Overlooking the Vère valley, the fortified hilltop village of Puycelsi is l’un des plus beaux villages de France (one of the most beautiful villages in France). The green sea of la fôret de Grésigne laps at the base of its ramparts. You catch glimpses of the village from the road far below and its fortifications make it look bigger than it really is. We extended our acquaintance with it when we sang there last weekend.
Apparently, in the 1950s the place was almost deserted and in poor repair. Puycelsi has now been restored to a high standard and very few buildings are in disrepair. You can see some fine examples of regional architecture, such as colombage (houses with half-timbered upper floors with brick inserts). The village also boasts impressive ramparts anchored in the rock.
The streets are winding and there is barely a straight vista in the place. This is in contrast to the later bastides, constructed from the 13th century, which followed a grid pattern radiating from a central square.
The church of Sainte-Corneille in the centre of the village was built in the 14th-15th centuries. Although a little austere from the outside, it contains magnificent and vivid wall and ceiling paintings and stained glass. Damp has damaged the decorations in places but restoration work is on-going. Our concert on Sunday was in aid of the restoration fund.
La fôret de Grésigne contains traces of occupation from the Stone Age onwards. The Romans almost certainly had a settlement at Puycelsi. The name probably derives from the Celtic “celto dun” – wooden fortress. The Romans changed it to “podium celsium” – a flat piece of high ground. The commune prefers the spelling Puycelsi but in various official places and on some of the local road signs, it’s Puycelci.
The counts of Toulouse acquired Puycelsi from the Abbott of Aurillac in the 11th century and fortified it, recognising its strategic importance. It enjoys the distinction of never having been taken by force despite being besieged on several occasions. The ubiquitous Simon de Montfort had a go during the Albigensian Crusades in 1211, as did his brother Guy in 1213. Some sources say that Guy did actually take the town. Others indicate that he had to abandon the siege since troops supplied by the bishops of Orleans and Auxerre pushed off after doing their contractual 40 days.
The castle was demolished after the Treaty of Meaux in 1229. This required that towns in the region that had supported the counts of Toulouse should have their fortifications destroyed.
The pastoureux also tried to sack Puycelsi in 1320. They were a band of paysans from northern France. Notionally inspired by back-to-basics religious sentiments, they went on a crusade – their second, the first one being in 1251. They swept southwards through the country. Effectively, it was an ill-disciplined rampage with both racist and anti-clerical overtones. Finally, the English besieged Puycelsi a couple of times during the Hundred Years War. The village withstood them all. Looking at its commanding position and solid ramparts, it’s not hard to see why.
Puycelsi suffered the further upheavals of four bouts of the Black Death and the Wars of Religion in the late 16th century but rode the storm of the French Revolution. The village lived from occupations associated with the nearby forest, such as glass-making, charcoal burning and wood-turning. Losing out to competition from other places, it went into a slow decline. The ravages of World War I and rural depopulation between the wars took their toll, as they did throughout rural France.
In its heyday, the village itself had a population of about 800 while the whole commune boasted around 2,500 inhabitants. Today, some 100 permanent residents live in the village. Like many such places, it’s heaving in the high season and sparsely populated outside it. I doubt it could ever recapture the busting vitality of the Middle Ages but it is certainly worth a detour if you’re in the area.
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