France is a big country. Maybe not as big as the U.S., but still, there’s a lot to see and explore. It’s been keeping me busy for many, many years. Carole and I live in the south, in Vence. I love nothing more than to get in the car and explore towns and villages whenever I can, near and far. Due to time and money constraints though that ususally means somewhere in the southern part of the country. For many years our dear friend Françoise has been telling us that we needed to visit the little village she grew up in, Chalmazel in the Rhône-Alpes. Françoise, an actress, lives in Paris now with her husband the great American songwriter and musician, Elliott Murphy. Last summer Elliott and his band were scheduled to perform at a big outdoor music festival that just happened to be not too far from Chalmazel. It seemed like the perfect chance to take a road trip, explore some new parts of France, see Elliott in concert again and finally get to know Chalmazel.
[more info after the photo gallery]
The little village of Chalmazel is located in the heart of the Forez mountains in central France. It sits between the Dore Valley and the Forez Plain. It’s most famous for two things: a wonderful 13th century medieval castle and a very popular ski resort. Over the years the name of the village has changed a little bit. At one point or another it has been known as Chalmasel, Charmazel and Chalmazelles. The name was officially set as Chalmazel in 1939.
The earliest records of the village date back to at least 1231 when the Count of Forez, Guy IV, instructed Arnaud de Marcilly to build a fortification in the village, what is now known as the Chalmazel Castle. The land eventually passed from the Marcilly family to the Talaru family in whose possession it remained for many, many years.
Over the ensuing centuries Chalmazel was pretty quiet. Around 1270 Jean de Marcilly was responsible for building the village’s church which is dedicated to Saint Jean Baptiste. In 1881, the old Gothic-style church, which could no longer accommodate all the parishioners during religious festivals, was demolished and replaced by a larger building, the church we now see. In 1938 the low, stocky bell tower was replaced with a more elegant, tall and slender one. Then in the midst of the turmoil of the Second World War new stained glass windows relating the life of the Christ and Saint John the Baptist were installed in the church and signed by Théodore Gérard Hanssen (1855-1957), a master glazier who revolutionized the art of stained glass.
The most famous story that involves the village dates from the French Revolution when a renegade priest named Jean-Marie Mollin and two other abbots were on the run in the area, having refused to take an oath to the Civil Constitution of the Clergy. Eventually they were captured by a man from Chalmazel named Jarrier and a “band of partriots.” Later they were put to death by guillotine in nearby Feurs. Mollin is now considered a “martyr of the Revolution.”
Today the village is a small, but quite charming, affair. The population has steadily decreased since its height in the early 1900s. Less than 400 people live there today and there is not a lot of commerce. A few restaurants, a small grocery store, a boulangerie and one café, but not too much else. Back in the 60s the village had more than ten cafés so it’s clear that things have changed in recent years. That doesn’t mean there isn’t a lot to do. If you like to ski, hike, bike or explore the French countryside, Chalmazel holds plenty of adventures for you.
Construction on le Château de Chalmazel first began in 1231 under the Marchilly family and continued on until at least 1372 when the Talarus were now in charge. Situated in the middle of the village, it served two purposes: to control the upper Lignon valley, namely the road to Auvergne via the Col du Béal, and to monitor and counteract the ambitions of the powerful neighbors of the seigneurie of Couzan, a territory owned by the Damascus family who were linked to the German emperor at the time. The original structure was said to be quite gloomy with just the four towers and a square keep. No windows or openings of any kind existed on the sides.
In medieval times the castle was known as “Saint-Jehan-des-Neiges.” After six generations of Marchilly the castle eventually passed to the Talaru in 1364 when Béatrix de Marcilly, the last of the Marcilly line and the current owner, married Mathieu de Talaru. The ramparts were built in 1400 in the shape of a pentagon and “amchicolations” were added (openings through which stones or boiling oil could be dropped on attackers). Renaissance style embellishments were added during the Renaissance in the 15th and 16th centuries including galleries in the inner court, sculptures and paintings in the chapel and an openwork facade.
Abandonded around 1650 when the Talarus moved closer to Paris, the castle began centuries of slow decline and deterioration. When the last marquis, Louis Justin de Talaru, died in 1850 the castle was bequeathed to the congregation of the Sisters of Saint Joseph, who carried out some repair work. The nuns used it as a hospice, dispensary, a pharmacie and as a boarding school until 1972. This was very important to the village and provided a lot of services that otherwise they would have lacked. In the 60s there was also a small theater in the castle and Françoise tells me that is where she began her acting career. When the maintenance of the castle beame too much, the nuns left and rented it to the village with the condition that it be maintaind and opened to the public during the tourist season.
