The site of Les Tours de Merle has everything I love most about traveling in the “deep heart of France”: castles, a little medieval mystery, a little wild nature, and a challenging hike up a very steep hill. On the day I came to town, I stopped on the side of the sharply winding “D” road to photograph the towers when a French motorcyclist pulled up next to me. “Mais qu’est-ce que c’est?” he demanded. I explained what I knew already about the site. He stared for a long, quiet minute, then drew in his breath. “C’est magnifique,” he said softly, “c’est vraiment magnifique”. I couldn’t agree more.
It’s not a castle!
The first thing you have to know – the site’s operators insist on this point – is that the Tours de Merle is NOT a castle. It’s a castrum – essentially a big gated community for medieval aristocrats. At the height of this town’s history there were a total of 7 separate donjons here; in 1350, a hundred nobles, artisans and townspeople occupied 30 houses on the different levels of the community.
We’re in a region called the Xaintrie, overlooking the Maronne River, a tributary on the left bank of the Dordogne in Corrèze. The site backs up against the borders of the Limousin and the Auvergne; signs here say “it’s not really still the Limousin, but also not truly Auvergnate.”
The Merle family and their allies (the Veyracs, the Saint-Bauzilles, and the Rochedragons) occupied the north end of this rocky outcropping beginning sometime in the 1000s A.D. At some point, the Carbonnière and Pesteils families took up residence and added their towering donjons to the south end.
As the centuries went by, the Carbonnières slowly became the dominant family in this particular Homeowners’ Association; by 1294 it’s clear the other families on the plateau were obliged to pay homage to them. (Isn’t that the way it always goes in a gated community?)
Les Tours de Merle – a medieval refuge, but from what?
The origins of the place are apparently lost forever in the mists of the 11th century – even the current site operators say the Towers were “created in a context which still mostly escapes us”. It’s not clear exactly what the Merles and their “co-seigneurs” were afraid of. It’s not clear, either, why they felt need to build such a powerful defensive complex so far from…well, everything – this truly is a wild, sparsely inhabited corner of France. (The site’s webpage calls it a “wilderness”.) There’s a little archeological evidence of the presence of a military force – three pairs of knightly spurs, bits and pieces of armor – but not much else has emerged to give us a vision of what life was like up on this rocky outpost.
Threats did come in time, though. The English managed to capture one of the towers during the Hundred Years’ War in 1371, but the other families quickly pushed them back out. Calvinist forces managed to establish a base here during Wars of Religion in 1574 and held onto it for almost 2 years before the “co-seigneurs” recaptured the castrum, but by then the place was already declining as a defensive stronghold.
Of course, with such a formidable stronghold in the area, as in most other places with good castles, a whole village developed around the base of the Tours de Merle, counting on its strength for protection. In exchange, they paid rents and taxes and owed their labor to the lords of the domain. They submitted to the seigneurs’ system of justice, and in return got to use the common public infrastructure -- mills and ovens, for example.
Visiting Les Tours de Merle
This is truly an isolated site. It’s 45 minutes from Aurillac, 1 hour from Tulle, and 75 minutes from Brive la Gaillarde, all by twisting départemental roads, many stretches of which narrow to one lane. Parking is free, but there’s a long walk down from there to the entrance to the castrum.
Outside the gates, there are a couple of interesting medieval houses to explore. Much of what remains inside the ruins themselves dates to the 13th, 14th, and 15th centuries; most of the people who lived here moved away by the end of the 17th century after the protective function of the castles faded away. As the signs on the site attest, life is definitely “more comfortable” outside this wild region, and the great noble families packed up and went in search of that comfort!
Once you’re inside, you should expect an example of the kind of French tourist site we saw more frequently when we first came to the region 20 years ago: a very rough, unrestored pathway that lurches up and down the hill over rocks and offers little in the way of safety rails or assistance. This is definitely not a site for wheelchairs or baby carriages. There is a lot of sharp climbing on worn-out stone stairways. There are also no toilets and no water fountains once you’re past the entrance gate, so come prepared.
The two towers of the Pesteils family (at the far south end of the platform) are the best of the remaining donjons. All the buildings associated with the Merles are more or less ruins, although you can certainly get the sense of how majestic their chateaux would have been; Gothic doorways, great fireplaces on multiple levels, and crenellated towers all attest to the richness of the place in its prime.
(I found it interesting, though, that unlike almost every other village of any size in France, there’s no real church in this community – just a 13th-century family chapel inside the walls.)
How to Get There / Practical Information
Tours de Merle is located on route D-13
- 45 minutes from Aurillac
- 1 hour from Tulle
- 75 minutes from Brive-la-Gaillarde
Nearby railway stations
Tulle (35 kms)
Aurillac and Brive (45 kms)
Official Website (in English):
A “Must See” In the Corrèze
I was exhausted by the time I made it back to my car – that long descent from the parking lot to the entrance turns into another sharp climb when it’s time to leave! But from every angle, this is one of the most interesting places I’ve seen in my travels around central France. Physically taxing to visit, not rich in royal history or preserved buildings, I still found Les Tours de Merle to be “worth a detour”, an excellent day trip anytime you happen to be in the region. As the motorcyclist whispered as he stood next to me at the top of the hill, “c’est vraiment magnifique”!
Tell us about your experiences traveling “off the beaten path in France”. Have you come across a breath-taking site like Les Tours de Merle? Have you visited a historic ruin that speaks to you in some particular way? Please share your experience in the comments section below – and while you’re here, take a second to share this post with someone else who’s interested in France by clicking on your preferred social-media button(s).