The fortress of Penne stands on its rocky spur above the River Aveyron, a ruined but enduring witness to almost a thousand years of history. Today, it thrusts bare knuckles of stone towards the sky, like a twisted fist.
“Revisited” is a little misleading. Until yesterday, I had never been inside this ruined fortress, having seen it only from afar, so previous posts were written without the benefit of on-the-spot photos.
Also, to my shame, I think we have stopped off in Penne only once in 24 years, and then we didn’t visit the château. We used to drive through the village on our way to visit a friend who lived on the edge of the Forêt de Grésigne, which covers the hillsides above Penne.
Yesterday, I decided to rectify this omission, especially since the château will close for the winter on 11th November. Leaving the SF behind on tree tidying duties, I awarded myself the afternoon off.
Perfect October weather
It was a bright, sunny and warm afternoon, although a strong south-westerly was blowing, a harbinger of the rain we expect this weekend. I certainly felt windswept standing on top of the castle later. The village is in the lee of the château, protected from the northerly winds by the ridge on which the fortress stands.
The drive along the River Aveyron from Saint-Antonin is lovely on a fine late October afternoon. The road was formerly a railway line, so you drive through tunnels carved through the rock and past former stations. The trees on the hillsides were starting to turn, and splashes of ochre and burnt umber stood out in places. The river was low and flowing slowly, since we have had very little rainfall in October, unlike September.
Since it is half-term, I expected Penne to be busier than it was. Thankfully, I found a parking space, which is not always easy in this tiny place that was not built for cars.
You reach the château by entering the former fortified village through this archway, la porte du Pont. All the way up, you get tantalising glimpses of the ruins.
The current owners have been carrying out restoration work since 2006, using only old techniques and materials. It’s a long and slow process. You pay a 5€ entrance fee and then have to negotiate a turnstile operated by flashing the barcode on your ticket under the electronic reader. It took me a while to work this out.
Once through, however, you begin to get a better idea of the immense size of the place, which occupies the whole of the ridge above the village. You don’t see this from the main road beneath or even from the village itself.
Origins of the fortress
I provided a brief description of Penne’s history in an earlier post, so I won’t repeat that. The present fortress dates from the mid-13th century and superseded an earlier fortification. Alphonse de Poitiers, who was Comte de Toulouse and brother of King Louis IX, constructed the château on the base of the older structure. Penne reverted to the Crown on the death of Alphonse and his wife in 1271.
The fortress functioned as an important strategic and military command post throughout the medieval period, although it was held by the English on and off for 20 years during the Hundred Years War.
The château became a ruin as early as the late 16th century during the Wars of Religion, when Protestant forces partially demolished it. The crumbling walls have remained open to the sky for the subsequent four hundred years.
An imposing structure
You pass under the châtelet, the massive gatehouse, to enter the château precincts. The gatehouse is still reasonably intact, and you can climb up to the top and enjoy the view. On the way, admire the archères (arrow slits), one of the defensive strengths of the fortress.
The inner bailey or courtyard and the seigneurs’ lodgings came next. From here, you get a view along the length of the fortress.
Further on, you can climb up to the highest point of the defences, the donjon (keep), the tall tower in the image above. Here, there is a fantastic panoramic view of the surrounding countryside. There is also no defence from the wind if it’s blowing a gale.
The chapel occupied the final point of the ridge.
Information panels tell you about the history of the fortress and explain the building techniques and materials used.
It was pleasant to wander around the old streets after leaving the château, and all the more so because it was out of season. I love some of the little gems you find, like this herb garden, le Jardin d’Odile, tucked away between the buildings.
I found it fascinating to see inside the château at last. However, I noted that you need to wear sensible shoes, preferably light walking boots with soles that grip well, especially in the wet. Some of the paths around the château are stony, and the downward path is quite steep, so it’s not suitable for people with reduced mobility.
You can find out more about the château and practical details on its website.
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