Once upon a time, deep in the forests of Burgundy, a man was haunted by a vision. He dreamed of building a castle, with turrets, great walls and a moat. Some people wondered if he was mad.
This was, after all, 1996.
And yet Michel Guyot set out to build his castle the hard way - the medieval way. With only hammers and chisels to carve the stones. With only horses to cart the rock. Without power tools.
Ten years later, Guedelon castle is about one-third finished, with imposing sandstone walls that rise up out of the red Burgundy soil. It's a living history lesson and a successful tourism project: Last year, 245,000 visitors admired the work of Guedelon's stonecutters, carpenters, potters, rope-makers and blacksmiths.
The 50 paid craftsmen, plus volunteers, wear tunics and use rustic tools. Except for the occasional hardhat or pair of safety goggles, there's little to remind visitors that this is not the 13th century, but the 21st.
On a recent visit to Guedelon, I watched in awe as a man climbed into a wooden contraption that looked like a huge hamster wheel. He ran frantically, spinning the wheel and activating a pulley system that lifted a load of stones atop a tower.
When he was done, our tour group broke into applause, and poor Jean-Paul climbed off the wheel, huffing and puffing and fanning his tunic. It was all so ... medieval.
Guyot, an archaeology buff, mounted the project after restoring a castle in nearby Saint-Fargeau. Building a castle from scratch was a childhood dream - a sandcastle on a huge scale.
"I told myself that acts of folly are the only things that one doesn't regret in life," Guyot said. "With projects like this, you just have to go for them, full-speed ahead."
Though some pronounced the project outlandish, others quickly understood his vision. It took only one year to secure financing and get going. Work began in 1997. Guedelon, which brought in about $2.6 million from tourists last year, no longer relies on outside funding from the state or corporations.
Historical accuracy is key. Jacques Moulin, France's chief architect in charge of historic monuments, designed a blueprint for the castle based on 13th century architectural canons. Archaeologists and art historians survey the project, which is helping castle specialists test hypotheses about medieval building techniques.
"You learn that you can lift 1,300-pound beams without modern machinery," said Maryline Martin, the site director. "All it takes is common sense and manpower."
Guedelon's craftsmen say it's satisfying to build something slowly, as a team, especially in the fast-paced Internet age. Clement Guerard, a stonecutter, says measuring out and carving a complicated stone may take up to eight days.
All the stones - ferruginous sandstone - come from a quarry on the site of the castle. The wooden scaffolding comes from the surrounding forest.
"Using only the nature that surrounds you, you can build a chateau," said Guerard, who restored historical buildings before joining Guedelon.
On my visit, the "ping" of chisels on rock filled the air, and our tour group was occasionally moved out of the way by a passing horse-drawn cart. Our guide blended humor with the history lesson and had us play the role of invaders to explain how even the smallest architectural details helped protect castles.
Some examples: A staircase turns clockwise, forcing invaders to transfer their spears to the left hand and giving the defense an advantage. An extra-tall step requires them to take off their chain-link armor to scale it. Anyone who actually makes it up the stairs alive would have to bend over to pass through a low doorway - giving the castle's hatchet-armed defenders a prime crack at their necks.
Our guide was waiting for me outside the doorway _ in position to karate chop my neck. If it was the 13th century, I would have lost my head. Instead I had a great view of the bustling work site.
Some of the walls are already covered with moss, a reminder that the project is slow-going. If all goes well, the castle will be finished in 2023. After that, the craftsmen plan to build an abbey, then a village.
"This will never be finished, because it's not about the end result of having a castle," Guyot said. It's about the dream of building - stone by stone.
If You Go ...
GETTING THERE: Guedelon is about 125 miles south of Paris and is best accessible by car. Try the Web site http://www.mappy.com/ to get driving directions from your location to the town of Treigny. It's best also to have a map of the department, a part of the Burgundy region that is called Yonne. The nearest large town is Auxerre.
PLANNING A VISIT: Entry to Guedelon costs $11.50 for adults and $8.95 for children 5 and up. It's best to call ahead if you are interested in arranging a guided tour in English. Check the Web site at http://www.guedelon.com/ for opening times, which vary by season. Phone: (011) 33-3-86-45-66-66.
WHERE TO STAY: Though it's possible to visit Guedelon in a day trip from Paris, it's best to give yourself a few days to visit the vineyards, abbeys and other beauties of Burgundy. Charming bed-and-breakfasts abound. Try the Demeure de Forterre - http://www.demeure-de-forterre.com/ - run by a fun-loving couple who renovated a 15th and 16th century home. Call (011) 33-3-86-41-61-94 for a reservation. Some English spoken.
FINE WINES: You can't visit Burgundy without stopping for a "degustation," a wine-tasting. Try Irancy, a village of small stone houses surrounded by vineyards. I stopped in to visit the Colinot family of winemakers. The talkative, boisterous patriarch, Jean-Pierre, glued the labels onto bottles as we chatted and tasted. Phone: (011) 33-3-86-42-33-25.
DINING: Guedelon has an open-air cafeteria and a picnic area. In general, you can't go wrong with food in Burgundy, the land of Dijon mustard, Bresse chicken and beef Bourguignon. In the nearby town of Clamecy, try the L'Angelus restaurant for mouthwatering prix-fixe menus in the range of $25-38. Phone: (011) 33-3-86-27-33-98.