Society

The Anti-Disneyland, A French Castle Built On Authenticity

Guédelon, an attraction in Burgundy, recreates the Middle Ages in a way that aims to make visitors smarter while they're having fun.

Quarrymen work in the shade at Guédelon Castle, in Treigny, France.
Quarrymen work in the shade at Guédelon Castle, in Treigny, France.
Claire Bommelaer

TREIGNY — The place was an old quarry of ferruginous sandstone in a Burgundy forest 20 years ago. Now, the construction site of Guédelon castle, in central France, is packed with people and the parking lot is filled with a flock of buses. A crazy project at first glance, the construction of a fortified castle using 13th-century techniques has become one of France's major tourist attractions with about 300,000 visitors every year. The site is particularly popular among teachers, who see Guédelon as a golden opportunity to get their pupils interested in the Middle Ages. There are also older visitors, moved by the sight of blacksmiths and basket weavers working with ancient techniques, and numerous families.

Thirty-five people work on the site eight months out of the year, and 35 others assist them together with 600 volunteers nicknamed the "temporary builders." The latter, retired DIY enthusiasts or senior managers looking for a purpose, are allowed in at a rate of five days per season per person. Believe it or not, people are rushing to mix sand-and-lime mortar or to carry braided baskets filled with stones.

The entire economy of a fortified castle — blacksmiths, lumberjacks, carpenters, etc — is gathered on the 15-hectare site. The public loves the sight of two men walking like hamsters in huge wooden wheels. Their never-ending march drives a system of pulleys that transports the building stones. Farther in the distance, others are carving sandstone with a chisel — a movement that is said to hurt the elbows. The noise is relentless, regular. Carpenters are planing tree trunks for the framework without machines. "You need to have a trained eye and accept to work with the wood's irregularity," one of the craftspersons says. In total, the team will need to make 80,000 roof tiles by hand, which they will then bake at 1,000 °C in an oven (another one of the public's favorite attractions). By the river, they have built a hydraulic flour mill.

Everybody wears medieval-like clothing, giving the site a sort of hippie vibe. Only if you look carefully will you spot protective footwear, a concession made in the name of safety. "The work of craftspersons is a show, but we're the anti-Disneyland," says Maryline Martin, the project's director and co-founder with Michel Guyot, who owns several castles. Still, the workers are required to interact with visitors, who sometimes number 5,000 a day, and explain what they do — even in mind-numbing heat or when they're overwhelmed with work.

After 20 years of hard work and already a few years behind schedule, the castle's framework is ready, as are the great hall, two bedrooms, and a chapel. Two towers are about to be erected as well as a dovecote. Eventually, the fortified castle is supposed to resemble that of a lord's, a contemporary of Jean de Toucy and Crusader, who lived in the region in the early 13th century.

The castle was designed by a committee made up of several archeologists and one historian. Each decision — the size of the rib vaults, the decoration, etc — is a topic of discussion. "We study other medieval castles, like the ones in Dourdan and Ratilly," explains Florian Renucci, who's served as the project manager since its beginning. Other heritage sites, such as the Notre-Dame de Paris and Bourges Cathedral, have at some point seen "the people from Guédelon" turn up for an observation mission.

The last stone is expected to be laid in five years or more. Fundamentally, the timing is of little importance because the duration of the construction is also what constitutes its essence. Some visitors are regulars who want to see how the creation has evolved. There's even a "Guédelon generation" in the region that has grown up alongside the project.

Cultural heritage aficionados meanwhile have looked on the Guédelon castle with a mixture of allure and repulsion. At first, they kept their distance, especially given that at the beginning, even the people behind the project were largely dubious about how to go about with their plan. "There was a very Parisian sort of contempt," says Florian Renucci. "We haven't seen a lot of government ministers around here."

But Guédelon's recipe for success is now the stuff of dreams, and people are coming from far away to find out how the project has attracted so many visitors without having to harass the government or local representatives for a little help. Guédelon is an astounding economic war machine. The construction site got on its feet with the help of patrons. Twenty years later, it's financially self-sufficient thanks to its entry tickets (15 euros full price) and a well-stocked souvenir shop. Annual revenue is about 4 million euros. "We don't get any state aid, and we serve no master," says Maryline Martin. As far as culture is concerned, few sites can say the same.

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Geopolitics

Iran-Saudi Arabia Rivalry May Be Set To Ease, Or Get Much Worse

The Saudis may be awaiting the outcome of Iran's nuclear talks with the West, to see whether Tehran will moderate its regional policies, or lash out like never before.

