The Roque-Saint-Christophe is a striking site. It encapsulates the extraordinary history of Périgord, mind-bogglingly long, and full of bloody twists and turns.
The South of Périgord is structured around powerful rivers, such as the Dordogne, the Isle and the Vézère, and the steep valleys they have carved out. Cliffs and rocky outcrops everywhere mark the land. Like La Roque-Gageac (read previous post), La Roque-Saint-Christophe is a village between a cliff and a river. Incredibly, it has been a settlement for 55 thousand years; 550 centuries.
There, in the shelter of the cliff, archaeologists have found Palaeolithic stone tools (and even a bird bone flute), a polished stone axe from the Neolithic, pots and a bronze axe from the Bronze Age, skeletons from the Iron Age, and the bottom of a Roman amphora. But during the Middles Ages, people started living on the cliff itself.
At that time, the rivers of the region were routes of invasion. From the ninth century onwards, Vikings and Normands sailed up the rivers and devastated the area. Directly above the river at the “Pas-du-Miroir” ‘Mirror Passage” – you could see your reflection in the water –, it created a pinch point meant to stop the invaders going further upriver. The cliff provided protection against assailants. A system of 22 relays, with watchmen perched on rocky outcrops above the meanders of the river Vézère, gave the inhabitants two to three days warning in case of invasion.
Even once the Normands raids stopped, the local lords were regularly at war with each other, so la Roque-Saint-Christophe remained an important stronghold. The troglodyte village that grew next to the fort stretched over three hundred metres of cliff, over five terraces of the cliff face. It is the largest suspended rock shelter in Europe. Ingenious machinery, reconstructed nowadays, helped lift goods and animals onto the cliff in case of attack.
Later, the enemy changed, as the English and the French bitterly fought over the region during the Hundred Years’ War. Périgord was one of the front lines; the Dordogne river was the border between the kingdoms of France and England for a while. The English briefly held La Roque-Saint-Christophe. During this abominably long war (116 years in total), perhaps the most difficult for the local population were the periods of truce; mercenaries without pay turned robbers and highwaymen.
In the end, the 550-century-old village survived the Hundred Years’ War. In the Renaissance, vicious wars of religion ripped the region – and the whole of France – apart. The lord at La Roque-Saint-Christophe refused to give up his protestant faith, and so the Catholics turned their cannons on the village on the cliff. After two months of heavy bombardment, there was nothing left. Heavy artillery and religious hatred put an end to millennia of human occupation. Talk of a Renaissance.
The site was abandoned, vegetation grew over it, and everyone forgot about the village on the cliff. In 1938 the site was re-discovered, excavated and open to the public. Nowadays, la Roque-Saint-Christophe is a fascinating place to visit. It offers a great viewpoint over the valley, a crash-course in human and local history, and much to think about on human ingenuity and violence.