Castelnaud-la-Chapelle is a lovely village sitting at the confluent of the Ceou and Dordogne river. The village of typical stone houses and little winding streets is very pretty but its main draw is the magnificent castle that stands guard above it and the Museum of Medieval War.
Built in the 12th century the castle was originally held by a Cathar supporter, Bernard de Casnac, a castellan with a particularly cruel reputation and much geared by the local catholic population. In 1214 de Casnac and his family were forced from the castle by the Catholic knight and Albigensian Crusader Simon de Montfort who established his garrison there. Not to be outdone, de Casnac returned within the year to reclaim his castle and to make his point he hanged the soldiers garrisoned there.
The Middle Ages passed in much the same way. These were not peaceful years for this now sleepy area and the castle changed hands several times as the English and French fought constantly and ruthlessly to control the region. At the end of the Hundred Years War the castle was repaired and upgraded with bigger and better accommodations but the focus of this large and imposing castle was always defence. During the 16th century Wars of Religion the resident family of the Caumonts declared for the Protestant faith and their Captain, Geoffroy de Vivans, fought so ferociously that no one dared attack the castle.
As was so often the case, the French Revolution brought neglect and virtual ruin to the stronghold with villagers breaking up parts of the building to use the stone as building material. This carried on all the way into the 1960s when the Castle was finally listed as a Historic Building and renovations began. The castle now welcomes over 200 000 visitors a year, and is one of the most visited Castles in France.
Largely restored, although mostly not furnished, you can explore many of the castles huge rooms giving you some interesting insights into life during the Middle Ages. You can walk around unaccompanied or as a guided tour and I would suggest you need about an hour to explore the open rooms.
It is worth visiting the castle just for the stunning views of the châteaux of Beynac, Marqueyssac and the beautiful village of La Roque-Gageac but the views aren’t the big draw, that is the castle’s fascinating Museum of Medieval Warfare. The Museum has a huge and gruesomely interesting collection of over 250 medieval weapons. The large displays are well presented with good explanations, detailed illustrations and different media to help you put everything into context.
Outside on the battlements the displays continue with full size copies of medieval war machines – trebuchets, giant crossbows, perriers and mangonels.
The Castle is open throughout the year and has lots of activities specifically geared towards children – it’s well worth checking their website before hand for their current timetable of events and displays. There is a real focus on making a visit an experience rather than a tour, with demonstrations of elements of medieval life, battle re-enactments etc, costumed characters, sword fighting lessons for the children, medieval games, a Cathar mystery tour, even scheduled firing of the trebuchet.
You can take an unguided tour and visit at your own speed. A free booklet, available in English, explains the castle and exhibits and there is an additional “games” booklet specifically for children. There is a guided tour, to be arranged in advance and subject to an additional charge, out of season. During the summer the guided tours are free and there are some English speaking guides.
There are also night time visits during the summer months with additional “theatrical” entertainment.
My tip – eat before you go, there are some nice, reasonably priced choices down in the village. Alternatively, take a picnic and enjoy it by the river – it’s a beautiful village and you will be spoilt for choice. There are toilets at the castle but I suggest you go before you start the tour – trailing back to the loo and then trying to find your group again is a pain, especially in the summer when the castle is very busy.
Who is this attraction suitable for ?
This is a real family pleaser and children love it. For the adults it’s probably not the castle for you if you love to admire medieval furnishings and magnificently decorated chambers – this castle is all about the art of war. That said, the Weapons Collections are interesting, the setting is stunning and they make a lot of effort to make a visit entertaining.
I would not recommend a visit for anyone with any mobility issues. There is a lot of walking in you hope to see everything, several climbs – particularly if you walk up from the village and they really didn’t build medieval castles with friendly staircases. Also a no-no for anyone with a push-chair!
If you are visiting during July and August remember that this is a very popular attraction and there are likely to be lots of visitors, particularly during the afternoons so visit early or go expecting it to be busy.
Make a day of it:
Depending on the time of year and the ages of your party I would leave three hours for your visit – longer if it’s the summer and you want to watch the entertainments.
The castle is very close to Sarlat so it would pair very well with a trip to the town. Alternatively you could have a “castle day” and visit the neighbouring Chateau des Milandes. The two are as different as chalk and cheese so there is no worry of duplication. This castle is always a winner with younger visitors so should leave them in good spirits if you decide to team this visit with one to the nearby Gardens at Marqueyssac which are gorgeous. Castelnaud and Marqueyssac have a twin ticket option so you can visit the two at a reduced price.
You can come back from Castelnaud via La Roque Gageac and take a river trip on the Gabarres – suitable for all the family. Alternatively try a visit to Castelnaud in the afternoon and then an evening trip into Sarlat – there are some lovely family restaurants and the street entertainers during the summer give the old town a lovely atmosphere.
You can check the castle’s own website for pricing and events information in English at castelnaud.com