Bastides in the Dordogne

21 February 2018

If you look up the word, ‘bastide’ in the Oxford dictionary you will find that the definition is ‘a fortified village or small town in southern France’. Now, to someone who hasn’t visited the Dordogne before that doesn’t sound like a particularly alluring reason to pick it as a holiday destination. But descriptions can be deceiving.

The idea behind the bastide

The earliest bastides were formed for economic and political reasons and were a way of bringing new land into production. (The word bastide comes from the Occitan, ‘bastida’ which simply means a group of buildings.) However, as tensions between the English and the French increased they became more fortified and took on a military purpose.

Bastide towns

Ch√Ęteau de Beynac was held by Richard the Lionheart for a decade

During the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries the English were very much at loggerheads with the Kings of France. Unsurprisingly, the borders between the two warring factions were only popular with the armies, unemployed mercenaries and raiding parties. They were hardly up and coming property hotspots.

The layout of a bastide

However, to encourage people to live in these areas small towns were built. (Between 1220 and 1370 the counts of Toulouse and King Edward I ordered nearly 300 to be built in south west France. The largest concentration of bastides is between the River Dordogne and the River Lot.) All new residents who were prepared to defend the bastide were given a building plot and land outside the town. Some criminals were even offered asylum to take up residency.

A bastide was built to a rigid formula. Most importantly, every bastide was surrounded by walls and a garrison (for good measure there would often be a castle). The towns had a church (fortified to provide a place of refuge and a safe store for relics) and narrow streets leading to a central square. The main square was the focal point. Here, inhabitants could attend fairs and markets. It was also the town’s administrative centre and it was defendable.

Originally, houses in a bastide were two stories high – the living quarters were on the upper floor, the shop or workshop was at street level. Plots were roughly the same size and each had a courtyard or small garden.

By bringing together local populations yields from agricultural land could be maximised. An agreement between the founder of a bastide and the owner of the surrounding land helped to safeguard the rights of each. A bailiff governed each bastide and he represented the king.

The bastide town of Domme

The Dordogne undoubtedly has some of the most beautiful bastide towns. One of the best preserved is at Domme, just 10 kilometres from Les Milandes. This incredibly beautiful hilltop bastide offers stunning views across the Dordogne River. There are three 13th century gateways and many of the streets remain unchanged.

When the bastide was founded in 1281 its high position with incredible, sheer drops, deemed further fortication unnecessary. This decision proved costly as the Catholic population was surprised by a small band of Protestants who scaled the cliff and took control. It was 4 years before the Catholic population regained control.

Visit Domme today and you can enjoy a great market on a Thursday. Sit back and relax in one of the towns’s pretty squares, safe in the knowledge that a marauding band of mercenaries isn’t about to wreak havoc!

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