A user on Quora recently asked me “What are the best castles in France?” I listed some of my favorites --- Beynac, Castelnaud-la-Chapelle, Polignac, Les Tours de Merle – with a focus on places removed from the “standard” touristy sights of the Loire Valley. But as I worked on my answer, it struck me that I have never actually written about my favorite chateau in all of France -- the massive defensive fortress of Murol, in the mountains of the Cantal. Today’s post is meant to correct that error and introduce you to one of the best overall tourist destinations in the deep heart of the country.
Changing with the light of day
I’ve made several visits to Murol just for the pleasure of photographing it. At sunrise, seen from the north, it appears to be surveying the vast mountain wilderness of the Cantal. This is one of the least populated corners of France, so it’s still easy to imagine how the castle might have looked to a traveler coming down from Paris in 1390 C.E., when Guillaume II of Murol undertook the project of turning this into a defensive stronghold.
At night, with a full moon blurred behind a thin layer of clouds (and with the walls lit by floodlights from every angle), the camera emphasizes Murol’s isolation. Only the single pinpoints of light from a few distant farmhouses are visible from this angle.
In the full light of day, the thick walls of the chateau clearly dominate the countryside from a sharp little volcanic peak. The isolation seems less pronounced, though, since by day you can see the little village huddled around the base of the hill, still looking up, it would seem, for the protection of the hulking fortress overhead. (Ironically, though, these days it’s the other way around: since 1950, the little town of Murol is the owner of its castle, responsible for its restoration and maintenance.)
At any time of day, though, the description Guy de Maupassant wrote about Murol in his short story, “Humble drame” seems to capture the spirit of the place for me:
“It astonishes the eye more than any other ruin by its simple mass, its majesty, its grave and imposing air of antiquity. It stands there, alone, high as a mountain, a dead queen, but still the queen of the valleys stretched out beneath it. You go up by a slope planted with firs, then you enter a narrow gate, and stop at the foot of the walls, in the first enclosure, in full view of the entire country.”
Although there are signs around the site strictly forbidding the use of drones, the chateau’s managers did give permission to videographer Andrzej Szczygiel to make this dramatic flyover film in 2015. It’s the best way I know for you to get the sense of how isolated – and how massively powerful – Murol looks, even 900 years after the first buildings appeared on this peak.
A distinguished medieval life
Murol’s long history, like that of many other castles, tells how the chateau was passed from family to family over the centuries. But unlike many similar fortresses, this one owes much of its power – and its ongoing historical interest – to one noble owner: Guillaume de Murol.
He had time to work on the building – 90 years from his birth in 1350 until he died in 1440! During that time, Guillaume fortified the castle’s defense, but also turned it into a more comfortable home for his family. Remarkably, he kept a detailed journal of almost all his transactions related to the management of the chateau; the current owners claim that “no other castle in France possesses such a document”, so it’s not surprising that a reasonably clear image of Guillaume lingers through history.
It’s the image of a careful manager, a benevolent man slow to anger, but also a man focused on making his castle one of the most formidable in all of central France. As the tour guide tells us on the day of my most recent visit, “This building was never taken in battle! Never! Well, OK, so it was only ever attacked one time, but still!”
The fact that it was only attacked once is more a testament to how intimidating Murol is – it’s impossible to imagine an army riding up and saying “well, sure, we have a chance to get in there!” That does not mean the threats weren’t real, though.
The castle sits at the intersection of three ancient Roman routes, and in its medieval life would have seen some terrible local evidence of the most violent shocks ever to rock France, including:
- The Hundred Years War, from 1337 to 1453 (not so much a war between “France” and “England” as it was a conflict between the Plantagenet and Valois families, but these armies struggled over almost every patch of territory in the deep heart of France)
- The Plague or “Black Death” that peaked in Europe between 1347 and 1351
- France’s internecine Wars of Religion, pitting Protestants against Catholics from 1562 to 1598
By the time of this last conflict, the Murol family line had run its course, and ownership of the great castle transferred from them to the d’Estaing family in 1455, when Jehanne de Murol married Gaspard d’Estaing. That transition is captured forever in stone in the lintel over one of the main entry gates; the old Murol coat of arms is on the left, the d’Estaing symbol is on the right, and the new “joint” coat of arms is carved in the middle.
