Whilst in France last week we paid a visit to the town of Beynac and the hanging gardens at Marqueyssac. Both are places that I’ve wanted to visit for ages, and despite being two hours’ drive from where we were staying, our excuse came via my sister-in-law who is planning to move to the area soon and wanted to meet us for lunch.
Located in the Périgord-Noir region of the Dordogne, Beynac (its full name actually being Beynac-et-Cazenac as it comprises two villages which were annexed in the late 19th century) is described by the guidebooks as one of the prettiest villages in France. I can’t verify that claim, but it certainly is the most photogenic that I have been to, almost Disney-esque in its perfection.
The town itself is built around a cliff overlooking the Dordogne river and is topped off by an imposing castle that traces its origins back to the 12th century. Clinging to the hillside are a multitude of fairytale houses built of honey coloured limestone, many with steeply pitched roofs of stacked stone (known as ‘lauzes’) that are common in the area.
Walking up to the castle was tough going; the cobblestones have been worn smooth over the centuries and my sandals weren’t really up to the job. It was worth the effort though as the views over the valley and river below were incredible, and the sight of doorways and windows bedecked with lavender, hibiscus and geraniums at almost every turn was utterly charming.
Lunch at La Taverne des Remparts, in the shadow of the castle, was delicious and featured lots of local specialities including duck gizzard which came as part of a salad. I’d not eaten this before but given how often I urge my kids to try things before saying they don’t like them, I figured that this was reason enough to order it; thankfully it was delicious.
After lunch we made the short drive to the gardens at Marqueyssac. These are arranged around a coral-coloured 17th century château which sits on the edge of a rocky promontory high above the valley. Having fallen into disrepair, the gardens were restored to their former glory and reopened to the public in the 1990s and now cover 22 hectares and incorporate five kilometres of pathways.
The main attraction is the amazing cloud-pruned box hedging; I would defy anyone not the be childishly excited by the prospect of exploring this almost cartoonish labyrinth. It’s utterly breathtaking, as are the panoramic views that it offers. In addition to the topiary area, the visitor trails take in a belvedere, cascade, chapel and children’s play areas so we all spent a couple of enjoyable hours exploring everything.
Once a week during July and August the gardens are open until midnight and are illuminated by hundreds of candles lining the pathways, which must be magical. We couldn’t stay to experience this on our visit unfortunately, however it merely provides an incentive to go back!