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Exploring Brantôme, France (Caves, Waterways, and More)

I've been an online writer for nine years. I live in Limousin, France, and have fully immersed myself in the culture and food of the region.

Le Brantome: The Venice of Dordogne

Le Brantome: The Venice of Dordogne

Brantôme Is One of France's Most Beautiful Villages

Brantôme is a beautiful French town situated in the Perigord region of Dordogne in southwest France. It's officially classified as one of the most beautiful villages of France, although it is more a town than a village. The old town itself is built on an island, surrounded by waterways, crossed with ancient bridges and bordered by quaint, stone houses. The streets are narrow and lined with traditional French shops and cafés and the whole town is bedecked with flowers. Brantôme is nothing if not picturesque.

But it is so much more than picturesque. Historically, it has its origins in Neolithic times when humans first inhabited its extensive caves. This was a time of the troglodytes, the cave-dwellers, but as time went on, people emerged from the caves and began to build monuments to the sky gods.

An abbey rose from the rocks; the rocks themselves became the foundations. From the earth, the people came into the air and began to build a town surrounded by water. Dwellings were made from earth fired into clay tiles, metals smelted from the stones and glass made from earth and fire. Brantôme was born.

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Brantôme's Neolithic Origins

Cave dwellings are found all over the world, and in France, they often play an important role in the development of towns. Many French towns and cities have grown up around a subterranean sanctuary, sacred cave or cave temple, examples can be found in the Loire Valley, in Mescher in Gironde, Aubeterre in Charente and Puy Saint-Front, Perigueux in the Dordogne. In the early days of Christianity, the caves offered secrecy for the first preachers and refuge from persecution.

The earth has nurtured Brantôme and its human inhabitants for over 40,000 years. The waters of the river Dronne have carved out cliffs with natural caves formed from limestone rocks high on the Aquitaine plateau. The caves, enlarged by quarrying and excavations, gave shelter against the wind and rain while the fertile river teemed with fish providing food and fresh, pure water.

The Neolithic peoples lived in these caves and created the Dolmen of the Pierre Levée, sited just outside the town, from large slabs of stone forming walls and roof of a burial chamber that would have been fleshed out with earth mounded over it. Here they would have placed and revered the bones of their ancestors.

The Celts, and their mystic Druid priests, gave Brantôme its name, a combination of the Celtic words for water and rocks. A 17th-century monk of Brantôme wrote in one of his letters:

The caves of Brantôme, which were famous in pagan times as places of worship for false gods, were rendered illustrious by the presence of several persons who converted them into hermitages. These places were as well adapted as places of habitation as they were for worship and the sacrifices which, as we have said, the pagans made to their idols. And of all these such usages, traces may still be found.

You can visit the caves for a small fee, access is through the Tourist Information Office within the abbey buildings. They have plenty of notice boards with good information.

Religious History of Brantôme

As the people turned from the earth to the sky for their spiritual inspiration, so the caves began to represent material for the servants of God to use to climb towards the heavens, raising buildings to the glory of their new deity.

The cave of the Last Judgement bears witness to the emerging early church. Deep within the shelter of the earth and on the cave walls themselves, there are wonderful carvings that redefine dwellings as places of Christian worship.

The first abbey, built by Benedictine monks, is said to have been founded in 769 by Charlemagne, who, according to legend, donated relics of Saint Sicarius (or Sicaire), one of the infants in the Massacre of the Innocents, to the church, however, it's thought unlikely that the relics came to Brantôme before the 12th century. It is certain, however, that a Benedictine abbey existed here in 817, as it's mentioned in the acts of the council of Aix-la-Chapelle. It remains unknown whether the abbey owes its foundation to Charlemagne, Pepin the short or Pepin of Aquitaine.

The holy building grew from the rock itself, but there is very little of this is left today. The abbey was laid waste in 848 and in 857 by Vikings and again in 1465 and in 1480 after the end of the Hundred Years' War. Gradually, over time, a new abbey evolved, now away from the rocks and facing outwards towards a village growing within its shadow.

Let there be light. The abbey was built, with bell tower rising from the rock and pointing to the sky. The tower is one of the oldest and finest in France. Windows and vaults pointed heavenwards; the dark interiors were illuminated with coloured glass where light streamed into the shadows. God illuminates the darkness. Light became a symbol of God.

