublime scenery.
Indeed, where possible, make sure to plan them into your route to ensure you do not miss out. As you journey through the pages of history as well as some of France’s most sensational countryside. Take in bastide towns like Domme and Monpazier, as well as iconic villages like La Roque Gageac, the castles of Beynac, Castelnaud and Les Milandes and medieval Sarlat.
What is a bastide?
A bastide is simply a small town, usually sited on a hilltop for defensive purposes. They originally were a means for local lords to reinforce power and influence by bringing new land into production, developing trade and capitalising on a fast-growing population.
However, by the 13th century and the advent of the Hundred Years War, the bastides found a new role as strategic points along the disputed frontier between English-controlled Aquitaine and the French-held territories. Thus bastides came to be fortified towns, usually with sturdy walls and imposing gates which were added as the political temperature rose.
Bastides are remarkably similar in design, mostly square in layout, with a grid system of streets at right angles to each other. Houses are broadly equal in terms of their footprint, and the market square is the focal point, with a church to one side.
Alphonse de Poitiers built almost 60 bastides for the French, while Edward I of England pursued his foreign territorial ambitions with remarkable bastides at Monpazier and Beaumont, among others.
There are perhaps in the region of 300 bastides throughout the southwest of France. Not all are spectacular or stunning even, but all are interesting, and each has its own story to tell. Whichever you visit, you will never be disappointed, and here are just a few of our favourites in the Dordogne region.
Constructed by Phillippe III in the 13th century, this renowned bastide has aged well over the centuries. The honey-coloured mellow stone is gorgeous, and the view from the main terrace is quite literally one of France’s finest. It’s a widescreen panorama across the slow-moving waters of the Dordogne river far below, which meanders lazily across the valley floor.
Aim to arrive early in time to avoid the coaches of photo-hungry tourists. Stroll the little back lanes and cobbled alleys, admire the vignettes of roses tumbling over ancient walls and doorways in colourful profusion and enjoy the timeless, sleepy appeal of this extraordinary spot.
There’s a hidden surprise underneath the 18th-century market hall, where a series of caves stretch 450 metres into the hillside. This is certainly a good way to spend a wet afternoon.
Built in the late 13th century, this was an English bastide designed to take advantage of its riverside location with the associated river trade and fishing opportunities. Today it is a peaceful town, attractive and with plenty of little streets to wander. The classic layout with a central square and 12th-century arcades to one side makes for a very appealing place to lose a few hours.
This is the oldest bastide in the region, dating from the mid-13th century. Note the original archways still leading off the market square and the venerable church constructed by Abadie, the architect of the Sacré-Coeur in Paris’s Montmartre district.
One of the region’s most iconic and beautiful bastides, Monpazier is a real gem, founded in 1284 by Edward I. It is widely considered the best-preserved bastide of all, with a large square surrounded by elegant arched colonnades that provide cool shade on hot days. There are dozens of listed ‘national monuments’, and little seems to have changed over 700 years.
Founded in 1284, this is a small bastide, never quite finished and suffering some damage during the Hundred Years War. But it is very charming, with an attractive church and lovely marked trails leading you out into glorious wooded Dordogne countryside, dotted with ancient abbeys and mellow stone houses.
This bastide was actually built on the orders of an English king, Edward I, in 1272. It retains a medieval air, with a sturdy church, sections of stout defensive wall and the Luzier gate. Wander the ancient narrow streets and you can feel history passing under your feet.
The best of the rest
The Dordogne region has one of the highest concentrations of bastides. But there are dozens more: Castelnaudary, Carcassonne and Montréal in the Aude; Cordes, Arthès and Pampelonne in the Tarn; Libourne, Monségur and Cadillac in the Gironde, and Avensac, Mirande and Fleurance in the Gers to name but a few.
Les Plus Beaux Villages de France
A good number of bastides are also accredited with being among the ‘most beautiful villages in France’ – Les Plus Beaux Villages de France. Since 1982 when the association began, around 160 villages throughout France have been granted this accolade. They do have to meet certain criteria (limited population, rural environment, at least two national heritage sites) and – yes – pay an annual fee. That said, they are extraordinarily stunning places, though a good tip is to avoid high season if possible or arrive early before the crowds.
Not surprisingly, there is a fair overlap with bastides appearing in this illustrious list. Those in the Dordogne include the fine examples of Domme and Monpazier. The villages of Beynac, Castelnaud, Belves, Saint-Amand-de-Coly, Limeuil and La Roque Gagéac are not strictly bastides but are well worth visiting for their unique charm and fascinating heritage.