In a forest in northern Burgundy, you’ll come across a unique project – the building of the medieval castle of Guédelon. This is not a restoration project; it’s a castle built entirely according to the construction techniques of the Middle Ages. Not an electric drill, concrete mixer, rolled steel joist in sight. Just humans and natural materials.
Stones are cut by hand; materials are transported by horse and cart; tiles are made from local clay and fired in hand-made kilns; colors are created from plants and dyed in wooden buckets. And it’s all done by people dressed in medieval costume.
It’s not a cliche; at Guédelon you really do step into the past. This is no theme park. It’s a serious project discovering more about medieval building techniques as well as reviving old skills. Guédelon really is living history.
How Guédelon started
In the mid 1990s, a local resident, Michel Guyot, who already owned the nearby Château de Saint-Fargeau, bought a former quarry and 12 hectares of surrounding forest for 6,500 francs. It was an ideal place to acquire. There was sandstone for the castle walls; clay for tiles and sand for mortar, and the forest would provide wood for scaffolding, for beams for rooves and fuel for the kilns.
Work started in 1997 and the first visitors began arriving the following year. Today around 300,000 people visit annually, bringing in €5 million.
What you see
A small turning off the small D955 road takes you to the site. We visited just after lockdown ended in France and the extended grounds were satisfyingly busy. At first all you see are wooden buildings and a ticket office. Walk into a barn for a very quick introduction then walk out the other side. You’re to one side of the castle. The forest stretches out to the right, dotted with small buildings, paddocks and stables for the horses and a garden.
We were in the village where the craftsmen and women work. We walked down to a group of little sheds, the House of Colours, to watch dyers turning white cloth into colored fabrics which they then hang up to dry.
We saw tile makers turning clay into tiles for rooves, floors and wall decorations.
Blacksmiths work iron into tools, nails, hinges and more.
Wood cutters shape logs for the carpenters who will make the necessary tools and furniture.
Most importantly, skilled stone masons cut the huge sandstone blocks that make the walls, the doorways, and domestic buildings.
Then you walk up to the castle itself. It’s a hive of activity. When we were there, they were constructing a tower on the wall at the entrance. A huge treadmill, powered by two men walking slowly around the wheels, was attached to a wooden crane. Slowly and carefully it lifted a wooden palette full of dressed stone above the tower. A man pulled it over so it hung above the tower. The treadmill reversed and the palette with the stone was lowered onto the wall. It’s mesmerising.
Make no mistake; this is dangerous, complicated work. But despite the medieval methods and materials, it is carefully supervised. If you look at some of the headgear you’ll spot the hard hats underneath. The workers wear steel toe capped boots, again disguised. And some of the materials, like the ropes, are made to modern specifications off site.
A Medieval Building Site
What strikes home is the noise, or lack of it. You’re looking at a building site, but it’s a medieval one. So instead of the shriek of heavy machinery, electric drills, endless lorries, and all the paraphernalia you associate with modern construction, you hear people shouting instructions, the creak of wagon wheels slowly going over the gritty paths and the squeak of wooden machinery.
Walk around Guédelon Castle
Walk into the castle’s courtyard through a side entrance (not via the gate yet) and you’ll find the master stone mason, one Florian Renucci, drawing in the sand. He trained in heritage restoration so he knows what he’s talking about. He’s explaining how the stone vaults are constructed according to medieval methods.
Visitors are encouraged to talk to the workers and ask them questions (don’t worry; most of them speak English, and some of them are English). It makes for a very real interactive experience.
The Lord’s Great Hall
The living quarters are in a large building opposite the gateway and butting up to the outside wall.
You can see the Great Hall with its massive wooden vaulted ceiling, huge fireplace and tiled floor.
Just off this is the bed chamber for the castle’s owner. It’s decorated with a motif wall painting taken from 13th century church in nearby Moutiers-en-Puisaye village.
The kitchen, chapel and guard rooms are all housed in this building.
