On our last full day in the Dordogne Region, we took the opportunity to travel the 45 minute trip from Limeuil to Perigueux, the main administrative city of the ‘Department’. Our time visiting this area of France was spent mainly in villages along the Vezere and Dordogne Rivers where there was plenty of evidence of humanity during prehistorical times. However the citizens of these valleys didn’t trouble the historical records too much before the tenth century. Not so for Perigueux. The name itself is derived from the Gallic tribes that lived in the area before the Romans began their military expeditions into this territory. Julius Caesar finished his conquest of Gaul around 50 BCE and not long afterwards, the Gallo-Roman town of Versunna developed on the banks of the river L’Isle. By the end of third century CE, it was fully fledged small city surrounded by walls with the name Civitas Petrocoriorum.
On our walk taking in the sights of Perigueux, it was the surviving remnants of Roman Versunna that were our first targets. After we found a car park, our first destination was the Jardin des Arenes. The remnants of the Roman town’s amphitheatre (built in the first century AD in the time of the Emperor Tiberius) must have been a ruined puzzle for the citizens for many centuries after it slowly decayed at the end of the Roman empire and its stones reused in newer buildings in the town. It was reused as a fortress in the Middle Ages. Eventually in the 19th century it was realised that that the old ruins could be converted to a public garden and the surviving walls could be used, not only to enclose the space but to highlight this important symbol of the history of the town. It was a beautiful garden to wander around with its beautiful fountain and the pathways sneaking off to exit through old Roman doorways covered by trees and trailing greenery.
The image above right is part of a very helpful map provided by the local tourist bureau which has highlighted a walk around the city taking in the ‘recovered’ sites of the Gallo-Roman city. Site #2 on the map indicates a remnant of the 950m wall that the citizens of Perigueux retired inside during the Barbarian invasions of France during the 4th century. Site # 3 is the so called Knight’s House, the Maison D’Angouleme which used the old Roman Wall as the substructure of this ‘stronghold’ house that would have been on the front line of any defence against invading Vandals or Visigoths.
Further along the line of the old wall of the town is another remnant of Perigueux’s ancient defences. Chateau Barriere was built in the twelfth century as part of the old city walls. In fact part of it was built from stones from the original Roman wall. It was added to over the next four centuries but it was badly damaged during the Religious Wars of the 16th century. Perigueux suffered severely under Protesant occupation between 1575-81 and this ‘chivalrous stronghold’ was burnt at the start of this period by Hugenot Soldiers. Chateau Barriere was left as a decaying monument of the times for the next four centuries.
Below is part of a map of a 1906 Perigueux that outlines this section of the old walls and illustrates how the Tower of Veonne and the archaeological area around the Gallo-Roman Museum were outside the old walls.
From the line of the old city wall, we decided to duck across and have a look at the EGLISE St Etienne La Cite (St Stephens Church). It continued the theme of Roman connections as it was built in the 11th century on the site of an original Roman temple dedicated to Mars. It was the first cathedral of the town. It suffered like so many other churches in this region during the time of the Religious Wars losing its bell tower and two domes in the process.
From St Stephens Church we headed down the aptly named Rue Romaine to the Park of Vesone that houses the Vesunna Gallo-Roman Museum and the Tour de Vésone. This parkland contains the most significant of the Gallo-Roman ruins of Perigueux. The Tower of Vesone is an amazing survivor of 2000 years of, at times, tempestuous history and speaks volumes to the skill of the original builders in the second century of the Common Era. It is 24.5 metres high and was the sacred part of a temple to the Goddess Vesuna. The site of the original town here was likely based on the presence of a spring and it is believed that ‘Vesuna’ meant something like ‘Valley Spring’. Its walls were originally faced with marble, both inside and out. The large breach in the walls of the tower corresponds with the original doorway to the tower. One possible reason for its long survival is that after the end of Roman presence in the town, the tower was repurposed as a defensive tower.
On the right here is part of a map from 1575 that shows the site of the St Stephens Basilica sitting forlornly in what looks like devastated countryside. The ruins of the amphitheatre can be seen behind it and a half buried Tour de Vésone is at the bottom of the image. 1575 was the time of the Religious Wars when Perigueux was taken over by its religious opponents and both St Stephens Basilica and the Cathedral of St Front were severely damaged during this period. I am not sure whether the draftsman intended to present this forlorn landscape as an indication that the population of the area had moved inside the medieval walls of Perigueux.
Fifty metres west of the tower is the Vesunna Museum which was a very interesting place to visit. It represents a great story of a city accidentally recovering its history. In 1959 builders were laying the foundations for apartments when they found themselves digging up the remains of a Roman House. The museum today is a glass structure built in 2003 that covers the Roman building and we were able to walk around its raised walkways checking out the archaeological displays, particularly the mosaics. The museum houses both artifacts gathered at this site as well as other Roman sites in the area.
