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Inspiring Life & Travel in France

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Inspiring Life & Travel in France

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Le Plus Beau Village: Monpazier, A Model French Bastide

Growing up in Charlotte, North Carolina, I never cared much about history.

In fact, for years, I had a recurrent dream that I’d never really graduated from UNC-Chapel Hill because of a missing history credit. The surprise came to me in my dream as a letter asking me to return my diploma.

My resistance to learning history has changed since I lived in France. I can’t get enough of it. In fact, piecing together the names and places I’ve read about are reasons I’m passionate about visiting Les Plus Beaux Villages de France. The small towns are filled with stories and relics of the past.

Monpazier: A Model Bastide

Monpazier was on my Les Plus Beaux Villages tour last April while returning to Uzès from the States. Little did I know that when writing about the trip a year later, the experience would feel so real. On “lockdown” for Covid-19, I imagine myself holed up in a tiny, enclosed village in France. This town, founded around 1284 by King Edward 1st, King of England and Duke of Aquitaine, has seen some of the worst times in history — wars, invaders, the Black Plague, and typhoid.

In the mid-thirteenth century, towns like Monpazier emerged throughout southwestern France. The organized design of streets, houses, and commercial areas, known as bastides, was ideal for life in an otherwise wild and uncivilized territory. It was a near-perfect, sustainable town. Citizens had a plot to build a home and garden, access to communal fields for farming, and a marketplace to sell their goods. Towns had charters, and the people generated revenue taxed by the overlords — a step away from past feudalism.

Montpazier is, perhaps, one of the most visited examples of bastides today. Much of the town is as it was in the 1300s — the same structures, streets, and passageways.

Unlike Gaelic cities such as Carcassonne and Aigues-Mortes, which were built with defensive walls, most bastides were planned without fortifications. They had gates but no walls. Commerce was the way of life, not war. That is, until the Hundred Years’ War. Then, citizens found it necessary to protect themselves from invading French and English armies.

Three of the four tower gates that guarded the entrances of Monpazier at either end of the two main north-south streets still exist and mark the boundary between town and country.

In Monpazier, significant streets and alleyways run through the town. The narrow carreyroues, or ruelles, give access to the rear gardens or outbuildings — some initially served as firebreaks, a runoff channel for rain from gabled roofs, or even a place to place garbage. Occasionally, you will see rooms on little bridges across the carreyroues where homeowners, over the years, needed extra space.

The town’s marketplace, La Place des Cornières, and its arcades are the most remarkable features of Monpazier.

The market is the center of commerce and entertainment activity, which remains the same as in medieval times. What is unusual about this square is the design of the arcades. Each corner entrance facing the market has a diagonal arched cornières opening that gives direct access to the central open space.

Another unusual feature of this medieval town is where the church is located. Instead of dominating the town square, the Church of St. Dominique is set off. This was a town devoted to commerce, not the church. Several neighboring villages are designed similarly, so it must have been a sign of the times.

Church of St. Dominique

Monpazier Facts and Fiction

A few tales and legends persist about Monpazier. As stunning as Monpazier is, it is not the perfect example of a bastide. Not all were built in grids. Wikipedia describes a bastide as “any town planned and built as a single unit, by a single founder.”

Another story is supposedly true. During the Hundred Years’ War, the people of Monpazier devised a plan to plunder nearby Villefranche-du-Perigord — a dastardly deed that was not uncommon during those times. When the robbers arrived in the town, it was strangely quiet. They took what they could carry and returned to Monpazier only to find their village had been burgled by the villagers of Villefranche! While bizarre, the story does have a happy ending. Each town’s residents returned the things they had taken from the other.

More than 30 buildings in Monpazier are listed as “Monuments Historiques” by the French. 

I visited Monpazier on a market day. Not many tourists were around, so it was easy to pop in and out of the cute shops. Of course, duck for lunch was a must. This is Dordogne!

When to visit Monpazier

We may not know how or when our pandemic nightmare is over, but life will return to some level of “normal.” When it does, a perfect time to visit Monpazier is Spring or early summer. About an hour’s drive from Sarlat-la-Canéda, you can visit Castelnaud-la-Chapelle and Beynac on the way. Belves, a medieval town with troglodyte dwellings, is nearby. Check out local events by clicking here.

  • Every Thursday morning: market
  • Fête des fleurs: 3rd Sunday in May
  • Fête de la musique: June
  • Fête Médiévale: July

Monpazier is not a prominent place, but plan 3-4 hours to enjoy the atmosphere. You might like to stop at the memorial park if there’s time.

There’s a great brewery outside of town, too.



Day trip from Uzes to the Cevennes

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