Arlempdes (pronounced Arlandes), is buried deep in the heart of France. Although it is officially one of the 155 “Most Beautiful Villages in France,” it’s not exactly typical of the other towns you’ll find on the list.
For one thing, it’s very small – the population is listed at 129 people, and I counted no more than 7 or 8 houses inside the town’s walls and perhaps 7 more outside.
It’s also very isolated. The nearest autoroute (the A75) is 90 minutes away by narrow, winding country roads. The nearest town of any size is Le Puy en Velay, 45 minutes away.
There are no stores in Arlempdes – no bakery, no pharmacy, no butcher. The only visible commerce is the Hotel de Manoir, a hulk of a building that appears to have enough rooms to house the whole town if the need arose.
This is the Haute Loire, one of France’s wildest and least-visited regions. Long before it flows through the valley of the great chateaux of northern France, the Loire river arises here in little trickles, merging into shallow streams that gather speed as they churn over the rocky bottom of the valley.
The most obvious feature of Arlempdes is the great ruined castle that tops the volcanic needle on which the town is built. Begun in the 12th century, it was occupied over the centuries by several different families in the lower levels of the French aristocracy, eventually ending up in the hands of Diane de Poitiers (the “favorite” of King Henry II) in 1450.
Her coat of arms is still visible on one of the walls of an apartment built for her, and some of the King’s army was stationed here for a while – but this really is an isolated outpost, not at all strategic in the defense of the kingdom. Other families came and went, and the place eventually was left to ruin even before the French Revolution.
It’s a spectacular ruin, though! To get in, you have to stop at the bar/restaurant of the Hotel de Manoir, pay a fee, and get a key on a heavy antique fob to let yourself in (with an admonition to lock the door behind you.)
Inside, only a few walls remain standing, but enough to give you a sense of the place’s impenetrable defenses. You can look over the edge of the ramparts to the sheer drop down to the river below, and much of the site is covered in rough piles of stone. (I’ve written elsewhere about French attitudes toward visitor safety, and this is a prime example.)
There’s a tiny chapel with room for perhaps 10 or 15 people. It’s carved from rough blocks of lava, with no ornamentation to speak of.
In the village below, the house attached to the town’s main gate is for sale. Built in the 11th century, the sign says it’s been remodeled to a “modern” level of comfort, and the price has been cut from 132,000 Euros to 100,000 (“à débattre”) “because of health reasons”.
If you’re interested in a quiet life in one of the most beautiful parts of “undiscovered” France, this might be a good place to start!
What’s the most interesting place you’ve seen “off the beaten path” in France? Please tell us about it in the comments section below.
All photos in this post © 2016 R. Alexander