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A brief history of humanity at renovated chateau

As recently as 50 years ago, all you could see of the Château de Commarque was part of the castle’s keep and the cross on top of the chapel, just visible among the trees on a densely wooded hillside.

Now the treasures of the site have been revealed after decades of painstaking archaeological and historical research, a massive – and continuing – clearing operation and major works to reinforce and restore crumbling walls.

The chateau, between Sarlat and Les Eyzies in the Dordogne, has been open to the public since 2000.

Last year it was awarded the Grand Trophée de la Plus Belle Restauration by the Fondation pour les Monuments Historiques and Le Figaro Magazine.

Owner Hubert de Commarque said: “The site is unique because it was lived in from prehistoric times up to the 16th
century. After that, it was deserted and so we have an open history book we can read, from the caves lived in by early man at the bottom of the cliffs up to the homes built further up the hillside for the lords who ruled over this territory.

“Here there is everything man needed. A spring, plenty of wild animals and stone cliffs, first to shelter in and then to provide building materials. This was an important route between the two towns of Montignac and Sarlat. Later, the seats of power changed and the inhabitants moved on.”

Visitors get a hint of what our ancestors saw – cars are parked out of sight and the castle is a short walk down a lane into the grassy valley of the Beaune, where there is no evidence of modern life. No telephone wires, no tarmac... the only building opposite is a 14th century private castle.

At every turn, the stones and cliffs show the marks that tell the story of Commarque. On the hillside, the visitor discovers a medieval castle with the remains of surrounding houses, a chapel and a paved street.

The imposing keep has two halves. A 12th-century section with thick walls has stone trapdoors in the ceilings, through which noble families would climb using ladders they would haul up after them to make sure they were safe from attack.

An elegant window with columns high up in the tower shows it was for people of importance. Added on is the 13th-century half, with slimmer walls and larger living spaces. When restoration work started, the tower was an empty shell; now floors and stone stairs have been added, so visitors can get a feel of what it was like.

The latest project was the 14th-century corps de logis, or living quarters, which juxtapose the keep – and here too a spiral staircase and floors have been added and fireplaces restored. Scaffolding was erected up the sheer walls and expert masons refaced the stone, which was crumbling.

Records show that the complex was inhabited by different noble families at the same time, each with their own tower.  They did not necessarily live harmoniously as records also show there were several court cases.

Down on the valley floor are the entrances to caves, which were inhabited from the Paleolithic period.

Sadly, impressive prehistoric carvings cannot be seen by the public as the entrances are narrow and access is difficult. The valley in which Commarque is situated has the largest concentration of engraved Paleolithic caves in the world.

All along the cliffs below the castle are the tell-tale square indentations where wooden beams were once fixed for the houses built against the rock face.

“These would have been for the roof timbers,” said Mr Commarque. “The rest of the building would have been below the ground we are standing on.

“Since man first lived here, there has been a build-up of about 15 metres of peat. This is something we now want to explore, to find what is hidden below us. Everything we uncover, every detail in the stone, gives us yet more clues as to the way life was lived here in the past.

“If you look at these stairs carved in the rock and then look just next to it, you can see a cruder, narrower set which were made earlier, when tools were less developed. Everything tells a story.”

Though Hubert de Commarque is the present owner and, as his name indicates, his ancestors also lived here, he had to buy the site in 1968 before he could start work. In the early 20th century, the site was bought by a German prince who had acquired a nearby chateau. For five years he pillaged Commarque for building stone.

“He demolished at least four towers and a house,” said Mr Commarque.

He says he bought it because he knew the whole place would fall into irreparable ruin if he did not act. He had already inherited other chateaux in the region, which he had restored, and he has always been passionate about heritage and the environment so it was a natural step to tackle Commarque. “I never imagined that I would open it to the public, though,” he said. “I thought it would be too difficult. I just wanted to preserve the site.”

It has been a long struggle. He could not fund it alone and has had to battle to find finance, comply with regulations and convince local people that it should open.

He received financial help from the state and from American sponsors who helped fund the costly annual archaeological digs and research for more than 25 years.

Then, when he wanted to open it to the public, an association was set up to fight the plan. He is not sure that a National Trust-like organisation would have helped as he would not have liked to give control to someone else who might not have shared his vision. He is also not the sort of man to direct everything from the end of a telephone – he is very hands-on.

Now in his seventies and recovering from a stroke, he was recently shifting trees and more earth to reveal the walls of yet another lord’s house.

He runs Commarque with his wife Christine and children, Aude and Jean, and he clearly loves the place. He took me to see every nook and cranny, involving quite a climb from bottom to top.

He said:  “We have tried to keep restoration minimalist so as to keep the magic of the place alive. After all these years and the struggle it has been, I find it a great satisfaction when visitors show their enthusiasm and you can see the stars in their eyes as they discover a miraculous place and they thank us with emotion.”

Open April to November. Workshops for children.

More photos can be found with this article online at

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