A “boaring" castle experience
I don’t know why I have waited so long to write about the Chateau de Tournoël since the 800-year-old castle figures in several of our most enduring memories of France. 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.
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. I have vivid memories (and some old videotape) of us climbing up onto the decrepit roof with my 8-year-old son and our German Shepherd. Karen insisted on holding on to our son’s belt and I clung to the dog’s leash to keep them from tumbling over the open (and unsecured) parapets.
I visited again sometime in the early 2000s, after the Aguttes family had bought the castle and started the long, painstaking process of restoring it. A group from my office was there for a “team-building” event, a nighttime tour conducted in French by torchlight, and the chateau was already emerging from its ruined past, with 3 or 4 rooms furnished and enough rudimentary infrastructure to allow the family to occupy it once or twice a year for holidays.
That same week I had another experience that will forever be associated in my memory with Tournoël. After a long day of meetings just up the road from the chateau, I drove some of my colleagues back to their hotel nestled against the base of the castle. I was driving my beloved Mini Cooper, and as I came back down the mountain I navigated around one of the tight curves and hit the brakes hard. A wild boar – in my memory at least as large as the Mini! – occupied the middle of the road and rooted around there, unperturbed by my skidding stop and the flashing headlights. If I had rounded the curve any faster, the collision would have been like a head-on crash into a Renault delivery van. After a long minute, the boar looked up, made eye contact, and shuffled slowly back into the underbrush by the side of the road.
TOURNOËL – a chateau transformed
But when Karen and I went again last year, we were stunned by the progress of Tournoël’s transformation. The place had essentially been abandoned for almost 200 years; in the 19th century, locals treated as a rock quarry and carted away the best stones for their own building projects, although the Chabrol family did hire a guard to stop the practice in 1920. The castle was purchased by Claude and Bernadette Aguttes in 2000 and they started the long series of projects required to transform a cold, dangerous rubble pile into a comfortable family residence.
They had much to do. Windows had to be installed, but first the stone window casings had to be restored. Flooring had to be replaced throughout, since most of the fine original tiles were carried away in the 1800s. Some rooms in the tower no longer had ceilings; paintings, tile, and masonry had been damaged throughout the residence. Some of the work was financed with the support of local and European cultural agencies, although most of the money apparently comes from the Aguttes themselves and the entrance fees paid by visiting tourists.
(You can see a nice interview, in French, with the current propriétaires in this video, which also has some interesting scenes of the restoration in progress.)
A history full of intrigue
In fact, it was the owners’ very young, but very knowledgeable granddaughter who welcomed us for the guided tour of the chateau. She recounted the essential history of Tournoël: people of that family name were known to live on the site since around 1000 C.E., although this building dates only to 1190 C.E., when Guy II, the powerful Count of Auvergne, occupied the castle. The history here is not peaceful, and the conflicts started with Guy; he is described as “fierce, independent, and bellicose”, and was constantly at war with his brother Robert, the Bishop of Clermont.
Guy II was known to be a partisan of King Richard the Lionheart, who claimed authority over much of the Auvergne; Bishop Robert supported the French King Philippe Augustus. Our guide told us the famous story of how King Philippe’s troops came to besiege Tournoël in 1212 C.E. Seeing that the fortress could not be taken by brute force, some of the French royal soldiers made a big show of feigning illness just outside the castle walls. The chateau’s owners saw that as an opportunity to slip out and steal their horses while their enemies were incapacitated, but the King’s troops sprang their trap on them, took control of the site, and stripped Count Guy II of most of his possessions.
A fortuitous discovery
The castle remained in the hands of the French kings until 1306, when King Philippe le Bel (“Philippe the Fair”) traded it to a family in the Limousin region in exchange for several strategic sites that would help him protect the Aquitaine from English invaders. According to the Aguttes’ granddaughter, Tournoël was besieged a total of 5 times in its long history, and actually captured 3 times. It was taken again by he Catholic citizens of nearby Riom who were unhappy with the owners’ Protestant leanings; you can still see the marks left by their cannonballs on some of the castle walls.
But much of what we know about Tournoël comes from a happy accident of history. Many of France’s oldest chateaux had all their archival records seized and destroyed during the French Revolution in the late 1700s. Here, though, the castle had been abandoned just before the Revolution started, and all of its archives were transported to an attic in Riom, where they lay forgotten for almost two centuries. Claude Aguttes located this treasure of historical information and repurchased the archives, bringing 2 truckloads of documents and the essential plans of the original building back to the castle to help with the restoration.
Tournoël's "Cabinet of Curiosities"
You can now see the results of the restoration in several beautiful rooms occupied by the family but shown to tourists on the guided tour of the chateau. (Pictures in these areas are not allowed because, as our guide explained, “my grandfather doesn’t want to see images of his living room all over the internet!” Still, there's a nice gallery of pictures from the interior here.) One of the most interesting of all the restorations, though, is the remarkable “Cabinet de Curiosités” – something we’ve seen in a few other places like this around France.
Just as many Americans have a taste for rooms dedicated to pool tables or home theater setups, there was a fad among 16th-century castle owners to build up collections of “miracles” – often discoveries that were made by sailors reaching out to exotic, unexplored parts of the world in Asia and the Americas. Tournoël’s particular collection, as reconstructed by the Aguttes, contains hundreds of ancient, shabby specimens of snakes, fish, narwhal tusks, exotic birds, wildcats, dinosaur vertebrae, and mastodon teeth.
(In fact, our guide explained, the new owners had to get special permission to recreate this remarkable collection because so many of the specimens come from endangered species and other contraband; nothing can be added or subtracted from the Cabinet of Curiosities without specific authorization from the government. Even so, according to the Aguttes’ granddaughter, a group of ecologists visiting the castle recently became so incensed by the mere existence of the collection that they went on TripAdvisor and wrote nasty reviews about their experience.)
Seeing Tournoël for yourself
Although the exterior of the Chateau de Tournoël is spectacularly visible for miles, it’s not exactly easy to see the interior. It’s only open during the peak vacation months of July and August, and then only for 6 guided tours each day. (Even so, as one of the local tourist websites advises, it’s a good idea to call in advance to be sure it is open.) During the rest of the year, the castle is open only to groups who have made a reservation in advance.
Still, it’s worth the visit, I think. You can get to the site in 20 or 30 minutes from downtown Clermont-Ferrand (more quickly if you’re based near Riom or Chatelguyon), and while you’re there you can also take time to see the remarkable black-lava quarries from the ancient volcanoes at Volvic or visit the famous factory that produces Volvic water.
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 (the fine old Chateau de Cordes, the “most beautiful village” of Charroux) are nearby, and of course Clermont-Ferrand is worth visiting anytime you are in this part of the country. 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.
Have you visited any of the medieval castles around central France? Which one was your favorite? What did you see there? Please take a second to share your experience in the comments section below -- and while you're here, please share this post with someone else who's interested in the people, places, culture, and history of France. Thanks for reading!
(Unless otherwise noted, all photos in this post are copyright © 2019 by Richard Alexander)