A surprising town in the Haut-Allier
I’ve come to Bourbon-l’Archambault on a market day, which means there’s not a parking place left in town and traffic stops completely while people weave around the cars to cross the street. In fact, I came here to see the Chateau de Billy, the town’s most prominent feature. But it's quickly clear that the Chateau is in its own separate little village, although effectively merged with Bourbon-l'Archambault. And it's quickly clear, too, that there’s much more than I’d imagined to this community in the Haut-Allier region of the Auvergne.
It all starts with the water – hot and full of minerals, bubbling up at a constant 1310 Farenheit (550 Celsius) from underground volcanic sources at several points. Archeologists here have established that people have been coming to Bourbon-l’Archambault since Celtic times to cure their rheumatism. Celts were followed by Gauls who were in turn bumped out by the Romans; they dedicated the spring waters here to the god Borvo, giving a variant of the name to the town, to a dynasty of European kings that still exists today, and to that tasty beverage from Kentucky.
A royal doctor puts the town on the map
The town’s reputation really took off, though, when Charles Delorme, personal physician to Kings Louis XIII and Louis XIV, started promoting the thermal cure to everyone in the royal court in the early 1600s. Gaston d’Orleans (Louis XIII’s brother) came here, as did Madame Montespan (Louis XIV’s “favorite”) and a long line of other nobles. And while most other old thermal baths – like the Roman spa in Royat, for example – have long since been decommissioned, Bourbon-l’Archambault boasts that its “Three Wells” have been more or less continuously in operation since the 17th century.
A Belle Epoque Thermal Spa
Go there today and you can see the historical baths and a small lodge built for royal guests in the Place Charles Delorme… or walk a couple of blocks down the street and try out the waters for yourself at Les Thermes. Like the great spas you can visit in Vichy and Royat, among others, this is a spectacular building from France’s Belle Epoque, opened in 1885.
When I visited there were at least 100 people lined up in the lobby in white terry bathrobes and slippers wandering from wing to wing, soaking in the hot baths, or admiring the florid tile work done by Leon Parvillée in the Japanese style that was all the rage in France at the end of the 19th century.
Finally - to the Chateau!
I have to remind myself that I came to see another side of Bourbon-l’Archambault’s history – its great Chateau de Billy sitting in its own little village on the peak across from the town’s center. No one really knows when the first fortress appeared on this site, although it seems likely there’s been a defensive building here since the time of the ancient Gauls.
What we do know is that this was the home of the Bourbons before they were really Bourbons. Archambaud VIII (a predecessor to the Bourbon family and the source of the other part of the town’s name) bought the castle sometime in the early1200s A.D. He needed it for military reasons, given that the Dukes of Bourbon were in constant conflict with the Counts of Auvergne for the next 200-300 years.
Even as the Bourbon family’s influence and power grew, the chateau went through a long, slow decline, gashed during a siege by Protestant forces during the Wars of Religion and eventually abandoned when the Dukes moved their home up the road to Moulins.
(I love the essay about the fate of the castle in the French version of Wikipedia for its snarky observations about the writer’s fellow citizens: “As the Chateau de Billy lost its prestige and its interest in the eyes of men, the building didn’t stop deteriorating and finished by being completely abandoned starting in the 19th century. During the last 2 centuries, the “castrum” was more or less abusively occupied by the local population which, for its part, contributed to its degradation. For the rest, time and the weather, combined with a lack of maintenance and a lack of interest on the part of its owners, had their effect…”)
The building was bought back by the commune of Billy from the last remaining descendants of the Bourbon proprietors in 1963, and has since been progressively restored as a tourist attraction. Its three great original towers were connected with high walls over time, and you can still see where they were breached by the Protestant army led by the Prince of Condé during the siege of 1576.
The castle is open from April to October for tours, and (as at so many other sites like this across the Auvergne) there’s usually some kind of “historical animation” or concert or art expo going on during the summer months. You can park at the base of the fortress and walk up to the village; this is a great starting point for a hike or a bike ride, too, with spectacular views of the surrounding Bourbonnais region.
What’s your favorite castle in France? Are you seeing anything like this in your summer vacations this year? Please tell us about your experience in the comments section below. And, as always, I’d be grateful if you’d take a second to click on your preferred social-media button to share this article with your friends!