The Fortress of Polignac & The Hamlets of Bigorre – Les Maziaux

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As you know, we’ve visited our friends Jef and Val many times in Le Puy-en-Velay. We stopped by again in early April on our way to Amsterdam. Thanks to Jef’s passion for the medieval patrimony of this region, we visited two interesting historical sites. And finished with a return to an amazing view spot.

The Fortress of Polignac

The Fortress of Polignac tops a butte not far from Le Puy-en-Velay. 

Even though Le Puy-en-Velay was the first stop of our SPRING roadtrip to see fields of tulips in Amsterdam, winter apparently drags its feet around Le Puy. As we were climbing the hill to the fortress, the clouds covered the sun and a snow squall grabbed hold of us. Kind of fun, kind of picturesque, stupidly cold! It all added to the mystique of this otherwise silent ruined place.

Jef explained that this type of fortress arose gradually. 

  • A farmer / land owner farms arable land atop a hill because it offers vantage over and defense from approaching aggressors. 
  • He and his successors build a wooden fence for more protection, and later on, stone walls. 
  • They build structures in which to live, and in which to shelter their livestock and protect their stores. 
  • These structures evolve over time into the donjon, which is a protective structure; at first in wood, and over time in stone. 
  • Also over time, they thicken the walls and add more stories: the better to watch out across the surrounding countryside for unfriendly visitors. 
  • Clerics in the neighborhood are watching; as the family of — by now — the lord grows more powerful and secure, the Church has to be in the game. In Medieval Europe, secular and religious life fully intertwined. So, the lord builds a chapel within the walls of the fortress. 
  • The lord and his clan and community live in the political hierarchy of the greater region. Once the lord achieves and demonstrates power in this valley, the Count who rules the greater region keeps his eyes on the fortress; the lord builds a residence for the Count near the donjon within the walls of the fortress.

Listed as a Historic Monument from 1840, the impressive vestiges of the fortress of Polignac undoubtedly provide one of the more picturesque images of the Velay region. Perched on a volcanic outcrop inhabited since ancient times, the building of the fortress started in the 11th century and it underwent alterations until the 17th century by the Polignac family, Viscounts of the Velay. Constantly in conflict with the Bishop of Le Puy, they made this town the symbol of their power and their family seat until the 17th century. During this period, the fortress had an exceptional strategic position as it controlled the main access roads to Le Puy. Moreover, its three hectare area surrounded by ramparts provided a shelter for neighboring populations. 

After the Wars of Religion, the defensive nature of the site was not as important, and in the 17th century, the Polignac family preferred the castle of La Voûte Polignac, a more comfortable dwelling, situated further north in a meander of the river Loire. The fortress was sold as a nationalized property during the French Revolution, and then the Duke Jules de Polignac bought it in the 19th century. The site, which still belongs to the Polignac family, is open to visitors and archaeological excavations are regularly carried out: the gates, the ramparts, the keep and the ruins of the residence give an interesting insight into military architecture and how it developed. (source)

Tucked inside one of the few roofed structures within the fortress was an exhibit with illustrative panels. They explained how many of the clichés about the Middle Ages are incorrect. Such as “people were all dirty,” “fortress defenders poured boiling oil on attackers,” (oil was much too valuable to do that), and “women wore chastity belts.” These are precisely the themes that Jef uses in his tours and presentations in La Cité de Carcassonne and Le Puy-en-Velay: “Destroying myths about the Middle Ages that we see in films and on TV.” Jef was delighted to find this exhibit presenting one of his favorite subjects. 

The Hamlets of Bigorre – Les Maziaux

After visiting the ruins of bigwigs of the region, the next stop showed us a more down-to-earth community — literally.

The Hamlets of Bigorre – Les Maziaux developed at least 400 years ago. 

The construction of the first dwellings dates back more than 400 years when the first farmers came to settle to maintain the pastures, land and woods in this corner of the municipality of Saint Front.

Almost all houses in Bigorre-Les Maziaux are built of stones and covered with thatch or slate, two types of roofs typical of this region. The wealthiest houses had slate roofs, thick and heavy phonolite stone that came out of local quarries. The peasants of the village grew their own rye straw with which they covered their own houses.

A thatched roof, if regularly maintained, can last up to 40 years before the straw needs to be completely replaced. A slate roof can last up to 200 years or more, without much maintenance. It is generally not the slate that deteriorates but the frame that tends to deteriorate under the weight of the stones and the clay bed on which they are placed.

The hamlet of Bigorre-Les Maziaux is now protected and any new construction or major renovation must be validated by the Commission des Architectes de France to ensure the … continuity of local architectural characteristics. (source)

Today, Bigorre – les Maziaux is a rare example of a preserved ancient settlement in which people still live and work. Even though floods of tourists disrupt their bucolic lives in the summer.

Jef explained that builders nestled the houses against the hills for a specific reason: The cows and other livestock get the upper bunk. The practice here in centuries past was to shelter your livestock in the upper story of your house. You and your family lived in the lower story. This certainly meant that the beams holding up the upper floor were very robust. Imagine all the cattle, horses, donkeys, pigs, and chickens clomping overhead all winter long. The thinking was this: The upper story, including its livestock residents, provides insulation for the living level below. Following this logic, the builders minimized the ceiling height of the lower residential floor to maximize heating efficiency. Form follows function indeed.

A view of the Alps

After all this history on a chilly day, it was time for a warm local lunch in nearby Les Estables. But first, a quick view of the Alps. 

We headed across open fields above the village of Les Estables, through a forest wall. We parked in a clearing at the edge of a steep drop-off. There before us was the line of the Alps. We could see Europe’s tallest peak, Mont Blanc, which was about 235 km / 145 mi away! This day in April had just followed the passage of a cleansing storm. The air was clear and bright, and the Alps were a beautiful jagged line of white. Hang gliders were taking advantage of the upwinds from the great valley before us.

L’Émotion, Le Puy-en-Velay

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