Charroux is officially “one of the most beautiful villages of France”. There’s been a town here since Gallo-Roman times, but Charroux has also been one of these “free cities” since at least 1245 AD. That means it shares the characteristics of many of the other French towns that have this distinction:
It was given its autonomy from the feudal lords who controlled its region. In an area frequented by war, famine, or plague, it was often hard to persuade people to settle – but feudal lords were anxious about leaving a large region unpopulated as too risky for their own security.
In this case, Charroux was under the control first of the Dukes of the Bourbonnais, then the Dukes of Auvergne. To encourage people to come, they granted exemptions from some taxes (but not all!) and trading privileges to the people of the town. The result, as Charroux’s plaques still proclaim, was the development of a bourgeois class of “merchants and intellectuals, rich and cultivated.”
It’s a fortified city, built on a hill with military bases and religious orders camped outside the walls. Both the Templars and the Hospitaliers had strongholds here, as did the Benedictines later on. You can still see the evidence of the town’s military defenses in the way buildings are circled around the Cour des Dames, as well as in the towers and gates that remain today.
Alas, the very reasons for needing a fortified free city also visited Charroux over time. Marauding soldiers in the Hundred Years War tore through Charroux in the 1300s and 1400s. The Plague came in the 15th century, as did the 16th-century Wars of Religion, in which a Protestant army burned the village after defeating a Catholic troop in the area. Even though it’s somewhat off the main path from Paris to Clermont-Ferrand, it suffered through the decline of the Bourbon Dukes along with the rest of the region. Only 320 people live in the town now.
So, as in many of France’s “most beautiful villages”, there’s a lot of rough and bloody history behind the quaint medieval facades you see today.
It’s largely been turned into a pedestrian zone, so you can park at the town walls and walk the whole area in a few hours.
There are plenty of fine buildings to see from every period of Charroux’s history, including the Clock Tower and its belfry and other vestiges of the town’s defensive fortifications.
Most interesting to me, though, is the Church of Saint Jean Baptiste (John the Baptist). It was itself a fortified defensive structure, built beginning in the 12th century, but with a very notable characteristic today: its steeple has been lopped off, leaving a sharp, angular stub. Unfortunately, there’s no recorded explanation; the church’s plaque says “it’s a complete mystery”, whether it happened in a war, was just never completed, or “toppled in the storms of 1777”.
There are a few pleasant restaurants and several very appealing gites or bed-and-breakfast places that make Charroux an excellent spot for a weekend getaway. Look especially for the “House of the Prince of Condé”, a lovely converted medieval building named for the time it hosted Louis the 1st of Bourbon, now a fine B&B on the edge of town.
As Charroux has developed its “touristy” side, it has grown local artisanal industries in jellies, preserves and candle making, but they’ve been making exotic mustards here since at least 1790, when the Poulain brothers started distributing their little pots. We especially liked the concoction of apples “a la moutarde de Charroux”, and the “purple” mustard made from the local red wines of St. Pourcain, but you can also find flavors of green pepper, basilic, estragon, and others in the local shops.
Like other “most beautiful villages” of France, Charroux makes a wonderful day trip or long weekend in the agricultural heartland of the country. We’ve gone back repeatedly and always found something new to see in its narrow streets.
What are your favorite memories of a French village? Please tell us about your experience in the comments section below – and I’d be grateful if you’d take a moment to “share” this post on Facebook, Twitter, Flipboard, StumbleUpon, or your favorite social-media platform by using one of the buttons below!