Auzon, Petite Cité de Caractère in Auvergne
Discover Auzon, Petite Cité de Caractère
Between the fertile Limagne Plain and the Livradois Mountains, Auzon overlooks the Auzon and Gaudurel Valleys from atop its 441m high promontory.
This picturesque medieval town, nestled behind its ancient ramparts, boasts an exceptional architectural and religious heritage.
This owed it the ranking of Petite Cité de Caractère - Small City of Character and Ville d'Art et d'Histoire - City of Art and History.
You can explore on foot, along marked trails organised around different themes.
They'll take you along picturesque cobbled lanes and the old walkway that offers prime views of the lower village that unfolds along the river.
The municipality steadily restores Saint-Laurent Collegiate Church, a superb illustration of 12th century Romanesque architecture classified Historical Monument in 1906.
Auzon is also worldwide known for a whalebone casket, known variously as Coffret d’Auzon - Franks Casket - Auzon Runic Casket, which would have once belonged to the collegiate church.
This reliquary, made in Northumbria around 700AD, is now exhibited in the British Museum (except for a panel kept at the National Museum of the Bargello in Florence).
This valuable item was stolen (or more probably hidden) during the French Revolution.
It seems to have changed hands several times, until Augustus Wollaston Franks, the curator at the Department of Antiquities at the British Museum, purchased it during the 19th century.
The discovery circuit will take you also by the medieval Halle (covered market), as well as the castle, St-Michel Chapel and the Pays d'Auzon Eco-Museum*.
The latter exhibits nearly 800 original objects from local trades and traditions of yesteryear!
Auzon also boasts a very unusual museum: the Musée de la Vespa**, a private collection of about 30 original Vespas produced between 1947 and today.
Opening hours: Wednesday and Saturday afternoon in July and August, or by appointment the rest of the year (tel: +33 0673055598 - Email: firstname.lastname@example.org) - Free admission.
Finally, the nearby river Allier offers peaceful and quiet enclaves where anglers can devote themselves to their hobby.
The lords of Auzon
A Gallo-Roman inscription found on one of the church's walls suggests the presence of an ancient settlement on the promontory, however, no other document nor discovery support this theory.
The first official reference to Castrum Auzon appears in a charter of the late 10th century Cartulaire de Sauxillanges.
Other early 11th century texts attest to the presence of a Viguerie of Auzon. This medieval administrative court was founded at the same time than the castle to serve the locals.
It seems that the lords of Bompar were the first lords of Auzon. However, they shared this lordship with the almighty Counts of Auvergne, Lords of Bourbon.
The castle of Auzon is therefore commonly known as Château Bourbon.
In 1211 King Philippe-Auguste confiscated the Counts of Auvergne's assets and gave the lordship of Auzon to the Montmorin family.
By the late 13th century, the castrum had become a thriving village and was granted a charter of franchise that entitled the bourgeois of Auzon to administer their town.
The covered market or Halle, which is classified Historical Monument, dates from this period.
The rampart, near the castle, was partially re-enforced in the 15th century to defend the northern side of the village.
A wall was built to protect the southern side that overlooked the plain and was vulnerable.
This wall had several towers and a massive fortified gate named after the nearby district Le Brugelet. The Porte Brugelet was classified Historical Monument in 1997.
Once fortified, Auzon enjoyed rapid economic recovery and in 1410 was granted the right to hold a market and a fair.
However, the town lost its status of ‘royal city’ in 1557, when François de Montmorin bought the Château Bourbon and the royal land attached to it.
In the late 16th century, the lordship of Auzon passed to the family of Polignac.
The Château Bourbon was left to fall in ruins and converted into a stone quarry and in 1639 the Polignac founded a Benedictine monastery on its site.
The ruined castle has since been restored and is a listed Historical Monument.
A thriving town at the heart of a coal basin
Auzon overlooks a lush green countryside.
Yet, this region is located on a coal deposit known as Bassin de Brassac, a vast coalfield exploited since the late 15th century.
Several coal mines and glass-works factories and an important brickyard (in the nearby town of Chappes) opened during the 18th century.
This industrial wealth translated into a significant demographic expansion.
The many mines and related industries thrived even further after the construction of the railway in 1855.
The population kept increasing despite the fluctuations due to various epidemics. By 1896 Auzon boasted some 1600 inhabitants!
It was at that time that the traditional 'worker-peasant of Auzon' character appeared. After completing his work at the mine, he would indeed return home in order to care for his small family estate.
Imagine the hills surrounding the village fully cleared. Imagine the south and southwest facing slopes planted with vineyards, and the others with gardens, orchards and meadows.
On the downside, the arsenopyrite metallurgical plant built in the early 20th century in the plain created pollution related issues due to the presence of arsenic in the ore processing.
Then came WWI. The depopulation that followed these tragic years led the village into a long period of decline.
Petites Cités de Caractère in Auvergne
Auzon is the latest town to join the 28 Small Towns of Character of the Auvergne region.
It’s an addition to Allègre, Chilhac, La Chaise-Dieu, Le Monastier-sur-Gazeille, Saint-Paul-de-Chalencon and Saint-Paulien in the department of Haute-Loire.
The department of Allier has 3 small towns of character:
Hérisson, a charming walled village, whose name also means hedgehog in French, and the town of Ebreuil.
Department of Puy-de-Dôme: Artonne, Besse-et-Saint-Anastaise, Champeix, Châteldon, La Sauvetat, Le Broc, Nonette, Saint-Florêt, as well as Sauxillanges and Chauriat (status in progress).
Finally, in the department of Cantal you'll find Laroquebrou, Marcolès, Menet, Murat, Pleaux, Raulhac, Saint-Urcize and Montsalvy, a picturesque town that has revived its ancient Basket Festival.
These small towns of character are among the many attractions the beautiful Auvergne region has on offer...
Crossing the River Allier
The 19th century industrial and demographic expansion resulted in the construction of a much needed bridge to facilitate access to the river right bank.
Locals had until then crossed the river by ferry to go to work in Chappes and other industrial sites of the left bank.
The construction of the bridge was decided in 1826 when one of the ferries overturned on a market day causing the drowning of a dozen people.
The first suspended bridge that opened to traffic in 1845 was unfortunately destroyed by river flood the following year.
A second bridge was built in 1847 and a third in 1855, as the deck was ripped off by a tornado!
The 4th bridge built in 1869 was replaced in 1934 by the current bridge built in reinforced concrete!
Auzon, a Must Visit when in Auvergne, is located 15 km north of Brioude and halfway between Le Puy en Velay (70 km) and Clermont-Ferrand (70 km).
Auzon - Department of Haute-Loire - Auvergne region
Coordinates: Lat 45.391899 - Long 3.374186
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