Lapalisse – The French Town Made Famous By A Pun

Well, you can’t miss THAT as you drive into town!  More than most places in France, Lapalisse is dominated – almost overwhelmed – by the great chateau that stands at its center.  Strangely, though, the town’s celebrity is due mostly to a mundane pun about one of its most famous historical figures.

Not that many years ago, it was almost impossible to avoid Lapalisse if you went travelling through the Allier, one of the great “breadbasket” agricultural regions of France.  The first time I saw it was on a company bus trip from Clermont-Ferrand to see our factory in Montceau-les-Mines.  I woke up an hour into the trip to see this massive landmark with all the little local businesses clustered at its foot.

Entry gates, chateau at Lapalisse

Today, though, you have to look for it deliberately.  Since 2006, the biggest local controversy seems to have been the re-routing of the national highway (the N7) because all the noise and vibrations of truck traffic passing through Lapalisse began to create cracks in the chateau’s walls.  (And, as we’ve seen a few other places in France, this leads to some snippy remarks in the tourist-information plaques posted by local officials about the heavy hand of the central government!)

The chateau is spectacular, though, and worth a visit in itself.  Built beginning in the 12th century, it’s been inhabited by members of the same family since 1430.  King Francois I’s “Marshall of France” was Jacques II, lord of “La Palice”, considered one of the great warriors of his generation.  And thus arises the famous pun…

In a battle at Pavia in 1525, Jacques II was captured.  The legend says his captors – an Italian and a Spaniard – got into an argument about who had the rights to collect a ransom for their famous prisoner; somewhere in the dispute, the Spaniard decided to settle it by shooting La Palice in the chest. 

Chateau of Lapalisse

He was so universally admired, and his death so regretted by his soldiers, that La Palice was honored with a little verse:

Hélas La Palice est mort […]                       Alas, La Palice is dead …

Hélas s’il n’était pas mort                           Alas, if he were not dead,

Il ferait encore envie.                                  He would still be the envy of everyone.

Somewhere in the repetition (steady yourself for the big laugh that’s coming!) the last line evolved and the verse became:

Hélas La Palice est mort […]                       Alas, La Palice is dead …

Hélas s’il n’était pas mort                           Alas, if he were not dead,

Il serait encore en vie.                                 He would still be living.

Got yourself back together?  We’ll continue… In the 1700s Bernard de la Monnoye rediscovered this blockbuster pun and (as one naturally does) turned it into a song of 51 verses called “The Truths of La Palice” (!).  Let’s just say that the current owners of the family chateau are at pains to remind visitors now that, while the joke may be hilarious, it does a disservice to “one of the greatest and most honorable men of his time.”



Approaching Lapalisse

The town of Lapalisse today is dominated by the rambling chateau on top of the hill, open for guided tours from April to November.  Below the chateau, there’s a small “old quarter” of little businesses and ancient houses to walk through, and a very nice floral park mixing French and English-style gardens for a pleasant walk along the Bresbe river. 

Floral garden in Lapalisse

For me, the most interesting characteristic of this little town (aside from its dominant landmark) is the feeling that it has a little bit of a chip on its shoulder.  “Internationally famous” for a song about a mild pun, it would prefer to be famous for the great man who called Lapalisse home.  With traffic detoured around the edges of town, it would like to be back on the route nationale, with all the visibility and bustle that implies. 

Have you encountered a situation like this anywhere in your travels around France?  If so, please tell us about it in the comments section.  And I’d be grateful if you’d take a moment to share this post with others on social media – the buttons for Facebook, Flipboard, StumbleUpon and others are just below!

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