Thursday, September 1, 2016

Hautefort’s medical museum is an offbeat gem

A bit of Château de Hautefort as seen from the village

Just because the kids’ summer vacation is over, it doesn’t mean you have to stay home. This is the time of year when our travel season resumes. Crowds have disappeared and the weather is great. It’s time to get out and explore. Acting on a suggestion from a reader of this blog (thanks, Hazel), we head up to Hautefort. This is a beautiful little village in the eastern part of the Dordogne (in the Périgord Noir area), about 45 minutes from Périgueux. 

A view from Hautefort

Hautefort is best known for its Château de Hautefort. It was the castle that first enticed me to visit Hautefort four years ago, shortly after I arrived in France. But more about the château at the end of this article, for this visit is all about a quirky museum that I really enjoyed: Musée d’Histoire de la Médecine.

Musée d’Histoire de la Médecine

Re-creation of hospital ward at the Musée d’Histoire de la Médecine in Hautefort

Our first stop in any village is the local Office de Tourisme and we receive a friendly greeting here. Conveniently, the History of Medicine Museum is located in this same historical building. A royal decree in the late 1600s instructed local officials to establish provincial hospitals. This one was founded by Jacques-François de Hautefort and was opened in 1717 — 300 years ago. The hospital was run by nuns and the building reflects a fair amount of religious symbolism. 

Ceiling of the chapel at Hautefort’s Hôtel Dieu, now the Musée d’Histoire
de la Médecine

Museum visitors can explore three of the four four wings centered around a chapel. (The other wing is the tourism office.) The tour is self-guided with audio and plenty of signage in English. The first wing is a fascinating re-creation of a hospital ward. Each room contains medical equipment and paraphernalia that is explained in detail, which gives us a good (and sometimes gruesome) glimpse of medical care through the centuries.

We spend about two hours at the museum. I share here some of the pictorial highlights, but urge you to visit the museum in person, especially if you’re looking for something a little out-of-the-ordinary. It’s also a site that would hold the interest of the average tween or teen.

A display including a drill and skull describe the 17th-century
medical procedure, or chirurgie, at the Musée d’Histoire de la
Médecine in Hautefort.

One of several wheelchairs on display at the Musée
d’Histoire de la Médecine in Hautefort

Amazing and intricate stone floor in the chapel at the Musée d’Histoire
de la Médecine in Hautefort

One of my favorite exhibits at Hautefort’s Musée d’Histoire de la Médecine
is the re-creation of dentist offices through the ages.

Teeth and dentures on display at the Musée d’Histoire de la Médecine
in Hautefort

The garden of medicinal herbs at the Musée d’Histoire de la Médecine
in Hautefort

Musée d’Histoire de la Médecine is open 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. through Nov. 11 and reopens in mid-March (closed for lunch in October and November). Admission is 6 euros for adults/4.5 euros for children 10-14 years old. Check the tourism website here for more information or call

Château de Hautefort

The château dates back to around the year 1000 when it was a fortress whose first owner was Guy de Lastours. In the 12th century, the medieval fortress passed to the De Born family, which included two feuding brothers, one of whom was Bertran de Born, a famous troubadour. The De Gontaut family took possession in the 15th century. By the 17th century, the former fortress was transformed into a glamorous modern-style castle, resembling the châteaux of the Loire Valley.

Château de Hautefort survived the French Revolution, was eventually sold after the last of the Hautefort heirs died, and fell victim to neglect until it was purchased in 1929 by Baron Henry de Bastard and his wife Simone. The baroness reportedly loved the castle and greatly improved the residence and gardens. However, in 1968 a fire destroyed a portion of the castle. Simone de Bastard, with help and encouragement of the village, friends and celebrities, restored the château and created one of the prestigious monuments in southwest France.

Château de Hautefort

The castle has many furnished rooms, which can be leisurely explored on a self-guided tour. No photography is allowed inside, so I can only share one photo from my archive. Through the month of September, Château de Hautefort is open daily from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. It remains open with reduce hours in October and through Nov. 11 before it closes for the season from Nov. 12 through February. Visit the official website here for complete information.

Hautefort village

We’ve brought a picnic lunch with us, so we don’t have to choose among several tempting restaurants in cafés in the village. We spend about an hour walking up and down the pretty flower-lined streets. The village also contains some cute shops and inviting shady spaces to rest and plan our next stop in the Périgord Noir.

Flowers and pretty houses along une rue in Hautefort

Bicycles are part of the décor in the village of Hautefort.

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