Some of original feudal components are still intact but most of what we see today came from modifications and additions made by the Talaru family over the years. The loopholes, the base of the walls, the dungeon and the walkway with battlements all remain in excellent condition. There’s a wonderful interior courtyard, a chapel and several galleries.
Today the castle is privately owned, acquired in 2002 and completely renovated and restored. It is listed as a historical monument by the French Ministry of Culture. It now goes by the name of “Château des Marcilly Talaru” (and now you know why!) and operates as a bed and breakfast with wonderful, rustic guest rooms. It’s also available for tours and visits.
The Ski Resort
The Chalmazel ski resort is located about six kilometers outside of the village, in an area known as Les Bois. There’s an excellent, well maintained road from the village to the resort and bus service is also available. First built in 1953 the resort was developed by the president of the local ski club, Éloi Marcoux, and the secretary general of the municipality, Régie de Chalmazel. In 1968, during the Grenoble Olympics, the Olympic flame passed through Chalmazel and the resort, something that locals still remember and talk about today.
The ski area extends from 1,109 to 1,600 meters and is situated directly on the slopes of Pierre-sur-Haute, the highest point in the Forez mountains. There are twelve kilometers of slopes for downhill skiing and one chairlift. There are also 90 snow guns to help out when the weather doesn’t cooperate with enough real snow. During the summer months activities like tree climbing, mountain biking and walking tours are available.
Carole and I spent four days and three nights in Chalmazel during the month of July. We stayed at the castle and what a delight it was! The owners (Isabelle Suguenot and her husband) were wonderful, welcoming everyone for breakfast and dinner each day and making sure that all our needs were met. The room we stayed in was huge and with the thick exterior walls of the castle, very cool, even during the heat of the summer afternoons. We would highly recommend a stay there at any time of the year.
One of the best things about our visit was that we were with someone who grew up there. It seemed that Françoise knew just about everyone in town (some of her family still live there). Having a “tour guide” who knows the village and area personally makes so much difference. In the evenings we would either eat at the castle or venture out into the surrounding area for a meal at one of the fantastic auberges that are so popular in rural France. One night for we drove up near the ski resort to have a meal at the very down to earth, rural Auberge des Granges. A bit further out from Chalmazel, but worth the trip, is Auberge de Garnier, where we ate on another night.
We had lunch several times at the only real restaurant in town, Authentique, which just happens to be owned by Françoise’s nephew and his family. The food was great, the service was outstanding and, being the only real restaurant in town, it was full of local folks looking for some real French cooking.
During the day Françoise and I would hike in the mountains while Carole and Elliott lounged at the castle. One day we hiked up to the top of the ski resort and on another we set off on a big loop around the village which took us through beautiful fields and over numerous creeks and rivers. We hiked up to a well-known statue, Vierge de Roc de l’Olme (Virgin of the Rock de l’Olme), that dominates the entire area and provides a stunning view of the valleys and mountains. The statue was erected in 1883 and is a very popular hiking destination. A lot of rock climbing is also done in this area and there are several routes up the side of the mountain to the Rocher de l’Olme, the huge rock formation on which the statue sits. From there we drove to the col du Béal, a mountain pass that is located on the crest line of the Forez mountains. Next time I’m back I’ll take my bike as this looks like a great climb.
My favorite adventure in Chalmazel though was a trip to the Cascade de Chorsin, a wonderful little waterfall located about a half hour outside of the town via the village of Sauvain. It’s said to be the most beautiful and most popular waterfall in the area and the waters come straight from the peaks of the Forez mountains. It’s open all year and is free. The water is cold, even when we were there in mid-July, but still very enjoyable. It’s not possible to drive all the way to the falls and we parked about three kilometers away and hiked in for the remaining distance. You can’t do a lot of “swimming” but you can sit under the falling water and splash about in the pools at the bottom. Several families with children were there at the same time as us and everyone had a lot of fun.
Carole and I had a great time in Chalmazel and are very much looking forward to going back again. I’ll take my bike this time as the cycling in the area looks fantastic. There are a lot of other things to do in the area that I am also interested in. In nearby Sauvain there is the Musée de la Fourme et des Traditions (a museum dedicated to the local cheese and traditions). A few of the “Most Beautiful Villages of France” that I have not yet been to are not too far away (Lavaudieu, Usson, Montpeyroux). Puy de Dôme and the Parc Naturel Régional des Volcans d’Auvergne are only about an hour and a half away and I’m really interested in seeing that part of the country and the volcanoes. I don’t really ski, but this might be a nice place to learn. Chalmazel isn’t one of the most well-known villages in this part of France, but I think you’ll be very happy if you include it on your itenerary if you are passing through the area.