The Chateau des Milandes is one of the prettiest castles in the Dordogne and, unlike most of its neighbours, some of its most interesting history is recent. The larger, more imposing castles with their military history are fascinating but this picture postcard little castle stands out because of the remarkable and inspiring life story of its most famous owner – Josephine Baker.
Built in 1489, this beautiful building is a combination of Renaissance architecture and Gothic features. Home to the lords of Caumont, a wealthy family of note, the Chateau was abandoned after the Revolution and fell into disrepair until it was “rescued” in 1900 by Charles Claverie, a wealthy industrialist. Between 1900 and 1914 the house got a full re-vamp – the beautiful stained glass windows were saved, and an entire wing, towers, gargoyles and balconies were added. A winery, overlooking the valley was built to help finance the project, and in 1908 a celebrated french landscape architect was given the task of creating the beautiful gardens.
The fabulous Josephine Baker
The Castle sat quietly until 1947 when the celebrated american cabaret artist Josephine Baker made it her home. Born in 1906 in Saint Louis, Missouri, to an African American mother and a white father, Josephine endured a difficult childhood in a city marked by racial segregation. Travelling to France in 1925 as part of a Cabaret act, the “Revue Nègre” played to packed houses at the Théâtre des Champs-Elysées where Josephine caused more than a few raised eyebrows with her revealing costumes and saucy performances. Eventually headlining with the famous Folies Bergère, Josephine took a leading role wearing pink feathers and her famous belt made of bananas – which is displayed in the Castle.
Josephine, who by this time was internationally famous, married Jean Lion, a wealthy French industrialist, and took French nationality in 1938. The marriage was not to last although it did enable Jean Lion and his Jewish family to find sanctuary in America, no doubt saving them from the concentration camps. Josephine played a very real part in resistance to the war and was recruited in 1939 by the Free French Forces. Taking full advantage of her international celebrity status Josephine acted as both courier and informant and even used her music acts to send coded messages. These efforts did not go unnoticed and Josephine was later awarded the Rosette de la Resistance and the Croix de guerre and was made a Chevalier of the Legion d’honneur.
In 1947, Josephine married again – this time to Jo Bouillon, a famous orchestra conductor, in the beautiful chapel at Milandes. Sharing the dream of a “Global Village” the couple were determined to show the world that children of different nationalities and religions could live and thrive together. Together they adopted 12 children from around the globe to create a « Rainbow Tribe ». Initially a huge success the happy extended family hit problems as they struggled to fund their dream. Not a natural business woman, overly-generous and often the target of unscrupulous contractors Josephine was crippled by enormous debts when Jo finally left her.
In addition to building her own Rainbow Family Josephine became involved in the American Civil Rights after 36 New York hotels refused the couple reservations because of her colour. She was so upset that she wrote articles about segregation in the United States and gave speeches at Universities in the South. Her reputation as a crusader grew and in 1963, Josephine spoke at the famous March on Washington at the side of Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr.
No doubt these activities helped to distract Josephine from trouble brewing at home and in 1968 the Château was put into administration to be sold to the highest bidder, despite earlier efforts to save it. In an attempt to delay the inevitable Josephine barricaded herself into the castle kitchen – her removal by force left her in hospital. A heartbroken Josephine settled in the Côte d’Azur with the help of her friend Princess Grace of Monaco and in an attempt to repay her debts went back to the stage. The new show and was very well received but sadly, after only a few performances in Paris, an exhausted Josephine was found unresponsive in bed and was pronounced dead on 12 April 1975 from a cerebral hemorrhage.
In 2012 the Château was given the French Heritage classification of “Maison des Illustres”, a “House of the Illustrious”, in tribute to an exceptional woman.
The Castle makes much of Josephine’s role in its history and the inside is beautifully presented with the rooms maintained in fabulous art deco style – the bathrooms are stunning!. There are large displays explaining the history of her left and lots of her costumes and dresses are on display – including the bananas!. You can take a tour – the guides are knowledgeable and enthusiastic and do speak english or you can use the “audiotour” and go round at your own pace. I really would recommend you take or the tour or at least pay the extra for the audioguide – the explanation of the exhibits and their story really helps you appreciate Josephine’s fascinating story.
Outside the gardens are beautiful and are listed as an Historic Monument. The formal grid style garden is surrounded by immaculate but less formal parkland. The gardens have been recently improved and they have added some lovely water features – even if gardens aren’t your thing they are well worth a stroll around.
If you are hungry there is a very nice Brasserie in a converted castle building – lovely setting, reasonably priced, a good choice of fresh dishes but can be a little busy in July and August although it is reserved for Castle visitors so doesn’t get over-run.
For the children there is a very well presented and entertaining Birds of Prey Show which is mostly in French but honestly it didn’t seem to matter. You can appreciate the birds without understanding all the commentary. The setting, just in front of the Castle, really adds to the experience.
(Tip – if you can be a little early for the show grab yourself seats in the shade of the castle – it might not look like the best view of the birds but you really feel the sun sitting there for a few minutes).
Who is this attraction suitable for?
I would say everyone. It’s not got the same child appeal as some of the larger, medieval castles – the kids do love those medieval weapons – but Josephine’s story is brought to life and all but the very youngest children do seem interested. There isn’t a huge amount of walking and it’s all on good surfaces. The Birds of Prey display is a winner with the whole family and the children do enjoy the castle and gardens.
Make a day of it –
I would leave 2 1/2 hours for a visit to Milandes, including the Birds of Prey display – you might need longer if you have children interested in the birds.
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 Castelnaud la Chapelle. The two are as different as chalk and cheese so there is no worry of duplication. If you are having to persuade the children to suffer yet another “old building” you might be able to convince them with the promise of a trip to one of the aerial centres – you will drive past two on the road to Sarlat so maybe a morning at Milandes and then tree climbing on the way home. You can come back from Milandes via La Roque Gageac and take a trip on the Gabarres – suitable for all the family. Alternatively try a visit to Milandes 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. If you feel like pushing the boat out there are some excellent higher-end restaurants – a little pricey but you’re on holiday!