Unconquered Citadel: Puycelsi

Puycelsi – hilltop fortress town

Overlooking the Vère valley, the fortified hilltop village of Puycelsi is l’un des plus beaux villages de France (one of the most beautiful villages in France). The green sea of la fôret de Grésigne laps at the base of its ramparts. You catch glimpses of the village from the road far below and its fortifications make it look bigger than it really is. We extended our acquaintance with it when we sang there last weekend.

Puycelsi – solid ramparts

Architectural interest

Half-timbered buildings

Apparently, in the 1950s the place was almost deserted and in poor repair. Puycelsi has now been restored to a high standard and very few buildings are in disrepair. You can see some fine examples of regional architecture, such as colombage (houses with half-timbered upper floors with brick inserts). The village also boasts impressive ramparts anchored in the rock.

The streets are winding and there is barely a straight vista in the place. This is in contrast to the later bastides, constructed from the 13th century, which followed a grid pattern radiating from a central square.

Church interior

The church of Sainte-Corneille in the centre of the village was built in the 14th-15th centuries. Although a little austere from the outside, it contains magnificent and vivid wall and ceiling paintings and stained glass. Damp has damaged the decorations in places but restoration work is on-going. Our concert on Sunday was in aid of the restoration fund.

Strategic prize

La fôret de Grésigne contains traces of occupation from the Stone Age onwards. The Romans almost certainly had a settlement at Puycelsi. The name probably derives from the Celtic “celto dun” – wooden fortress. The Romans changed it to “podium celsium” – a flat piece of high ground. The commune prefers the spelling Puycelsi but in various official places and on some of the local road signs, it’s Puycelci.

The counts of Toulouse acquired Puycelsi from the Abbott of Aurillac in the 11th century and fortified it, recognising its strategic importance. It enjoys the distinction of never having been taken by force despite being besieged on several occasions. The ubiquitous Simon de Montfort had a go during the Albigensian Crusades in 1211, as did his brother Guy in 1213. Some sources say that Guy did actually take the town. Others indicate that he had to abandon the siege since troops supplied by the bishops of Orleans and Auxerre pushed off after doing their contractual 40 days.

The castle was demolished after the Treaty of Meaux in 1229. This required that towns in the region that had supported the counts of Toulouse should have their fortifications destroyed.

Winding streets: former gendarmerie on the left

The pastoureux also tried to sack Puycelsi in 1320. They were a band of paysans from northern France. Notionally inspired by back-to-basics religious sentiments, they went on a crusade – their second, the first one being in 1251. They swept southwards through the country. Effectively, it was an ill-disciplined rampage with both racist and anti-clerical overtones. Finally, the English besieged Puycelsi a couple of times during the Hundred Years War. The village withstood them all. Looking at its commanding position and solid ramparts, it’s not hard to see why.

Slow decline

Puycelsi suffered the further upheavals of four bouts of the Black Death and the Wars of Religion in the late 16th century but rode the storm of the French Revolution. The village lived from occupations associated with the nearby forest, such as glass-making, charcoal burning and wood-turning. Losing out to competition from other places, it went into a slow decline. The ravages of World War I and rural depopulation between the wars took their toll, as they did throughout rural France.

In its heyday, the village itself had a population of about 800 while the whole commune boasted around 2,500 inhabitants. Today, some 100 permanent residents live in the village. Like many such places, it’s heaving in the high season and sparsely populated outside it. I doubt it could ever recapture the busting vitality of the Middle Ages but it is certainly worth a detour if you’re in the area.

Carved figures above the church door

Copyright © 2012 Life on La Lune, all rights reserved


  1. Wow, that church is so gorgeous on the inside! I visited a few “plus beaux villages de France” in Brittany and Normandy this summer. I’ll get to blogging about them soon enough. I find the criteria to become part of this association very interesting.


    • My photos don’t do justice to it. The paintings are a very vivid colour. Unfortunately, some have been damaged by penetrating damp but will eventually be restored. Look forward to reading about your plus beaux villages experiences.


  2. It’s always heartening to learn these beautiful villages being preserved. Due to the rainfall in our area, the countryside is gorgeous and green most of the year round, but the houses are predominately mudbrick and when there are disputes over inheritance, they tombent en ruin all too quickly. It seems the influx of foreigners is no bad thing – we’re the ones who are preserving the buildings. Our walls comprise mud and straw held together with colombage and river stones. There is lots of lovely trelliswork around although ours is quite simple. Because of the winds sweeping across the foothills of les Pyrénées, most of the houses are built in an L-shape with no windows on the north and west sides. I feel a blog coming on! Must try and get over to your corner of La Belle France some time.


    • In our corner of NE Tarn et Garonne, the buildings are almost exclusively in stone. The farther down you go towards the plain, the more you find brick elements included until, around Montauban and Toulouse, brick predominates. In Puycelsi, which is somewhere between the two, you find stone ground floors topped with colombage and brick upper floors. Needless to say, I find all this fascinating.


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