For a village that is amongst the top tourist sites in France and on the list of the association of the most beautiful villages in France, La Roque Gageac only gets two sentences on the website, Wikipedia. I am sure there are reasons for this limited acknowledgement but it is no reflection on this ancient and gorgeous place on the Dordogne River in Nouvelle Aquitaine in southwestern France. It is about 10 Kms from Sarlat but it is not far up the river from the other famous river towns such as Beynac, Castelnaud and Domme. Like them it sits on a meander of the river with a mountain’s sheer cliff protecting it from the north-east. Like these other river towns, La Roque Gageac needed protection from marauders coming up the river from the coast. The other towns mentioned built castles or, as in the case of Domme, built walls around their town. La Roque didn’t have the population for a castle and needed open access to the river so they used their natural assets for protection during troubled times; their cliff face. Whilst there is evidence of pre-history sites around La Roque, it first appears in the historical record in the ninth century, just in time to receive Viking marauders in long ships coming up the Dordogne River. They simply retreated to their well defended ‘Troglodyte’ cavern up in the cliff face which protected its citizens from these northern warriors who had started to settle in today’s Normandy. The image above sets out clearly the geographical characteristics of La Roque that has governed its history for the last 1200 years.
When visiting La Roque Gageac, there are two approaches to appreciating this hemmed in village between river and cliff face. The first stage of such a visit would be to wander the riverfront first and then wander up into the limited back streets. The map below gives you some suggestions as to the key sites to visit while in town. Perhaps the site that is the most prominent in La Roque-Gageac’s history is the Troglodyte fort up in the cliff face. This series of caves in the cliff face was developed back in the twelfth century and continued to be fortified up to the 17th century. It provided protection for the people of the village throughout the wars of Middle Ages; attacks from above the cliff and from the river being easy to defend with arrows and other projectiles. The access to the village from opposite ends of town were also narrow enough to be defended by relatively small numbers of archers. The Troglodyte Cave fell into disrepair and was raided for its stone blocks in the 18th century. It was redeveloped as a tourist attraction after World War 2. However the cave’s main enemy is the cliff itself. In January of 1957 a large rock-slide destroyed 6 buildings below and 3 people were killed in the incident. It was renovated in 1992 and the wooden staircase constructed for the tourist industry. However on the 3rd of January, 2010, the village had to be evacuated and the road closed as there was a major concern of imminent rockfall. On the 9th of January 2010, part of the ceiling of the Troglodyte cave collapsed doing great damage to the 12th century fortifications. Significant work has been done on the cliff face to prevent further significant falls and it is unclear if the cave will be reopened.
The road into the village was closed for 7 weeks in 2010 while work on stabilising the cliff face was carried out. We arrived to visit in June 2011 and although I was disappointed at not being able to see the Troglodyte cavern, the rest of the town was worth the visit. Our first stop was, as the above map calls it, L’Eglise au Clocher Mur, translating as “the church with the clock tower” The original name of this small chapel was ‘Our Lady of La Roque Gageac’ and was constructed in 1337.
Just above the small church on High Street is a garden that seems to have been transported from tropical climes. It is protected by the cliff face so it is a natural ‘solarium’ and so can grow palm trees and fruit trees that you wouldn’t expect to see in this part of France. Further along Cliff Street is the Manoir de Tarde, one of the loveliest buildings in the village. It was built by a famous son of La Roque Gageac in the 16th century, Jean Tarde, who is described as an Astronomer, Philosopher, Mathematician, Archaeologist, Theologian and Historian…truly a man for all seasons and careers. His writings are the major source of information about the area during the middle ages. Most interesting for me was that he knew Galileo Galilei (1564-1642) and visited him in Rome, returning with one of his famous telescopes to investigate the heavens, particularly the controversial theories of Copernicus that the stars revolved around the sun, not the Earth. Like Galileo, Tarde was forced by the church to retract any beliefs he may have expressed about the nature of the cosmos, particularly the failing belief that our planet was the centre of the universe.
If you return to the map of the village earlier in this article, you will notice that after inspecting Manoir Tarde, you continue along Cliff Street, pass the closed steps to the Troglodyte Fort and encounter site #6, ‘Maison Detruites’ (destroyed houses). These are the houses mentioned earlier in this article that were destroyed in 1957 by a rockfall. The sign in French here explains the details of the day ‘en hommage’ to the victims of this tragic event.
After our stroll around the village of La Roque Gageac, we returned to riverside dock where we were booked to go for a boat ride on one of the replica Gabares, the flat bottom boat that was the main means of trade along the Dordogne River for many centuries. Our trip on the river took us back down the Dordogne where we able to get a view of Castelnaud up on its cliff top before we turned back to La Roque. The journey gave us a close-up view of the river side houses of La Roque Gageac as well as getting the best view of a most impressive building on the edge of the village, the Castle of the Malartrie. Although it looks like a beautifully restored chateau of the 16th century, it was begun in the late 19th century and finished in 1920.
After enjoying our first boat trip on the Dordogne River, we had a last stroll along the quay. Next to the Emaux d’Art shop we found a stone marker indicating dates and heights of water during the inevitable spectacular floods that affect a village built so close to the river. Below is an image (Photo credit: Marcellin Gorry) from 2018 of one of the major floods. It was titled “feet in the water”.