Although I have written about Belcastel, in Aveyron, I haven’t devoted much space to the château. Its story is that of a phoenix raised from the ashes. The fortress could so easily have crumbled into a pile of stone, had it not been for the vision of a prominent architect, Fernand Pouillon.
Today, Belcastel is one of the plus beaux villages de France, of which the Aveyron département boasts no less than 10. The village’s name stems from the Occitan bèl castèl, or beau château. It sits in a steep-sided valley clothed with chestnut trees, not far downriver from Rodez.
The stripling Aveyron bisects Belcastel. On one side of the delightful hump-backed bridge is the church, on the other the château dominates the stone houses with their roofs of lauzes (split stones). The rive droite is also home to a Michelin-starred restaurant, le Restaurant du Vieux Pont.
It’s quite a walk up from the village by cobbled alleyways to the imposing château, surrounded by its original moat, but it’s worth the effort. The place started life as a chapel in the 9th century, but was later enlarged into a fortress.
It has been home to a pageant of colourful characters during its history. The Lords of Belcastel backed the wrong side during the Albigensian Crusade in the early 13th century. This led to the eventual confiscation of the château by the French Crown and it was then used as a royal stronghold.
During the Hundred Years War, the English were unable to take the fortress, despite their efforts. However, a band of Routiers (mercenaries), who terrorised the countryside around Rodez, pillaged the château and massacred the villagers taking refuge there. They held it for a while before being bribed out and killed in turn.
The Saunhac family received the château in 1390 in return for their loyalty to the Crown. They further improved it and built the church and the bridge that still stand today. Legend has it that the ghost of one of the Saunhac ladies haunts the castle. Catching her in flagrante, her husband flung her from the high tower.
The period of relative stability under the Saunhacs lasted only until the late 16th century, when they abandoned the castle. A villager later bought it, but sold much of the stone, so the structure fell into ruins. It remained in that state until the 1970s.
Phoenix from the ashes
Enter Fernand Pouillon, an equally intriguing figure. He was a renowned French architect who concentrated on building high-quality, low-cost housing. He spent a spell in prison (from which he absconded) for flouting the rules that prohibited architects from also being building contractors. Escaping to Algeria, he carried out a lot of work for the newly-independent state.
Pouillon returned to France where he successfully defended himself against the original accusations. But he was promptly imprisoned again for the jailbreak. He was finally pardoned by Pompidou in 1971.
Pouillon searched for a property to restore and purchased the ruins of Belcastel in 1974. With the help of Algerian craftsmen, he set about restoring the château to its former glory. The stone was quarried from a nearby hillside and the work was accomplished without cranes or heavy machinery.
On completion of the restoration, Pouillon lived in the château until his death in 1986. At his request, he was buried in an unmarked grave in the local cemetery.
The château is now privately owned but is open to the public and contains a collection of 16th-century armour as well as collections of contemporary art. It has lots of hidden terraces and corners where you can sit and contemplate this miracle of restoration and the views of the village and the river below.
We visited a few years ago during one of the Journées du Patrimoine. It was a glorious, hot September day. The Aveyron sparkled in the sunlight; the sky was a deep wall-to-wall blue; and the light mellowed the local stone. It was hard to imagine that this gem of a fortress was once an abandoned ruin – and even harder to envisage that the stone to restore it was hauled up by hand.
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