This summer: look beyond “the Greatest Hits”
Now that le déconfinement is underway, tourist bureaus across France are encouraging people to plan vacations closer to home rather than taking trips to more exotic places. The Wall Street Journal today has an article claiming “[t]he French are venturing into unknown territory: France.”
Coronavirus border closures mean the French have the Eiffel Tower and the Chateau de Versailles to themselves. They’ve decided to see what all the fuss is about. (Wall Street Journal, July 9, 2020)
The risk, of course, is that the well-known “greatest hits” of French travel — the incredible chateaux in the Loire Valley, for example, or a day trip to Giverny — might still be overwhelmed or frustratingly inaccessible if crowds surpass the new capacity limits imposed by the pandemic.
Why not look instead for places that are equally historic, equally dramatic, but further from the normal tourist routes? In this blog, I cover the regions and sights of what we call “the deep heart of France” – the Auvergne and parts of the Dordogne and Nouvelle Aquitaine. In my conversations with French friends, I’ve found that many of them aren’t aware of all the incredible local opportunities that surround them; in my own travels, I’ve often found myself in tour groups of 3 or 4 people, sometimes even being the only person in sight when the tour commences.
My Top 8 Castles in the Deep Heart of France
Here, then, are the remarkable castles that make up my personal “Top 8” list of places to see if you want to sample the castles of central France “off the beaten path”. I’ve tried to give current information on re-opening plans and restrictions, but since the travel situation remains somewhat fluid right now it would be best to check the official website for each place before you go.
(And, to be clear, some of these great châteaux ARE popular with tourists, so additional planning may be required to make sure you have a chance to visit. At the same time, there are a few castles that I would have liked to include on this list – the little medieval gem at Cordes, for example, or the perfectly isolated Chateau de Chazeron – but they have decided to remain closed in 2020 because of the Covid-19 crisis.)
#8 – The Chateau de Pompadour: ties to Louis XV and the National Stud Farm
A couple of summers ago, as I drove north from Brive-la-Gaillarde, I saw a sign pointing off to Arnac-Pompadour and “l’haras national de France”. I love horses, so I knew what the word meant – a haras is a stud farm. But really, a national stud farm? Where else but in France would you find such an unusual institution?
That got the best of my curiosity, so I took a serendipitous detour from my intended destination and headed up the road to Arnac-Pompadour – and I’m absolutely glad I did! The castle itself is an imposing hulk of a building, started in the 14th century but greatly added to and amended over the intervening centuries. The south wing of the building is the only remnant of that original 14th-century structure that survived the French Revolution, but the massive defensive walls and the 16th-century stables remain, too.
There’s a self-guided tour inside the castle walls. Although only a few rooms – a dining room, a bedroom, a couple of salons – are open to the public, they give you a real sense of how important this castle was in its glory years – this is a history of King Louis XV, his extraordinary mistress, and the gift that led to the creation of this remarkable castle complex at Arnac-Pompadour.
#7 – a castle owned by the electric company – the lakeside Chateau de Val
Most of the stories of great castles in France hinge on the actions of knights and noble families. I recently 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.
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, but the tour itself is interesting and worthwhile. And where else can you look out from the ramparts to watch people water-skiing at the foot of the castle’s walls?
#6 – an American hero’s castle at Chavanniac
I recently updated my post on this rustic chateau, the birthplace of the Marquis de Lafayette. If you’ve watched Hamilton on Disney+ you may already have an idea of his extraordinary place in the history of the American Revolution, so I won’t repeat myself here.
It’s enough to say that this homey castle is located in a part of France that is still relatively wild and under-populated. Lafayette's ancestors lived here since at least the 14th century, and in truth, while Chavanniac is more rustic than the great palaces of northern France, it seems as comfortable and even as luxurious as many other castle homes in this part of the country. The formal visit features a number of informative panels about Lafayette's life here and his importance on the international stage in the 17th and 18th centuries, as well as his marriage, his lifelong interest in the Masonic orders, and his commitment to the abolition of slavery.
#5 – the ruined Chateau de Tournoël is making a comeback
Tournoël was one of the first places we visited en famille — and it truly was a ruin in those days, uninhabited, unrestored, and a little dangerous. It was a ramshackle pile of rubble when we first moved to the Auvergne in 1997. But the castle ruins dominated the horizon from several vantage points as we drove back and forth from our house in Sayat, north of the Auvergnat capital of Clermont-Ferrand, and we wanted to know more.
I’ve been back several times since that first visit, and I’m happy to report that an amazing transformation has occurred over the past 20 years. The chateau is now a comfortable family home for the Aguttes family that bought the place in 2000, and it’s interesting to visit for its rich historical story: the object of a siege in the Hundred Years’ War between Richard the Lionheart and Philippe le Bel, it was also the site of fierce battles between Protestants and Catholics during the Wars of Religion.
