French Castles and Cliffhangers

French Castles and Cliffhangers

Here are the latest installment of Beth's adventures "live" from south west France, this time heading for an historic chateau explore somewhere in the Tarn-et-Garonne department in the Occitanie region.

We regularly post about French castles and estates, and Beth's piece is a refreshing take on how and why these big edifices where built where they are built. Enjoy ...

Turrets. I love turrets. The castles they decorate too. Poor Jack, he’s not a keen tourist. I’d subjected my husband to another one of my ‘let’s go and have a look at that famous castle’ ideas. In this case, we were getting two, almost three, for the price of one. They were in a place called Bruniquel, and I’m still not quite sure why he agreed.

Bruniquel’s first castle was built in the 6th century by the Merovingian Queen Brunehaut on the site of a Roman fortification. Her idea was to watch over the valley road connecting the Quercy to the Albigeois. Over time, the village was established.

Several conquerings later, in the thirteenth century, the Counts of Toulouse built the ‘Old’ castle on the same plot. It became the residence of the Viscounts of Bruniquel. The third castle resulted from a family feud.

During the fifteenth century, the viscount quarrelled with his son and sold the land to the east of his castle to a cousin, Maffre de Comminges. The cousin built his own castle between 1485 and 1510, which became known as the ‘Young’ castle.

Off we headed to our destination, which lies in the voluptuously forested region of the Aveyron Gorges. Every time we drive in this direction, we’re wowed by the drama of its natural surroundings.

Sheer limestone cliffs crash to the rivers below, some craggy, others smooth as silk. Soft colours break the stark white rock faces. Blankets of verdant oaks and boxwoods are broken by bare reddish soil patches, scree and vibrant wildflowers scattered like confetti on the ground. It’s spectacular.

As we drew closer, it was clear why Bruniquel has earned the accolade as one of France’s most beautiful villages. Swathes of striking buildings, many constructed during the Middle Ages, form a stepped apron around their crowning glories.

Our target was on top of the hill. To his relief, Jack, who isn’t a fan of treks, found a driveable road. Up and up we went, steeper and steeper, bypassing the village en route to a scrubby spot where we left our car.

There was barely another soul about when we paid our modest entrance fee. We walked past a suit of armour into a different world. Were we treading the same flagstones as its owner? Possibly. Soon we were immersed in a maze of narrow corridors, spiral staircases, small rooms and dead ends.

Once again, there is a story behind the abrupt closures. At the end of the 18th century, the viscount of the Old castle decided to combine the buildings by buying the Young castle. Sadly, this came at an additional price.

Taxes were levied on the property, which caused him to block up several doors and windows of his new acquisition. Ironically, it was the Young castle that became the most neglected.

Our tour from room to room took us through different centuries. We found a medieval chapel with a gallery on one side, discrete, somehow private and peaceful. This later became a kitchen – an incongruous transformation.

A side door took us out onto a stone terrace. Looking over the top isn’t for the faint-hearted. The sheer drop to ground level is 90 metres (295 feet), and there doesn’t seem to be much in between.

Back inside, another tight corner took us down a steep spiral staircase. I was intrigued. The small room was half-filled by a kiln-like structure, which looked like a pizza oven. Its interior followed the winding staircase contours and must have offered welcome warmth to the adjacent area.

We clambered back up the steps to an area filled with exhibits that were so old they predated the buildings. First, we watched a short film about La Grotte de Bruniquel. Inside the nearby Bruniquel Cave, human constructions made 176,000 years ago have been discovered.

The remains have shattered previous scientific knowledge on the subject. The theory that the site could be a place of worship created by Neanderthals is causing much current debate. Finally, Jack’s interest was piqued.

Another room housed a display of ancient artefacts discovered at the foot of the castles. We examined the samples of tools, weapons, including spears and daggers, and wall art, all of which came from a prehistoric encampment.

For me, there was a far more poignant exhibit. It was the near-perfect skeleton of a woman from the Magdalenian period. She lived approximately 11,000 years ago. It was moving to read that the remains of a two or three-year-old child were found nearby. Were they mother and child? I expect so.  

The centuries passed in a flash as we viewed a room from a later epoch. Our visit was perfectly timed. First refurbished in the 17th century, a new round of restorative work was underway. Surrounded by paint pots, an expert applied dainty dabs and brush strokes to this splendid ceremonial room.

We paused to watch the artisan, totally absorbed, working on the interior panels. What fascinating work it must be. But for us, the greatest wow factor was the fireplace surround. Newly returned to its former glory, the intricate wood-carved design was outstanding.

Leaving the lady to her detailed work, we wandered through to the belvedere. This stunning gallery offered far-reaching views across the countryside. It was the perfect situation for family members to enjoy a peaceful promenade.

Aside from pausing to examine details, most of our tour had involved walking upstairs, downstairs, through dark passageways and onto grand balconies. It really is a warren. By the time we returned to the ground level, I was trying to determine whether we were in the Old or Young castle when we made a new discovery.

A wartime film had been made on location at Bruniquel. We read the gritty WW2 drama’s synopsis. Le Vieux Fusil (The Old Gun) tells the story of a French doctor avenging the deaths of his wife and daughter, who the Nazis have murdered. Played out in the corridors and environs of the castles, it must have been an extraordinary filming experience.

I left Jack to mull over the information and walked outside to view the two buildings. They really are very close together. And those turrets. Not many, nevertheless they are magnificent.

Jack joined me to take one final look over the edge of the Young castle’s boundary wall. Our view was towards the confluence of the Rivers Aveyron and Vere. Jack sighed.

“Talk about cliffhangers.”

“What, the film?”

“That too, I expect, but look at this drop. The Young castle really was built on the edge of this precipice!”

It had been another wonderful castle visit with lots of surprises and so much to learn. We drove back down the hill, past the tiny village, sneaking a peek at its ribbon streets. Once upon a time, it was a flourishing merchant city where hemp, flax and saffron were traded. Now it was filled with gentlefolk who just love their homes.

Having humoured me so far, I decide not to suggest to my long-suffering husband that we have a quick mosey into the village centre. That’ll be another treat for another day.

Thank you Beth for your latest contribution and lovely story. Check out her books called Fat Dogs & French Estates, they’re excellent and are on Amazon. Just perfect those cosy evenings by the fireplace unless you prefer looking at our chateaux for sale in France.