That marriage also contributed to another reason why this particular castle still retains so much of its medieval authenticity. Cardinal Richelieu (King Louis XIII’s powerful “chief minister”) moved to strip power away from France’s noble families by ordering the destruction of all “defensive” castles in 1626. (You can see the evidence in other places – at Usson, for example, where the great chateau used by Queen Margot is now a bare ruin.) But because of the power and influence of the d’Estaing family, Murol was spared.
The castle also somehow survived the French Revolution, but the passing centuries (and the changing nature of warfare and France’s defensive needs) eventually did what enemy armies could not do. The castle went unused and unloved for a couple of hundred years, becoming successively (in the words of the chateau’s website) “a prison, a bandits’ hideout and finally a stone quarry.”
A castle visit like no other
Since the town of Murol took over the property in 1950, they’ve invested heavily in making this one of the more interesting destinations in the deep heart of France. It’s extremely well-managed as a tourist site — they do spectacular “animations” all summer long, including displays of daredevil horseback riding and “knight classes” for the kids. It’s a great visit, and if you like camping, hiking, fishing, boating, parasailing or any other outdoor activity, it’s in one of the best parts of France for those pursuits.
On a recent September evening I went back to the castle for one of its best offerings: a torchlight tour in the company of Guillaume II, his son and daughter, and the local Abbot of Murol. They are, of course, all professional actors, and the quality of the show is better than anything else I’ve seen in France. It starts with a breathtaking display of daredevil horseback riding as Guillaume’s son tries to impress his father with his knightly skills.
Then the tour moves inside the castle, where Guillaume and his daughter listen to the local Abbot’s pleas for more money. Guillaume resists, his daughter entreats, and we make our way to the chapel where, in the dim light of a few candles, she sings a solo “Stabat Mater” that gave me chills even on a hot summer night. (Even more remarkably, the 30 or so young children in our tour group sat transfixed, scarcely moving, through the whole 10-minute performance of an ancient Latin song. Amazing!)
These actors are accomplished storytellers, authentically dressed. Thanks to the details in that famous journal maintained by Guillaume II, we have a good idea of what was on his banquet table, what he would have worn, how much he gave to the church, and what might have worried him.
(Good food, though, was NOT one of his concerns. Guillaume also owned several other properties scattered around the Auvergne – in Limagne, in Saint-Amant-Tallende, on the shores of Lake Chambon, and in Cournon. These supplied enough wine, fish, and grazing lands for livestock to keep the family permanently secure in its food supply. When he takes the tour group underground to visit his cellars, we see a clear testament to the riches of these sources.)
If you speak French – or have children who do – this is a spectacularly good introduction to the rich history of a place like Murol. Even if you don’t speak French, you can appreciate the amazing riding displays and the moving music that mark this evening tour. I was impressed and frankly surprised at how enthralled every child in the group seemed to be for the duration of the 2-hour visit.
A quality of warmth and authenticity
The tour ends with Guillaume and his family at a banquet table, then we all make the sharp descent back to the parking lot, buzzing about everything we’ve just seen. The Chateau de Murol is an extraordinary tourist destination seen from any angle – a powerful medieval military defense seen from a distance, a comfortable Renaissance noble home seen from inside. Karen and I love to find places like this which seem “real”, where you have a sense for how people lived there without feeling like you’re in a museum. Murol has that quality, and it tops my list of recommendations of “the best castles in France”.
Do you have a favorite chateau or castle in France? Have you seen a historical re-enactment that made you feel more in touch with something in the past? Please share your experience in the comments section below – and take a second, please, to share this post with someone else who’s interested in the people, the places, the culture, and the history of France.