When I first heard of “Guédelon”, images of King Arthur’s magical kingdom nestled in a forest popped into my mind. I was invited to spend the day in Burgundy, a two-hour drive from Paris, to visit “a medieval château in the making”.
I pulled into the parking lot just before opening hours and drove past a curious parade of people walking by — women dressed in long dresses and men decked out in medieval clothing, all carrying crude tools or beaten up baskets. Once I handed in my invitation at the site’s entrance and stepped through its doors, I suddenly found myself hurtled back in time to a bustling work scene from the 13th century.
Before my eyes stood a real castle with tall towers surrounded by a community of people – completely oblivious to me and the other visitors – working diligently at their respective crafts. A young, strapping man was crashing his pick down on large stones in what appeared to be a quarry. Buckets of wet clay were loaded and pulled up to the rooftop of the castle by a human chain of workers. And to my right, perched on the highest tower, was what appeared to be a giant hamster wheel. On closer inspection, the contraption was a treadmill conceived to lift heavy objects, propelled by a man walking swiftly as if on a running machine. They were building a real medieval castle. There were no cranes and bulldozers to be seen. Only picks and hammers, hand pulleys and horse carts.
The first cornerstone in Guédelon was laid in 1997. Today, over 50 masons, carpenters and artisans show up daily to hammer out the medieval chateau the way it was manually built centuries ago. The final rib-vault of the castle’s chapel is to be completed this year as well as the laying of 4,000 handmade floor tiles on the second floor of the Great Hall.
Guédelon has been described as the “world’s largest archaeological experiment”. It all began in 1995, when an archaeological study at Saint-Fargeau Castle revealed a medieval stone fortress hidden within the red brick walls. The enthusiastic team came up with the idea of building a castle from scratch, by hand. Over the next two years, they searched for a site with the blessing of the local authorities to obtain a planning permission to allow the ambitious project to move forward.
A team of construction builders was assembled to work from medieval financial records, manuscripts, stained-glass cathedral windows and research on contemporary chroniclers. Their mission is to build a 13th century castle over 25 years using the construction techniques and logistical organization of the Middle Ages. The site, located in the heart of Burgundy’s wine vineyards in eastern France, possesses all the resources necessary for the building of a castle: a stone quarry, an oak forest and a water supply.
After 18 years in the making, you can now stand in awe of a fortress built from the ground up, with a chapel, great hall and VIP guest room.
Guédelon is an active community. Artisans, masons and volunteers are dedicated to the dream, running public workshops on the grounds. On a visit here, you’ll discover:
- A forger who makes nails
- A wood turner who makes wooden bowls on a foot-powered pole lathe
- A weaver who fabricates ropes and baskets
- Bakers who make homemade bread in the flour mill
- Stonecutters who carve each fitted piece
- Artisans who make tiles
The driving force behind Guédelon is CEO and co-founder Maryline Martin. For her, the castle building project cannot be compared with an amusement park attraction.
“We demystify the work of medieval master-builders and offer all our visitors a language which will help de-code the castles, churches, abbeys and cathedrals which are so much part of our European heritage”
Martin adds, “We are also a success because we offer our visitors a genuine experience. There is nothing virtual about Guédelon! We offer genuine exchanges, genuine contact with skilled craftsmen and women who are happy to explain their work.”
If you get hungry during your time travel, a stop in Guédelon’s tavern is a welcome respite. Stop by the sheltered, outdoor restaurant and sit on one of the long wooden tables to feast on platters of roasted meat and sausages served with farmhouse bread. So good, you’ll want to toss the fork aside and pick up the meat with your hands to eat!
Address: D955 89520 Treigny
Telephone: + 33 (0) 3 86 45 66 66