The first stone was laid in 1997 — that would be 1228 in Guédelon’s timeline, where Guédelon is fixed in its historical context. Though a castle like this could have been built more efficiently in the 13th century, the decision was made early on to draw the construction of the castle out over 25 years in order to create a lasting investment for the surrounding area and to allow the team to really learn the medieval techniques. The site was opened to the public in 1998, and organizers expected to draw around 30,000 visitors. They got 65,000, despite the fact that all there was to see at that point was the team of workers breaking rocks in the hot sun. Within three years, however, Guédelon was economically self-sufficient, and now, more than 300,000 visitors make the trek there each year,; roughly a third are schoolchildren on field trips.
“They’re fascinated because it’s so foreign,” explains Preston, who conducts several tours a week.
The project now has a budget of about $3.3 million a year, most of which is gained through ticket sales; around 80 percent of that goes to the salaries of the 67 employees and the rest to maintaining the site. In January 2006, it became a full-fledged, registered business, though entrance fees are still only €9 for adults and €7 for children (around $12 and $10 U.S., respectively), in an effort to keep it accessible. It has had a positive economic effect on the surrounding areas as well, as those 300,000-plus yearly visitors need places to stay and eat.
Upon seeing Guédelon for the first time, it’s easy to understand why it’s become such a popular destination for tourists. Unlike the stagnant historical chateaux or palaces like Versailles, Guédelon is alive, inhabited, worked in. Visiting the site is like stepping back in time, to when castle-fortresses were de rigueur and walls needed to be six feet thick.
The castle itself is smaller than one might imagine, built in a style made popular in the 12th century by the beloved King Philip II: four walls, with a tower at each corner and two at the entrance, all surrounding a courtyard. Inside the courtyard and against the back wall is the Great Hall, the lord’s residence. And almost everything is made from stone.
Right now, it’s 1242 in Guédelon time; the foundation of the castle’s outer walls is in place, part of one wall is up, and the Great Hall is only a few roof tiles away from being complete. The largest of the six towers, which is adjacent to the Great Hall, is more than half built, offering a commanding view of the entire busy site — the forge, the carpenters, the rope — and tilemakers and the stone cutters and carvers. There is goldenrod-colored dust everywhere — a result of the light Burgundy earth — along with a healthy spread of horse droppings, left by the site’s three cart horses, Kabul, Idole and Paloma.
From the tower, one can also see how isolated Guédelon is. There are no houses or power lines around it, only green trees. Providentially (or not), there is little to no cellphone service on the site, meaning that for just a bit, visitors really do leave the 21st century behind.
The task of building this ancient structure was given to Florian Renucci, a master stonemason and craftsman who has worked on many French historical sites, including Pont Neuf in Paris. “The story of the castle is also the story of our research,” Renucci explains over a lunch of stewed meat and sausages accompanied by a medieval honeyed-wine drink and some stout beer. Medieval architects didn’t exactly leave behind instruction manuals, so Renucci and his team have had to piece their plans together from a variety of sources: existing 13th-century castles and tools, knowledge of existing building techniques, contemporary illuminated manuscripts and even stained-glass windows.