This post has been too long in coming – but we’re finally settled in our new place and I’m happy to be back online. In the intervening weeks I’ve had some time to reflect on the places that resonate most vividly in my memories of living and traveling in the deep heart of France. It’s only natural, then, that this post takes me back to the Auvergne for a first-time visit to just such a place – the fine little Chateau de Chazeron, near the great church at Orcines in the Puy-de-Dome département.
In fact, the castle at Chazeron matches all the criteria that make a place memorable for me:
It’s very old, with some rich history…
Although there’s some speculation that this was a holy site for ancient Gallic tribes, Chazeron first appears in French history as a simple outpost (the name is derived from “casa ronda”, or “round house”). Count Guy II, the Comte d’Auvergne, built a look-out tower here in 1195 to send advance warning of enemy movements to his main fortress just up the road in Chatel-Guyon – the lovely resort and spa town that still bears Guy’s name. This was, of course, before “France” was “France”, and Guy II was in fact an ally of King Richard the Lionheart in his campaigns against the King of France.
(And yes, it’s true that Richard the Lionheart was not strictly an “English” king, as so many of you have reminded me. “England” was not yet the “England” we now know, either, and Richard spent much of his life fighting over and governing significant territories in the western part of modern France.)
Guy II gambled his own power and influence on King Richard’s ability to hold this part of the Auvergne – but he ultimately lost the bet when King Philippe Augustus laid siege to another one of Guy’s fortresses, the nearby Chateau de Tournoel. (It’s a great story in itself – check out the trickery Philippe’s army used to dislodge Guy’s soldiers by clicking here!)
Control of the castle at Chazeron passed down through several generations before Oudart V, a “great lord, friend of many princes” took control of the property in the middle of the 14th century. Such a grand person (he was chamberlain to the French kings Charles V and Charles VI) obviously required a nicer place to live, so Oudart turned Chazeron into something more like a small palace beginning in 1380 C.E.
In the reign of the Sun King
The real glory days of the castle came in the 17th century, when another “grand personage”, François de Monestay, undertook to transform the old Gothic chateau into a real “résidence versaillaise” – a palace worthy of one of King Louis XIV’s most brilliant military commanders. Most of what you see on the site today is Monestay’s work – he razed the old donjon, tore down the walls, built the two wings that flank the main building, and added the fine iron gates that still bear his initials.
The Chateau de Chazeron did manage to escape the fury of the French Revolution that destroyed so many other sites like this. The castle’s own historian tells the story of how 14-year-old Marie-Pauline de Monestay-Chazeron (“small, ugly, and hunchbacked, but with a heart of gold” [!], according to the site's official history), persuaded one of the revolutionary Commissaire’s to unseal and give back her property after making an extraordinary plea to the tribunal in 1789.
The castle’s story after that, though, is a familiar one: a long slide into decay as the site passed from one owner to another through the 19th and early 20th centuries. Decorative pieces were torn from the walls and sold, stones were carted off to be used in other buildings, and the formal gardens were turned into a potato farm. (I learned a wonderful French phrase I’d never encountered before on my second visit to Chazeron: “aller à vau-l’eau”, or “go to the dogs”. It’s what happened to this castle until 1965, when the current owners bought it and launched the long series of restoration projects that brought the buildings back to their current state.)
…but not all of Chazeron’s history is ancient
Even in its decline, though, the castle played a small role in a dark moment of France’s 20th-century history. During World War II, the puppet French government at Vichy worked to appease Hitler by prosecuting three former Prime Ministers (Leon Blum, Paul Reynaud, Edourad Daladier) and others in the infamous “Procès de Riom”. For several months, these distinguished French men were held prisoner at Chazeron, and the chateau again suffered damage as windows were barred, search lights were put up, and guard towers were installed.
And the damages did not end with the war. Even though the castle was designated a historic monument in 1944, when its owners came back in the 1950s they set about clear-cutting the great groves of oak and chestnut trees which surrounded Chazeron. The forest was also part of the “historic monument” designation, so these owners were sent to prison and the chateau became the property of the French government.
…it’s architecturally interesting…
In 1965, the government gave up and put the Chazeron up for sale to the public. Two young architects, Roger Bruny and Michel Mangematin, decided to take advantage of a new French law favoring the restoration of historic buildings, so they bought the castle and moved their business offices here. (The other possibility on their list was also one of my favorite little French chateaux – the one at Cordes, which I wrote about here.)
The new owners’ vision for Chazeron was expansive: to support the huge restoration projects necessary to make this their personal residence and the offices of their architectural agency, they (and their descendants) moved quickly to open it up to public tours and to rent out rooms for weddings and private parties. In the 55 years since, though, they have also worked to make this an amazingly intense center of cultural activities, with expositions of major artists like Picasso and Le Corbusier, poetry festivals, concerts, theatrical events, and dance recitals. That tradition lives on in the annual Soirées de Chazeron, now getting ready for its 26th edition next July and August.
It’s not hard to see what architects would like about this place. Like so many French sites, Chazeron was not so much “constructed” as “evolved” over the course of several centuries. You can see bits of the most ancient parts of the chateau (from the era of Guy II) integrated into Romanesque and Renaissance styles of the later additions. Perhaps the most remarkable of these come from the 17th-century transformation of the castle by Monestay into a “little Versailles”. He hired Jules Hardouin-Mansart – the same guy who designed the Place Vendôme and Les Invalides in Paris and the Grand Trianon at Versailles for Louis XIV. (And if his name sounds familiar, it's because his grandfather invented those little dormer windows on so many French buildings are called “Mansard roofs” – any Vampire Weekend fans in the audience?)
…and Chazeron is surrounded by the natural beauty of the deep heart of France
When I first made the drive up to Chazeron, I found the parking lot full of cars and the courtyard full of people dressed up for a grand formal wedding. While I waited for the crowd to clear, I took a long walk around the plateau surrounding the castle, taking in the view of mainland France’s only UNESCO World Heritage natural site – the volcanic peaks of the Chaîne des Puys.
The view is even better once you climb up to the battlements of the old castle. I was reminded again – as I am every time I venture out into the countryside around the Auvergne – of how this landscape can look wild and settled at the same time, and of how isolated this chateau feels even as its owners were so close to the great power centers of medieval and Renaissance Europe. (In fact, it still feels isolated! Like so many monumental sites in the deep heart of France, Chazeron appears out of nowhere after a long drive on a narrow country road.)
If you are into all the historical context, the Chateau de Chazeron is a great example of the flow of events from the time before France became France up to the present day. But even if that’s not your focus, a visit here is s a fine way to spend a long summer day!
Do you have a favorite place “off the beaten path of tourism” in France? Do you like things this remote from “civilization” – or do you prefer the urban life? What’s the most out-of-the-way place you’ve visited in France? Please share your experience in the comments section below – and take a second to share this post with someone else who likes the people, history, and sites of central France.