Military parade in Tehran, Iran, on Oct. 3

-Analysis-

LONDON — The Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman Saeed Khatibzadeh said earlier this month that Iranian and Saudi negotiators had so far had four rounds of "continuous" talks, though both sides had agreed to keep them private. The talks are to ease fraught relations between Iran's radical Shia regime and the Saudi kingdom, a key Western ally in the Middle East.

Iran's Foreign Minister Hossein Amirabdollahian has said that the talks were going in the right direction, while an Iranian trade official was recently hopeful these might even allow trade opportunities for Iranian businessmen in Saudi Arabia. As the broadcaster France 24 observed separately, it will take more than positive signals to heal a five-year-rift and decades of mutual suspicions.


Agence France-Presse news agency, meanwhile, has cited an unnamed French diplomat as saying that Saudi Arabia wants to end its costly discord with Tehran. The sides may already have agreed to reopen consular offices. For Saudi Arabia, the costs include its war on Iran-backed Houthis rebels fighting an UN-recognized government in next-door Yemen.

The role of the nuclear pact

Bilateral relations were severed in January 2016, after regime militiamen stormed the Saudi embassy in Tehran. Amirabdollahian was then the deputy foreign minister for Arab affairs. In 2019, he told the website Iranian Diplomacy that Saudi Arabia had taken measures vis-a-vis Iran's nuclear pact with the world powers.

It's unlikely Ali Khamenei will tolerate the Saudi kingdom's rising power in the region.

He said "the Saudis' insane conduct toward [the pact] led them to conclude that they must prevent [its implementation] in a peaceful environment ... I think the Saudis are quite deluded, and their delusion consists in thinking that Trump is an opportunity for them to place themselves on the path of conflict with the Islamic Republic while relying on Trump." He meant the administration led by the U.S. President Donald J.Trump, which was hostile to Iran's regime. This, he said, "is not how we view Saudi Arabia. I think Yemen should have been a big lesson for the Saudis."

The minister was effectively admitting the Houthis were the Islamic Republic's tool for getting back at Saudi Arabia.

Yet in the past two years, both sides have taken steps to improve relations, without firm results as yet. Nor is the situation likely to change this time.

Photo of Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei in 2020

Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei in 2020

commons.wikimedia.org

Riyadh's warming relations with Israel

Iran's former ambassador in Lebanon, Ahmad Dastmalchian, told the ILNA news agency in Tehran that Saudi Arabia is doing Israel's bidding in the region, and has "entrusted its national security, and life and death to Tel Aviv." Riyadh, he said, had been financing a good many "security and political projects in the region," or acting as a "logistical supplier."

The United States, said Dastmalchian, has "in turn tried to provide intelligence and security backing, while Israel has simply followed its own interests in all this."

Furthermore, it seems unlikely Iran's Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei will tolerate, even in this weak period of his leadership, the kingdom's rising power in the region and beyond, and especially its financial clout. He is usually disparaging when he speaks of Riyadh's princely rulers. In 2017, he compared them to "dairy cows," saying, "the idiots think that by giving money and aid, they can attract the goodwill of Islam's enemies."

Iranian regime officials are hopeful of moving toward better diplomatic ties and a reopening of embassies. Yet the balance of power between the sides began to change in Riyadh's favor years ago. For the kingdom's power has shifted from relying mostly on arms, to economic and political clout. The countries might have had peaceful relations before in considerably quieter, and more equitable, conditions than today's acute clash of interests.

If nuclear talks break down, Iran's regime may become more aggressive.

Beyond this, the Abraham Accord or reconciliation of Arab states and Israel has been possible thanks to the green light that the Saudis gave their regional partners, and it is a considerable political and ideological defeat for the Islamic Republic.

Assuming all Houthis follow Tehran's instructions — and they may not — improved ties may curb attacks on Saudi interests and aid its economy. Tehran will also benefit from no longer having to support them. Unlike Iran's regime, the Saudis are not pressed for cash or resources and could even offer the Houthis a better deal. Presently, they may consider it more convenient to keep the softer approach toward Tehran.

For if nuclear talks with the West break down, Iran's regime may become more aggressive, and as experience has shown, tensions often prompt a renewal of missile or drone attacks on the Saudis, on tankers and on foreign shipping. Riyadh must have a way of keeping the Tehran regime quiet, in a distinctly unquiet time.

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