The Lord’s Story
There was no castle here, so they have invented one that could certainly have been true. The castle was started in 1228 by Guilbert Courtney, a low-ranking local lord who received from his overlord a ‘licence to crenellate’.
So he can now build his castle, though a modest one as befits his position and his money. His fortified manor house is brand new, but follows the rules laid down by King Philip II Augustus (1165-1223). The King produced a standard building plan that ensured all castles, from the Louvre in Paris to modest Guédelon, were built in a similar style. They are polygonal (many sided) with high stone curtain walls, a dry ditch and round flanking towers with single arrow loops. One corner tower is higher and larger than the rest, the tour maîtresse. Twin towers protect the gate.
We wandered around the rest of the site, past the potager (kitchen garden), neatly planted with vegetables that are now cooked and served in the restaurant. The carthorses were enjoying a well-earned rest but all the humans were still working hard.
We walked down a path to the newly constructed watermill. It’s very small but does the work of grinding corn for flour effectively. At least it does normally. We visited in the hot months of summer 2020 and the stream that powers the mill by a series of cunningly placed dams had run dry. But the miller was on hand to explain the techniques.
Opposite him, the wood turner worked the machinery with his foot to turn the lathe making exquisite small bowls and plates from what looked like unpromising lumps of wood.
The Future of Guédelon Castle
It’s hoped that the castle will be complete by 2030. If you want to see the progress from the first steps in 1997, check here.
There’s one exciting possibility. The CEO of the project, Maryline Martin, is hoping to create an artisan trades school at Guédelon with a diploma in historical renovation. Following the burning of Notre Dame in Paris, she hopes that such skills learned at Guédelon will become recognised as important.
Tel: +33 03 86 45 66 66
Open Mar to Sep 1: Daily 9.30am–6.30pm
Sep: Mon, Thurs, Fri, Sun 10am-5.30pm; Sat 10am-6.30pm
Oct 1-Nov 1: 10am-5.30pm Mon, Thurs, Sat, Sun 10am-5.30pm
Admission Adult €14; 14-17 years €12; 5-13 years €11
Online (at least 7 days in advance): Adult €12; 14-17 years €11; 5-13 years €10
Location On the D955 between Saint-Sauveur-en-Puisaye and Saint-Amand-en-Puisaye
2 hours south of Paris, via A6, onto A77 (exit junction 21); 1 hour 45 minutes east of Orléans via N60
Where to Stay
We stayed at Hôtel les Grands Chênes, just outside Saint Fargeau at Les Berthes Bailly. It’s a delightful hotel, run by Rachael, the English owner and her husband, Alain Savouré.
We stayed in a ground floor bedroom which opened onto a small private terrace. It was a good size, with traditional furnishings and a modern bathroom. There are more rooms on the first floor and accommodation in small buildings close to the hotel, some with two bedrooms and one with an extra bed. They’re ideal for families. There’s no bar or restaurant; breakfast is served in a cheerful lounge with an open fire at one end. There’s an extensive garden, badminton and a small heated swimming pool and free parking in the grounds.
Hôtel les Grands Chênes
Les Berthes Bailly
89170 Saint Fargeau
Tel: +33 (0)3 86 74 11 41
Prices €104 to €132 for rooms, and €127 to €190 for family rooms
Location On the D18 between Saint Fargeau (4km away) and Saint Amand
Where to Eat
Saint Fargeau is just 4km from the hotel and offers some good options. We ate at the Restaurant de l’Ancienne Gare. As it suggests, it’s in a former railway station, on the opposite side of the town from the hotel. It still looks like a station, is friendly and offers good value menus from €20. No website; book (or get the hotel to do this for you) on +33 (03) 86 74 16 45.
For more about the area which is in the Yonne department in Burgundy, go to the Yonne website.
Read about Burgundy food which has always been rich and satisfying. The region is famous for its truffles, Bresse chicken, blackcurrants and more. And of course its great cheeses.
Declaration: I was a guest of Guédelon. And Yonne Tourism kindly provided our hotel.