Pilgrims make their way to worship, on the route to Santiago de Compostela. The Middle Ages were a time of busy enterprise for Brantôme and the abbey church, belfry and cloisters remain to bear witness even now.

In the 17th and 18th centuries a grander and more secular building rose, this time, not the house of God, but the house of lay abbots. Now, it serves the town and tourists. How times change!

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The spirit is made visible by the paintings by the artist, Fernand Desmoulin, a symbolist born in Javerlhac, Dordogne, in 1853. His Art Nouveau works are housed within the Abbey buildings, and embrace the popular interest in "Mesmerism" and the spirit world taking us from the here and now to a place beyond the grave. Not lost, but gone before.

Glass-Making in Brantôme

You enter the glass shop of Eric Simoni at the cliff face and find yourself in an Aladdin's cave twinkling with a thousand glass baubles hanging from the roof of the cave or objects made from glass and scattered on shelves and tables within it, all alive with light.

Glass is born of the earth and is as old as the hills. Glass exists naturally, formed when certain types of rocks are heated by volcanic eruptions, lightning strikes or fallen meteorites. Stone-age tools were made of obsidian, a natural form of glass.

The Phoenician merchants first uncovered the secrets of glass in the region of Syria around 5000 BC but it was in Egypt and Eastern Mesopotamia that the earliest man-made glass objects emerged, dating back to around 3500 BC. Glassblowing was developed sometime between 27 BC and AD 14 by Syrian craftsmen from the Sidon-Babylon area.

An ancient Roman Road, Via Lemovicensis, runs through Brantôme and it was the Romans, with their conquests, trading, road building, and effective political and economical administration who spread glass-making technology. During the reign of the emperor Augustus, glass objects began to appear throughout Italy, in France, Germany and Switzerland, even in China, shipped along the silk routes. And the Romans used clear glass to illuminate buildings in Alexandria around AD 100.

Over the centuries the craft of glass was developed: first Germany then Venice taking the lead. In 1688, a new process was developed for the production of plate glass in France and with the Industrial Revolution, glass passed from craft to manufacture.

Glass represents much more, though, than light for dwellings or trinkets for tourists, as the beautiful church windows reveal. Mary conceived the Christ child but remained a virgin and glass became symbolic of the virgin birth. God passed through Mary as light passes through glass, causing no damage, and you will often see rays of light passing through a window and entering the virgin in paintings of the immaculate conception. God is worshipped in light and glass.

Brantôme's Famous Waterways

Water, the source of life, is a symbol that is used frequently in Christianity and forms key roles in worship and art. The site of Brantôme itself was formed by the River Dronne and its natural advantages would have attracted the first humans to the site. Water that has fed the town that is now known as The Venice of the Perigord or The Venice of the Dordogne. The town is on an island, encircled by the river and linked to the outside world by five bridges

The Moulin de l'Abbaye sits in the heart of Brantôme, alongside the original mill-pond. The mill itself is wreathed in ivy, and looks out over the 16th-century Pont Coudé, or right angled bridge. Today the moulin Brantome is a restaurant and you can sit and look out over the river and bridge.

Pierre de Bourdeilles, seigneur and abbé of Brantôme, (c.1540-1614), was French soldier, historian and biographer who once lived in the Moulin de l'Abbaye. The third son of an ancient family, he was appointed abbé commandataire of Brantôme by King Henri II and today he is commemorated with a bust in the fountain of the Médicis.

The fountain of Saint Sicaire, just behind the abbey, is said to have healing powers, especially to improve fertility and cure the illnesses of children.

You can enjoy the water around Brantôme by taking a pleasure boat, canoes or kayaks. If this sounds a little strenuous, then you can always relax on the river bank, fish or lunch in one of the many riverside cafés.

Is Brantôme one of the most beautiful villages in France? Well I think so, although I'd hesitate to call it a village exactly. The town is bustling, busy, full of life. Brantôme is the gateway to the Perigord-Limousin Natural Reserve and is visited by those in search of nature, of good food and the good life. The Friday market dates back for centuries, where regional products are on sale, patés de foie gras, poultry, sausages and truffles.