A major section of the museum is devoted to showing the remains of the ‘Vesone Domus’ which was built in the first century CE. It had all the amenities of a wealthy Roman house including a private thermal bath and a garden with a pool at is centre. Its usage as a smart urban townhouse didn’t survive far into the second century when it was back-filled and the area reused.
It can be said that Perigueux developed from two different centres. The first centred around the original Basilical, St Etienne La Cite, and the second is centred around St Front Cathedral. After finishing at the Vesuna Museum we headed toward Mataguerre Tower on Rue des Farges, just over the road from the City’s tourist Office. This is the beginning of the second centre of Perigueux based around the Cathedral of St Front and close to the river. During the Middle Ages, fortified walls were built around this section of town. The 1575 map below depicts the new centre of Perigueux’s population with the Cathedral of St Front in the middle but the fortified walls clearly didn’t stop their Protestant adversaries getting through them to try to eradicate the Catholic iconography of the city.
The Mataguerre Tower is all that is left of this medieval wall. Unlike much of this wall which began in the 12th century, the Mataguerre Tower was built in the 15th century and no doubt it was considered the latest military technology. There were 27 towers and 12 gates in this wall so it would have appeared very impressive to the citizens concerned about enemy invasions. Alas it didn’t protect them during the War of Religions.
As can be seen on the map of Perigueux in Appendix 1, it is a reasonably straight walk from Mataguerre Tower to the centre of town to the St Front Cathedral. Like most churches in France, the Bell Tower is the section of the church you see first and is generally separate from the main building. This was usually to ensure the height of the bell tower didn’t put too many stresses on the Church’s structure. In the diagram of the cathedral below right, the site of this Romanesque bell tower is indicated by #3 and is linked the front of the cathedral. The heavier black lines in the diagram indicate the outline of the original church on this spot; this bell tower was built over the remains of an earlier church burnt down in 1166. Like so many ancient Christian sites, this burnt church was erected over an even earlier church from the sixth century.
The Cathedral is named after St Front, the first bishop Perigueux. This site was initially an abbey where St Front was buried. When the original church was no longer coping, the phase two church was built and the relics of St Front were placed in a crypt under the altar of this church. In the diagram above, the area marked 4* is where this earlier altar was originally. Amongst the casualties in the large scale destruction of this cathedral during the War of Religions was the altar, the crypt and the relics of St Front, destroyed in 1575.
At the front of the Church there is a tourist sign that summaries some key points about St Front Cathedral.
“Classified as a UNESCO World heritage Site (1998), the cathedral is an important stage on the St James of Compostella Pilgrim’s Way which follows the Vezelay Route. (It was) Quoted in the Pilgrim’s Guide, written in the 12th century by Aymeric Picaud. St Front’s tomb, round in shape like the Holy Sepulchre, was destroyed during the Wars of Religion. Its unique Greek Cross ground-plan, similar to St Mark’s in Venice, is the basis for the five cupolas.The building was restored in the 19th century by Abadie who used it as a model for the construction of the Sacre Coeur church in Montmartre. The 12th century bell tower separates the former Roman Church from the Byzantine-inspired Basilica.”
One of the minor puzzles about the Cathedral of St Front is the origin of the ‘oriental’ design of the church with its five domes. It was a unique structure at the time of construction. The tourist sign just quoted suggests St Mark’s in Venice as the inspiration. Others suggest the model was the church of the Holy Apostles in Constantinople. In the end, it doesn’t matter, it is a beautiful church from whatever angle you view it. My favourite section inside the cathedral is the stunning Baroque carving that is the 17th century altarpiece celebrating the annunciation of the Virgin Mary and her assumption into heaven.
The amazing black and white photo here gives an indication of the state of the Cathedral and the houses along the river nearby in the mid 19th century. I could not find an exact date for the image but it was apparently taken before the major renovations to the cathedral took place. These renovations lasted from 1852 to 1895.
After our tour around St Front Cathedral it was approaching 4pm and it was time to make our drive back to Limeuil. Like every other place in the Perigord/Dordogne region, we enjoyed our day in Perigueux immensely. It is a fascinating place and a town we would have liked to have spent much more time in. However, we wanted to get back to our home village of the week and wander at dusk in the gardens on top of the hill in Limeuil. The rest of the evening would be spent in packing and we had a long drive in the morning to Lyon to catch our plane out of France
Appendix 1: Map of our walk through Perigueux
The brown line at the bottom left indicates part of the old ramparts of Perigueux.
APPENDIX 2 : St James de Compostella Pilgrim’s Way (Veselay Route)