Montpeyroux, citadel of the Counts of Auvergne
Montpeyroux is perched on a hill and boasts splendid views over the valley of the Allier.
The House of La Tour d’Auvergne once owned this picturesque fortified village, which today is ranked among the Plus Beaux Villages de France.
This feudal dynasty was related to the Crown of France, as Madeleine de la Tour d’Auvergne (1498-1519) married Lorenzo II de Medici.
They only had one daughter, Catherine de Medici, as Madeleine died shortly after giving birth.
Catherine grew up in Italy and married Henri II, the son of King Francis I.
Therefore, Catherine di Medici became not only Queen of France, but also Countess of Auvergne and Lady of Montpeyroux!
Ten children were born of her union with Henri II.
Five became kings and queens:
François II, Charles IX, Henri III, Elizabeth (Queen of Spain) and Marguerite de Valois (also known as Queen Margot) the first wife of King Henri IV.
However, the House of La Tour d’Auvergne didn’t appear in the history of the village before the early 13th century.
Ramparts and belfry-gateway
Montpeyroux existed long before that though!
Archaeological excavations indeed show that it developed in the 6th century AD on the river bank and on the site of the current village of Coudes.
The citadel of Montpeyroux was built during the 11th century on a rocky hill known as Mont Pierreux (stony hill), a name that evolved into Montpeyroux.
The first text referring to Montpeyroux dates from 1212, when King Philip-Auguste gave the fiefdom to lord Bertrand de la Tour d’Auvergne.
Montpeyroux boasted indeed a strategic geographical situation.
Not only did it command the Limagne Plain, but it was also along a major north-south communication axis known as Chemin Français.
Five watchtowers and sections of the covered way are still visible on the northern section of the ovoid rampart.
The centrepiece of these ramparts is the 14th century fortified belfry-gateway situated on the northeast side.
It was classified Historical Monument in 1951.
A statue of a Virgin blessing passersby sits in an alcove of its inner facade.
The belfry-gateway opens onto the Montée des Gardes, a picturesque lane leading to the Donjon of Montpeyroux.
Donjon of Montpeyroux
The southern part of the citadel was not fortified, as it ended directly above the steep cliff.
The imposing Donjon protected the southeast side and the castle of Montpeyroux.
Built in the second half of the 12th century, it is a perfect illustration of the military architecture introduced by Philippe-Auguste, namely a large round tower in the center of a fortress.
The keep served as a manor-house, but also for storage and defense when needed.
The village developed around it and within a second rampart.
The Donjon of Montpeyroux is a 30m high crenellated round tower with a diameter of 14.25m at the base and 13.20m on its upper platform.
It boasts 360° views and didn’t only defend Montpeyroux but also the surrounding villages.
It commanded the Allier Valley towards Issoire to the south, the Chaîne des Puys to the west and northwest, and the village of Coudes on the river bank.
It is also one of the oldest donjons in France and was classified Historical Monument in 1957.
Quarries of arkose of Montpeyroux
Montpeyroux sits on top of a deposit of arkose stones.
The arkose is a golden sandstone, which sometimes can be grey or even slightly red.
This hard stone contains quartz and at least 25% feldspar.
Throughout the Middle Ages, the stonemasons of Montpeyroux extracted the golden arkose from the open air quarries located at the entrance of the village.
These stones were used for the construction of the large Romanesque churches of Auvergne such St Austremoine d’Issoire or Notre-Dame-du-Port in Clermont Ferrand.
In 1848, these quarries provided work to 11 workshops and 30 workers.
However, only 6 arkose quarries were still in business in Auvergne at the dawn of WWI.
Arkose was then used exclusively for the production of millstones.
The operation of the quarries of arkose of Montpeyroux ceased in 1935.
The Church and village
The church of Montpeyroux was built in the 1840s, when the parish was founded.
The basilica is a good illustration of Neo-Romanesque Auvergne architecture and used to be a site of pilgrimage.
It therefore has a vast ambulatory that allowed crowds to move safely.
Two massive monolithic columns support the vault of the nave; their capitals are all different.
Montpeyroux developed also a thriving wine-growing industry during the 19th century.
However, this prosperity dwindled with the arrival of phylloxera that destroyed the French vineyard in the second half of the century.
Then came WWI and the depopulation it triggered.
Tragically, by the end of the war only 180 inhabitants were left in the village!
The revival of the village took place in 1960 at the instigation of the architect Pérol and the prefect Perony.
The revival of Montpeyroux
The consecration of this revival took place in 1989.
This was indeed when Montpeyroux was ranked among France’s most beautiful villages, thanks to the initiative of the mayor Mr Simon.
Of its wine-growing era Montpeyroux has indeed retained the winegrowers stone cottages.
Many of these typical dwellings, many roofed with Roman tiles, are located in the medieval heart of the citadel, by the donjon.
They all all built on the same floor plan: a ground-floor cellar and an external stone staircase leading up to the living quarters.
Montpeyroux has also retained elegant town houses; these are located mostly by the entrance of the village.
As you stroll in the village, you’ll find lovely carved lintels and arches, small terraced gardens and tiny courtyards.
All these buildings have one thing in common: they were built with the local golden arkose.
Finally, the good news is that a young farmer has apparently replanted some of the vineyard; he even started the production of local wine!
Montpeyroux is another superb tourist destination, a Must Visit when in Auvergne!
Department of Puy-de-Dôme
Coordinates: Lat 45.621676 – Long 3.205481