The town is choc-a-bloc with interesting and traditional shops, restaurants and cafés as well as shops aimed more at tourists selling gifts and niff-naffs. When you have seen all that Brantôme has to offer, why not enjoy the peace and quiet of the natural park and the tranquility of Limousin?

Two other villages on the 'most beautiful' list that are not too far from Brantôme are Mortemart and Collonge la Rouge. Both well worth a visit if you're ever in this region, and the fabulous caves of Villars are not far away.

Lake Lavaud, Videix, Limousin is five minutes away from Les Trois Chenes chambres d'hotes near Rochechouart

Lake Lavaud, Videix, Limousin is five minutes away from Les Trois Chenes chambres d'hotes near Rochechouart

Tourisme Brantome

© 2011 Les Trois Chenes


Les Trois Chenes (author) from Videix, Limousin, South West France on October 20, 2014:

It is really fantastic - not to be missed next time aesta. Many thanks for leaving a message.

Mary Norton from Ontario, Canada on October 20, 2014:

Last time we were in Limousin, we could have visited this place. Sorry to have missed this. Looks like a place we would have enjoyed.

Les Trois Chenes (author) from Videix, Limousin, South West France on July 17, 2013:

Be sure to stop by at Les Trois Chenes if you make it here Stacie L! Many thanks for your message.

Stacie L on July 16, 2013:

What a wonderful hub on the caves and sights of your area! I have always heard how beautiful France is and now your online tour has inspired me to come for a visit!

Les Trois Chenes (author) from Videix, Limousin, South West France on September 22, 2012:

Yes, it really is that beautiful. Come and see for yourself, Kathleen!

Kathleen Cochran from Atlanta, Georgia on September 21, 2012:

Are there really places in the world that are this beautiful? You've made me believe. Wonderful work. This should be a coffetable book not just a hub!

Les Trois Chenes (author) from Videix, Limousin, South West France on December 28, 2011:

cathylynn99, have I spelled 'monastery' wrong? Probably why I use Abbey Church instead. I can't even find the word now but I'll keep my eyes open! Thanks for dropping by.

Les Trois Chenes (author) from Videix, Limousin, South West France on December 28, 2011:

dahoglund, pstraubie48, TwilightDream, daisynicolas, NiaLee Thanks so much for your congratulations and kind words. I'd love to see you all here. Brantome is every bit as magical as this article suggests, if not more so!

Les Trois Chenes (author) from Videix, Limousin, South West France on December 28, 2011:

Hui (?), thank you for your message. These cultural links and the history are fascinating. I'd love to find out more.

Coolmon2009 from Texas, USA on December 27, 2011:

Nice article and beautiful pictures; good article

Les Trois Chenes (author) from Videix, Limousin, South West France on December 26, 2011:

kittythedreamer, Hui (?), it's so interesting how all these things link in. Thanks for leaving your comments.

Les Trois Chenes (author) from Videix, Limousin, South West France on December 26, 2011:

Thanks so much for the message, Peggy W, I do hope you come to France. Will you tell your Francophile friends to stay with us!

Les Trois Chenes (author) from Videix, Limousin, South West France on December 26, 2011:

Thanks, SanneL. I was shocked and pleased to see up up there, on Christmas day too! Very special.

Les Trois Chenes (author) from Videix, Limousin, South West France on December 26, 2011:

collegatariat, I hope you make it here some day! thanks for your warm words.

Les Trois Chenes (author) from Videix, Limousin, South West France on December 26, 2011:

Many thanks, prasonline, for leaving a message. Pleased you enjoyed the hub.

Bbudoyono on December 25, 2011:

Tres jolie!

NiaLee from BIG APPLE on December 25, 2011:

Amazing hub.

Je suis tombee amoureuse de cette ville. Je la visite la prochaine fois que je viens en France. Merci pour ces informations sur la pierre. Je suis une passionnee de nature et des elements en general. Les pierres, roches, precieuses, semi precieuses sont toujours un plaisir pour moi.

cathylynn99 from northeastern US on December 25, 2011:


daisynicolas from Alaska on December 25, 2011:

Gorgeous. I love to visit it soon. Thank you for sharing this splendid hub.

Kingbell from Chennai, India on December 25, 2011:

Congrats for the Christmas gift(Hub of the Day)! I really had a wonderful virtual tour to Brantome here! Thanks for this breathtaking hub. Keep writing!! Seasons greetings!