I’ve had the good luck to visit more than 100 castles and châteaux in our travels around France over the past 24 years (and I’ve written about more than 20 for this blog). Most of them fall into one of four categories:
- The famous castles that line the Loire River’s valley and the great royal châteaux like the ones at Versailles and Fontainbleau. (There's a slightly smaller one of these palaces at Hautefort in the deep heart of France, the region I cover here. They’re called châteaux, but many of these really seem more like palaces.)
- Serious military fortresses like Castelnaud, Beynac, and (my favorite chateau in the Auvergne) Murol. These are closest to the popular image of “medieval castle”, with towers, crenelated walls, and drawbridges designed to repel invaders and withstand long sieges.
- “Hybrids” that started out as defensive structures but evolved over the centuries into something more like a family home. (Think of places like the Chateau d’Avrilly or the historic castle at Tournoel in central France)
- Large houses passed down through one noble family or several over the last few hundred years
* I know that not everyone can go to France right now. And with Covid-19 infections spiking again this winter, even people already in France may not be able to travel freely. This post, then, is for anyone already in France looking for someplace “off the beaten path” for a “local” vacation – and for anyone else who holds out hope for travel like this when the world returns to a more normal situation. As always, though, it’s best to check before you go to be sure places mentioned here are open and welcoming visitors.
(And of course, there really is a fifth category of châteaux: those that have tumbled into ruin, with grass growing over the loose stones and only the occasional tower remaining to mark the spot. My favorite of these is the partially restored castle at Polignac, sailing like a great ship above the plains on its own basaltic mesa, but there’s also an interesting one at the “most beautiful village” of Arlempdes.)
Parentignat: A chateau that feels "lived in"
The fine chateau at Parentignat belongs to that fourth group of “large houses passed down through time.” I’ve visited it a few times over the years, and I keep going back because, more than a great many old houses, this one really feels “lived in”. This is a rare quality for several reasons – many of France’s most chateaux were stripped of their original furniture and decorations when noble families were turned out during the French Revolution, or they fell into disrepair over the years when families could no longer bear the high cost of maintaining them, or the last branch of a family died out and the building passed to new owners.
But Parentignat has been in the hands of the same family since it was built between 1707 and 1720. The original owner was the Marquis Francois de Lastic, a regimental captain in the infantry of King Louis XIV, the “Sun King”. It became locally famous as “the Versailles of the Auvergne”, largely because of its rich furnishings and exquisite English gardens.
A walking tour through French art history
I took the walking tour a while back on a cool, bright late-summer day. The windows had been thrown open to let in the light and fresh air – surprising, really, since there is so much rare art and décor on display in these rooms. Our guide explained why Parentignat did not suffer during the Revolution like so many of its counterparts throughout France: the Lastic family, she said, had a reputation as “progressives” in the vanguard of the Revolution. It didn’t hurt that the Marquis de Lafayette (whose own family chateau is not that far from Parentignat) intervened on the family’s behalf when their home came up for discussion.
(They may not have been as “vanguardist” as everyone thought, though. In the fine gardens behind the house there are three massive oak trees which supposedly represented Louis XVI, Marie Antoinette and their son the dauphin – a slyly subversive joke that slipped past the revolutionaries, I guess.)
In any case, the chateau and its rich furnishings survived and passed from generation to generation of the Lastic family to the present day. The most notable recent owner was Georges Stéphane Paul de Lastic, who inherited the house in 1970.
He spent much of his life studying art history (at the Louvre Museum’s school), curating museum collections, and building his own remarkable collection of 17th and 18th-century French paintings, sculptures, and terra cotta pieces. Some of that huge collection can be seen in other museums now, but many of the largest and most important works are on display here at Parentignat.
Our guide on the house tour stopped at length in front of each of the major paintings; she clearly was a student of art herself because she was well-versed in the most detailed academic explanations of the obscure symbolism and allegorical references to be found in these works. “If you see a monkey eating this particular piece of fruit,” she explained, “it means that the women sitting next to it was pregnant, but if the monkey were holding a different piece of fruit it would mean she had had a miscarriage.” “Amazing!
Georges de Lastic died in 1988 and passed the chateau on to the current generation of Lastics. They’ve done a remarkable job of restoring the place and maintaining the “homey” touches that make this feel more like a comfortable family home than almost any other chateau I’ve visited. There are family photographs on the tables and comfortable looking furniture in a parlor. But for a bookworm like me, the best room in the building is the great library with 22,000 volumes on the shelves and plenty of overstuffed furniture for passing the time in comfort with a good book!
The chateau is closed right now (February 2021) but hopes to reopen this summer if there’s good news and a relaxation of the quarantine rules related to the pandemic. It’s worth a trip (but check before you go!) if you love 18th-century French art, a walk in a beautiful garden, or fine pre-Revolutionary architecture. Above all, though, it’s worth a trip to appreciate “how the other half lives” – and have lived, largely uninterrupted, for more than 300 years!
Do you have a favorite place “off the beaten path” in the deep heart of France? Have you visited a place associated with a famous writer or artist that you could recommend to other travelers? Please share your experiences in the Comments section below – and while you’re here, please take a second to share this post with someone else who is interested in the people, places, culture, and history of central France.
Unless otherwise noted, all photos in this post are Copyright © 2020 by Richard L. Alexander