A history that almost disappeared
Most of the stories of great castles in France hinge on the actions of knights and noble families. I just visited a place, though, where the key moment depended on the actions of … the Electric Company?
That’s the great irony in the history of the Chateau de Val: It was only a hair’s breadth away from disappearing forever at the bottom of a lake – and frankly it might not have been seriously missed. But the waters stopped just short of the castle’s walls, and gave it a romantic setting that turned this minor château in the Auvergne into a serious attraction for tourists.
Don’t get me wrong – the Chateau de Val is authentically medieval, and its setting today is as romantic and striking as that of the great house at Chenonceau in the Loire Valley. It wasn’t built that way, though. An aristocratic family (the Tinières) took up residence on this site as early as the 12th century, but the current castle wasn’t built until the late 14th century. Guillaume IV d'Estaing, the Chamberlain to King Charles VII, bought the place and built most of what you can see now.
Then, as for so many of the chateaux that cover the hills of the Auvergne, Val passed through the hands of a long succession of different families over the centuries. (The timeline posted on the walls here shows 12 distinct coats-of-arms representing the castle’s different owners.)
No great battles were fought here, no sieges were laid, no processions of the King and his court were welcomed in these walls. The Chateau de Val was, quite simply, the very comfortable home for a long line of locally-important people for over 500 years.
The historical moment of truth
The last family to live here – the d’Arcys – got what must have been terrible news in 1946: the EDF (Electricité de France) was appropriating their property because it would likely be covered by the new lake created by the great hydroelectric dam (under construction since 1942) at Bort-les-Orgues. The d’Arcys packed up their antique furniture – most of which you can see restored to the building today – and moved out. The Chateau de Val became quite possibly the only castle in the world to be owned by an electric company.
In the end, though, the new lake turned out not to be as deep as expected, and the castle remained standing just at the edge of the water. It was classified as a historic monument in 1946 (although clearly that wasn’t how it was seen when plans for the dam were laid out!), and in 1953 the EDF sold the property for one French franc to the town of Bort-les-Orgues. Before they turned it over, though, the company agreed to construct a permanent jetty around the building to protect it from rising water – and a fine tourist site was born!
Visiting the Chateau de Val
The first floor of the Chateau de Val is furnished well enough to give you an idea of what life might have been like for a noble family in this isolated corner of the deep heart of France. There’s an especially interesting painted fireplace mantle in the main living room, as well as the requisite uncomfortable throne-like chairs. I liked seeing the “homier” touches in the restored rooms – the billiard table, the desk laid out as if someone had been interrupted at his work, the rough wooden planking of the floors.
There’s no furniture on most of the upper étages, which are given over to the display of contemporary art by French painters and print-makers. Only the top floor has been re-furnished to give an idea of what a servant’s quarters might have been.
The Chateau de Val - A Castle with a Beach!
There are ominous signs posted along the edge of the lake, warning that boating and swimming are “extremely dangerous” in the areas around the dam. When I visited, though, there were still many families finishing out their August vacations swimming off the sandy beach at the foot of the Chateau de Val, and from the castle’s windows I could see several boats towing water skiers around the lake. Plenty of hikers were walking the woods around the site, too.
It’s a remarkable setting – and one that came perilously close to disappearing completely. It’s an interesting small castle, but given its isolation and its lack of great historical moments, I had to wonder if anyone would be much motivated to visit this château if not for the lake that formed around it. With the lake, though, the Chateau de Val is a fine place to spend a long summer’s day, enjoying the beach and the waters of the lake surrounded by the extraordinary beauty of the Cantal.
Have you ever come across a site like this in your travels around France? Please tell us about your experience in the comments below – and, while you’re here, I’d be grateful if you’d click on one of the “share” buttons to pass this post along to someone else!