Hautefort and Tourtoirac
Just outside the Vézère Ardoise some 15 minutes drive from Saint Robert is the famous Château de Hautefort which dominates the watershed between the Vézère and Auvézère rivers. On the Auvézère, down stream from Ségur-le-Château, the Forge of Savignac-Ledrier and the Papeterie de Vaux the village of Tourtoirac is situated.
Château de Hautefort
Hautefort is one of the most prestigious châteaux in Dordogne and indeed South-West France and is a listed historical monument. Build on a promontory it today overlooks the village of Hautefort. The site likely supported the roman camp of Altus et Fortis' and might have been a celtic oppodium before that. The current castle was build and rebuild from the 9th century onward, though little remains of the medieval strong hold, as is was extensively remodeled from the 16th century onward to become the grand renaissance castle you find today. Another reason making it famous is because a couple of Hollywood and French movies are shot here!
The grand château, build on a symmetrical plan with a main building and two wings embracing a terraced courtyard that overlooks the landscape to the south. The first wing encompasses the drawbridge (rebuild in 1588 preserving some of the defensive aspects like the moat: Where Drew Barrymore ran out in a famous Hollywood movie “Ever After: A Cinderella Story”!) connects to the 15th century round Tower of Brittany supporting the dome-shaped roof with its oak and chestnut wooden structures added in 1678. To enter the top floor to visit the interior is a must do, because a phenomenal experience is guaranteed! The second wing was added after 1644 to perfect the symmetry a round tower (similar to the medieval one) was added (and also crowned with a dome-shaped roof) which still houses the chapel.
The style of the chateau is little known in the Dordogne and more like those built by the nobles in the Loire Valley. A stroll around the building will bring you to the village oven and woodshed under the chapel, an underground tunnel serving the former kitchens and staff quarters under the large chimney room. More recently, during the second world war, the underground space was used to hide French national treasures including the windows of the Cathedrals of Strasbourg, Nancy, Mulhouse and Colmar, together with precious manuscripts from their municipal libraries and artifacts from their museums.
The whole château is surrounded by impressive French style formal gardens. The gardens of the Château de Hautefort have been awarded France's Jardin Remarquable status. They comprise a beautiful French Formal garden with lots of clipped hedges producing geometric shapes and patterns which are filled with varying planting displays. Looking down from the courtyard you will find the hedges pruned into sheep-shearing scissors that are part of the coat of arms of the Hautefort family (you will find them everywhere in the windows and floors of the castle and chapel as well). The English style landscaped park and gardens were designed in the 19th century by the Compte de Choulot, a famous landscape architect of the time. (entrance fee)
This museum for the history of medicine is locate in the old hospice of Hautefort. Initially a place for the old and weak it developed into a hospital. Designed in the shape of a cross with a round chapel at its heart. The wards are separated from the chapel by a wooden frame that could be opened so the patients could attend mass whiles remaining in their beds. One ward was recreated, the other wards now function as exhibition space for an interesting collection of historic medical equipment.
This small village on the Auvézère river has some pleasantly shaded picnic spaces on an island in the river, reachable by a small pedestrian bridge. At the back of the church you will find a small museum dedicated to the kings of Araucania.
Le Musée des Rois d’Araucania et de Patagonie
For those of us growing-up with reading Bruce Chatwin’s In Patagonia, the king of Araucania might ring a bell. Araucania is located in present day Chile between the Biobio river in the north, and the the city of Valdivia to the south. Indigenous peoples resisted the Inca expansion, and drove the Spanish out in 1598, their status settled in the 1641 Quillin pact, remaining independent till 1875.
So what does all this have to do with this spot in rural France? In 1825 a boy was born in a small hamlet close to Tourtoirac. He initially became a lawyer in Perigueux but then looked for adventure. Scouring over maps he discovers Araucaria and in 1859 sets out to claim it for France. After some time in the Freemasons lodge of Valparaiso, he crosses into Araucania by 1860.
He somehow convinces the locals to unite against Chile and Argentina, and declared himself king. After writing a constitution, a national anthem, designing a national flag and stationary, he informed the world. The indigenous population on the Argentine side of the Andes seemed to like the idea, and asked to join, leaving him the King of Araucaria and Patagonia!
The Chilean government was less amused, ambushed him, put him in jail, and a few months later, on trial. Though the former lawyer was able to defend himself, it took the French consul to get him out, and onto a ship back to France. He took up residence in Paris where he spent his time writing petitions and looking for funds to realize his dream. One profitable business being the sale of royal titles and rewards.
He managed to return in 1868, was arrested in Argentina in 1874, and tried again in 1876 but fell ill, returned to his birth place broke (but not broken). Spent his last years lighting streetlights, and died in September 1878… He did manage to find a successor, after his family refused the hereditary title, presently the Prince of Araucaria resides in Paris.
There is this small museum at the back of the abbey, and you are able to visit his grave (and that of his successor) in the graveyard just outside the village. This small museum is dedicated to a footnote in history, but a curious addition to the Tourtoirac cave.
La grotte de Tourtoirac
Situated off the road to Hautefort this cave opened to visitors in the summer of 2010. The Grotte de Tourtoirac is a real geological gem. Discovered in 1995, the cave offers a 300m circuit illuminated by neutral-coloured LED lighting. The stalactites (which hang from the roof), stalagmites (which rise from the floor), draperies, candles and pillars can also be admired by visitors with reduced mobility, thanks to a lift and small footbridges which crosses the underground Clautre river. (entrance fee)