The first project (and the parent for the second) is called Guédelon. Back in the late 90s, a woman in this region southwest of Paris got the idea that she could kill two birds with one stone. (Is that a 13th Century expression or maybe it's Shakespeare?) The idea was to put local people to work rather than having to depend on the spotty support for the region coming from the French government. The other was to solve a historical puzzle: How were these incredible structures built?
You might think that no one would invest in such a foolhardy idea... but you would be wrong. In fact, Maryline Martin, the French woman (who worked for a time at Pier 1) sold her idea to local businessman, Michel Guyot, who helped find the money to buy land and begin the process of building a castle from scratch. The project now employs 67 people and has an annual budget of $3.25 million. The plan was to have the project become at least partially self-funding through tourist admissions. The castle now has over 300,000 visitors a year.
I love this idea. What a win-win. The New York Times had an article last Sunday by Steven Erlanger in which he described some of the technology used for the construction:
The walls are now high enough that stones are raised using a pulley system driven by a man walking in a large wooden wheel, like a hamster on a treadmill. Plans call for a new wheel soon in which two men can walk.
The castle will be under construction for 15 or 20 more years. Visitors can talk to the stone masons, carpenters, and other craftsmen employed on the project. (Speaking French would help the dialogue, of course).
If a trip to France seems out of reach at the moment, there is still hope. The Guédelon founders decided to do it again... in Arkansas! A second medieval castle is underway about 60 miles south of Branson, MO, just over the Arkansas state line. The NY Times had an article on that project as well in Sunday's Travel section. So far, the working name for this new castle is the Ozark Medieval Fortress. It too caters to visitors and is a great place for a historical and family-fun visit. Don't worry, the construction won't be done any time soon. Completion is scheduled for around 2030. You can speak with the craftsmen here as well. I think they speak English.
Still, the French project just has to be more authentic. I mean, you can go down the road just a piece and visit the real deal - a thousand-year old castle named Saint Fargeau.
But as grand as that chateau is to see, it is not under construction. Guédelon serves a very useful purpose, not only for lovers of all things medieval, but also for real historians of technology and architecture who still don't know all the techniques used to build these old castles.
I'm sure you can get a nice glass of wine in the Visitor's Cafe (at least at the one in France).