So much for my theory that tourist sites are less crowded out of season. Le tout Aveyron turned up at the Château de Bournazel yesterday, giving the hard-pressed guide some logistical problems. “This is the first time we’ve opened in October,” she said. “We weren’t expecting so many people!” Like everyone else, we took advantage of a glorious, if blustery, October afternoon to visit this château, of whose existence I learned only recently.
Rescued from oblivion
The present owners bought it only in 2008, when it had been a convalescent home owned by the collieries of the Décazeville coalfields. The mines closed in 2001, but the château was kept on. By this time, it was in dire need of restoration, which the new owners undertook, and which continues today: hence the crane and scaffolding in the photos. The château opened to the public only a few years ago.
The result is the château’s restoration to its former glory. The place is a gem of the Renaissance, the Golden Age of European painting, sculpture and architecture. It’s a little strange to come across this sumptuous place in a tiny village in the middle of the rolling Aveyron countryside.
A château worthy of a courtier
The château was built in 1540 by Jean de Buisson, a wealthy Toulouse financier, and his wife Charlotte de Mancip, who had inherited the domain. The north wing was built on the site of a previous medieval château, of which some outbuildings and two towers remain. De Buisson went off to war in Italy for François I, while his wife oversaw the completion of the north wing.
On de Buisson’s return, the east wing was constructed in a markedly Italianate style. Alternating niches and arcades form a balcony that runs the width of the façade.
The château was intended as a testament to its owner’s rank and as a place to receive important guests. The bedrooms were in the north wing, while the east wing was given over to kitchens on the ground floor and reception rooms above.
The original plan was to construct a further two wings to enclose the courtyard, but this never happened, although the foundations of a south wing were discovered during the restoration work.
This château has several stories associated with it. During her famous flight from Henri III’s troops during the Wars of Religion in September 1585, la Reine Margot stayed one night at Bournazel, after having stayed the previous night at the Château de Saint-Projet, not far from us.
Decline and fall
The other story is more unfortunate. In 1790, the château was set on fire during a peasants’ revolt against the taxes collected by the seigneur of Bournazel. Afterwards, the place was completely pillaged. All the furnishings and paintings there now come from the current owners’ private collection, but they are of the same period.
Le comte de Marigny acquired the château in the 19th century, but, lacking the funds for its restoration, he demolished parts of it, including the main staircase. After that, it remained largely untouched until a decade ago.
The owners have also painstakingly recreated the formal Renaissance gardens below the château, which were destroyed during the Wars of Religion. They are composed of nine box parterres (how on earth did they fend off the ravaging box caterpillars?) enclosing beds of flowers common in the 16th century and bordered by fruit trees.
Definitely worth a visit, especially if you are planning a trip to nearby Belcastel and/or Rodez. The entrance fee isn’t cheap at 9 euros (including the gardens), but the guided tour is very detailed and takes about an hour. But note that it’s only in French. An English version of the printed tour guide is available.
All credit to the guide who shepherded about 70 of us through the rooms, some of which aren’t that spacious, while keeping her good humour. Photographing inside the house is strictly forbidden. One man who was snapping away with his mobile had his knuckles gently rapped.
The village itself also looks rather picturesque. We went the wrong way on arrival and found ourselves threading through narrow streets before turning back. We’ll save that for another visit.
More details, opening times, etc. on the château’s website.
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