And when you visit Tournoël, you’re also in the midst of the extraordinary natural beauty that surrounds the Puy de Dome and the other great volcanic peaks of France’s Massif Central. Other historic sites (including the “most beautiful village” of Charroux) are nearby. And in any case, Tournoël itself will give you a glimpse into the rigors of life and the depth of history that will bring you back to the deep heart of France.
#4 – Les Tours de Merle : a “gated community” for medieval nobles
For something really unusual, try Les Tours de Merle in southwest France. It’s not just “a castle” — it’s like a “gated community for aristocrats”, with 7 separate castle dungeons inside its walls. On the day I came to town, I stopped on the side of the sharply winding “D” road to photograph the towers when a French motorcyclist pulled up next to me. “Mais qu’est-ce que c’est?” he demanded. I explained what I knew already about the site. He stared for a long, quiet minute, then drew in his breath. “C’est magnifique,” he said softly, “c’est vraiment magnifique”. I couldn’t agree more. You can check out the history of the place and see lots more photos here.
#3 – a history of family feuds at the castle of Anjony
A visit to the Chateau d’Anjony is actually a double win, since it is located in Tournemire, officially designated as one of the “most beautiful villages” in France. Of course, the castle is part of the reason that Tournemire merits the designation.
Among all the palaces and grand chateaux we’ve visited over the years, Karen and I have developed a particular preference for those places that radiate a real feel for the people who’ve lived there and what their lives must have been like. (In the great houses of the Loire Valley, for example, you get no “homey” feel when you visit the enormous, chilly barn at Chambord, but a much cozier idea of what life was like for residents at Chenonceau and Cheverny.)
The Chateau d’Anjony is definitely one of those places that seems like someone’s home. Built in 1439, near the end of the catastrophic Hundred Years’ War between France and England, it has the advantage of never being the object of a military attack, as well as the benefit of being occupied by one family over 600 years. That means the Aubusson tapestry showing the King of France on a hunt, the ornate Spanish travel trunk, the grand piano, the cradle in one corner and the desk with a tea set in another, all are original furnishings in the house.
And there’s a very interesting backstory here, too. Local accounts say that a kind of feud – the Anjony family versus the Tournemires, monarchists versus local lords – went on here for a couple of centuries more, culminating in 1623 by a public duel.
#2 -- the hulking Fortresse de Polignac sails above the plains
My family has some great memories of this place – it was the first weekend outing we undertook when we first moved to the Auvergne in 1997. Our plan was to take a daytrip to Le Puy en Velay but we got so distracted by the extraordinary sight of the crumbling ruins of a great castle, the Chateau de Polignac, sailing like a clipper ship on a plateau of basalt near the highway, that we took a detour to explore it first.
At that time, Polignac had fallen almost completely into ruin; it was even a little dangerous to pick our way over piles of rock and bare staircases with no guard rails. When I went back recently, I was delighted to find that it has been radically cleaned up and restored. Good historical signposts have been added to all the key elements of the castle; it’s much easier now to imagine how it would have looked at the height of its power, and it’s great to see that it has evolved into a first-class destination in itself.
#1 – the Château de Murol – a defensive stronghold in the mountains of the Cantal
When I first wrote about this extraordinary castle, I noted that it’s easy to see why it could never be taken in battle, as its thick walls dominate the countryside from a sharp little volcanic peak. It’s also extremely well-managed as a tourist site — in more “normal” times, they do spectacular “animations” all summer long, including displays of daredevil horseback riding, “knight classes” for the kids, and a torchlight walking tour with costumed actors playing the roles of the castle’s owner, his daughter, and the local Abbot.
Sadly, the nightly flame-lit tours have fallen victim to the Covid crisis and will not be offered this summer – but the “Equestrian Spectacle”, some of the children’s activities, and regular guided tours are still offered. On top of that, the Chateau de Murol is set against the spectacular backdrop of the mountains of the Cantal – my favorite corner in all the deep heart of France. It’s a great destination, and if you like camping / hiking / fishing / parasailing or any other outdoor activity, it’s in one of the best parts of France for those pursuits.
(And if you can’t make it there in person, here’s an amazing drone’s-eye view of Murol and the beautiful isolation of the Cantal.)
I’ve collected lots of other interesting castles in my travels around central France over the past 20 years, but these eight really stand out in my memory as being the best places to visit if you have the time and can get to them during this extraordinary summer. Be sure to check their websites for opening hours and Covid-19 restrictions before you go – but do try to find these little treasures far from the beaten path in the deep heart of France!
Do you have a favorite castle or fortress from your visits around France? What makes these medieval places interesting to the modern mind? Please share your thoughts and experiences in the comments section below – and please take a moment to share this post with someone else who shares your interest in the people, places, history, and culture of the deep heart of France!