BERGERAC – A Small part of Dordogne
Bergerac is a small city in what is called the Perigord Pourpre (Purple Perigord) which is one of the four areas of the large Perigord region. It is called the Purple Perigord because of the color of the grapevine leaves that turn a lovely reddish-purple in autumn.
It is in the department of the Dordogne, situated on the banks of the Dordogne River. Historically this is part of the ancient Aquitaine region. Bergerac is a city that has the label of city of Art and History and is the center of a large wine growing area.
With over 26,000 people it is the second largest town in the department which is mostly made up of small villages and towns. Bergerac is easily accessible by autoroute from Bordeaux or Toulouse, and is 93 km from Bordeaux, 48 from Périgueux, 110 from Cahors (in the Lot) and 66 from Libourne.
It has developed a lot and has had an influx of people since it became the base for a low-cost airline that flies from England. Many of the little villages nearby are included in the “greater” Bergerac.
The Name: Bergerac
There have been many variations of the name Bergerac since the first records of the town in 1100. Brageyrack then Braglaracum (1230) then Bragerac or Brageyrac or other variants of these. All of them are derived from a Gallo-Roman name, Bracarius. This was a great land owner whose name came to be associated with the area.
The region around Bergerac is very very rich is findings from all the periods of prehistory. In little locations or villages there have been digs that show the occupation by humans going back as far as 100,000 years ago. Evidence of the several periods, Mousterian (the most ancient going back to 300,000 bce) to Perigordien (the most “recent past” up to 12,000 years ago) including some findings of Venuses, the lovely, tiny female sculptures that were supposed to be fertility fetishes, have been found there.
In a part of what is now Bergerac city, an archeological dig has found the remnants of a Neolithic village, streets, houses, and graineries all intact underground. All dating from about 3,000 bce.
It was the Romans who introduced wine growing to the region and it developed well during the Gallo Roman period. After several invasions by the Vikings and the Sarrasins who destroyed the vineyards, the wine industry came back with the Wisigoths, the first of the Frankish groups who came to the area, settled, and used wine (they were Christians). Under the Wisigoths and then the Merovingians, wine commerce flourished, especially as the Dordogne River was ideal for the transporting of the jars and barrels up river to Libourne, and then to the Gironde at Bordeaux.
Bergerac with very wealthy during the Middle Ages, the commerce of wine, chanvre, and grains was very important.
War of 100 Ans – War of Religions
Starting in the 1300’s: the period of war between the French and the English, Bergerac was caught in the middle. Fought over and taken over many times, Bergerac built a series of ramparts that were meant to protect it from more invasion. But by the beginning of the 1500’s, when the Reformed Church began to have a great influence in the southwest,
Bergerac became a stronghold of Protestantism and a majority of the population became Protestant. It was ‘taken” by Protestant forces in 1567 as the War of Religions began. In 1569 all the Catholics were either kicked out or killed (like in Montauban). In 1572 the year of the great massacre of Protestants in Paris, a second set of ramparts was built to protect the city from the king’s army. Considered to be a great danger to the king and to the Church, a treaty was negotiated and signed in 1577 offering advantages to the town if they let the Catholics back in. And finally, in 1621 the king Louis XIII and his army took back Bergerac and in 1685 there was a forced conversion back to Catholicism for the Protestants who had not emigrated.
The history of Bergerac was not so turbulent after that. During the French Revolution it was not actively revolutionary. And during WW II it was occupied for two years, from 1942 to 1944 by the German forces. A famous Resistant event happened in 1944 when a group of armed resistants attacked a prison where 89 Resistants were going to be executed. With careful planning they managed to free all the prisoners with no loss to them. After that Bergerac was liberated.
Known for being a wine growing area since antiquity, the wines of the region of Bergerac were highly prized for several centuries. The Frankish kings had their wine sent up from Bergerac and since the Dordogne River allowed for easy transportation, their wines were shipped out to England, and other parts of France. During the 11th, 12th and 13th centuries it was the favorite wine of the kings of England and of France and even Frederic of Prussia preferred the Bergerac wines.
It was only when Bordeaux became a powerful city and started taxing the wines that were not from the area just around it, stopping the commerce upriver, that Bergerac wines lost their importance (like some other regions of the southwest) and the Bergerac wines lost their prestige and reputation.
Strange how reputations are lost; the famous medieval writer Rabelais, called the Bergerac wines “suave sweetness”.
When the department of the Gironde was created, Bordeaux was able to limit the appellation Bordeaux to ONLY wines from the Gironde which put the Bergerac wines out of business except for local consumption for a while.
Now that the Bergerac wines are coming back it is good to know that the area produces reds, whites and a little rosé, and especially some sweeter white wines that are good as aperitif wine or with foie gras: the Monbazillac is one of the most famous of these.
Cyrano de Bergerac
In 1897 a young playwright, suffering from depression and at a loss for inspiration remembered a story dating from the 1600’s about a poet who had suffered the rejection of his lover and had written about it. That poet was Savinien de Cyrano de Bergerac (1619 – 1655)
Edmond Rostand, the playwright, caught between what was the “new” theater, dramas that were realistic and somber, like those of the northern writers; Strindberg, Checkov, Gogol, or the very popular burlesques of what is called variety, couldn’t find a place for himself. With a certain daring, he decided to do something completely different, and really out of date: write a play in alexandrines – that is write a play in poetry. It was daring, and could have been the end of his career. He convinced Coquelin the greatest actor of the time to be the lead, and together they took an enormous chance in producing Cyrano de Bergerac. It was an immediate and huge success, and is, to this day, the play that is the most produced and performed in France.
Bergerac: Visit the town
Bergerac has a small but lovely city center with a number of well-preserved houses from the 14th and 15th and 16th centuries. There are some pedestrian streets that are very charming. There is an active theater and of course there are caves that sell the Bergerac wines.
Outside of the city center there are some lovely little villages, and there is the ruin of the ancient chateau that can be visited.
Being the southwest, this is wine and foie gras and duck country. This is also a region of truffles in the autumn.
As part of a visit to the Perigord region, Bergerac is a wonderful stop and is centrally located for exploring the area