Every Château Tells a Story: #10 Le Château de Belcastel

Belcastel (Aveyron)

Belcastel (Aveyron)

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.

Beau village

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.

River Aveyron at Belcastel

River Aveyron at Belcastel

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.

Auberge du Vieux Pont

Auberge du Vieux Pont

Colourful characters

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.

Belcastel château with drawbridge

Belcastel château with drawbridge

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.

Vieux pont over the Aveyron at Belcastel

Vieux pont over the Aveyron at Belcastel

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.

Rather exposed convenience

Rather exposed convenience

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.

Meurtrière

Meurtrière

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.

Belcastel today

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.

Exhibit in the armour collection

Exhibit in the armour collection

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.

You might also like:

My other posts about local châteaux
Belcastel: One of the Most Beautiful Villages in France
France’s Most Beautiful Villages: Plus Beaux Villages

Copyright © 2016 Life on La Lune, all rights reserved

Advertisements

About nessafrance

My husband and I moved to an 18th-century farmhouse in SW France in 1997. I am fascinated by French history, rural traditions and customs and enjoy seeking out the reality behind the myths. I run my own copywriting business and write short stories and the occasional novel in my spare time. My husband appears here as the SF, which stands for Statistics Freak, owing to his penchant for recording numbers about everything.
This entry was posted in Châteaux, History, Places and tagged , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

8 Responses to Every Château Tells a Story: #10 Le Château de Belcastel

  1. Pingback: Appetising Return to Belcastel | Life on La Lune

  2. Osyth says:

    My youngest daughter and I fell on Belcastel quite accidentally in September. She had been staying and was flying back from Rodez for the first time. I decided, as it had been my birthday, that we would treat ourselves and stay somewhere overnight. I can hugely recommend the hotel and amazingly chi-chi restaurant which provided a young lady with her first taste of very refined food. Sadly we didn’t have time in the morning to go up to the castle but promised ourselves that we will return and you have given me all the incentive we need in this fascinating article. 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    • nessafrance says:

      We have stayed in the hotel – a lovely converted barn on the other side of the river from the restaurant – several times. The food is generally excellent, but unfortunately we did have a less than satisfactory experience there on one occasion, which has rather coloured our view of it since.

      I hope you get the chance to visit the château. And if you do, please let me know. We are about 1 hour away.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. lostfrance says:

    Just round the corner from me and a joy in all weathers, although it lacks year round residents. I usually hear that the name comes from “beautiful” castle, but I did attend a lecture a couple of years back where it was said that it actually came from the latin for war; bello/bellum. Although I have no idea if that can be verified.

    Liked by 1 person

    • nessafrance says:

      We have visited at various times of year, including November, and always find it atmospheric. But, like many such villages, it’s probably very quiet in the winter. I had a quick look at the population figures – now around 200 or so. In its 19th C heyday, there were more than 1,000.

      Thank you for the alternative origin of the name, which sounds equally plausible, but I suppose how the place got its name is probably lost in the mists of time.

      Liked by 1 person

  4. I’ve been there, the Life on la Lune. I remember a gorgeous walk and a good restaurant, on the other side of the river. The castle was closed ! Many thanks to wake up these good memories !

    Liked by 1 person

    • nessafrance says:

      It’s a lovely spot, spoilt only by the tourist hordes in the summer. But, of course, they have the right to visit, too! I think the château has only been open to the public for a few years and it’s closed over the winter.

      Liked by 1 person

Please feel free to leave a comment.

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s