If only walls could talk, what stories we would learn. The château de Bioule is one of a string of châteaux along the Aveyron upstream from Montauban, including Nègrepelisse, Montricoux, Bruniquel and Penne. They served variously as defensive fortresses and dynastic properties and were hotly contested during the Hundred Years War and the Wars of Religion.
This week, I decided to faire le touriste and visit le château de Bioule to add to my châteaux series of posts.
The drive from us, about 35 km, is very pleasant, once you’ve left the tedious main road. The lanes are bordered by shady woods alternating with fields of sunflowers and maize and the occasional vineyard. The landscape is green and rolling, dotted with hamlets and farms. A grey morning had given way to cloudless skies and mellow sunshine.
The village of Bioule sits in a pleasant, tranquil spot on the right bank of the River Aveyron. You hear the rushing weir of the former mill from inside the château. The foothills of the Massif Central are visible from the riverbank.
The Mairie runs guided tours of the château at the weekends in July and every afternoon in August at a very reasonable 3 euros per adult. The château is not open at other times of year, principally because the building has doubled as the local primary school since 1889. The commune of Bioule had bought the château to save it from demolition.
There can’t be many French children whose local school is a château. In fact, some sources say it’s the only one in France. It’s nice to imagine this distinctive schoolyard ringing with the sound of children playing for well over a century.
Barely a soul was about in the village. A couple with a small boy were the only other takers of the hour-long guided tour, but then we are approaching the end of a far from normal holiday season.
Like its left bank neighbour, Nègrepelisse, Bioule formerly belonged to the Abbey of Moissac, whose possessions and influence in the region were extensive. In the late 13th century, Bioule passed to the Cardaillac family, who became close favourites of the Valois kings of France and extremely powerful throughout the Quercy region. Their name crops up all over the place from the Lot down to Toulouse.
The Cardaillacs built the château from about 1329 around an existing rectangular stone keep and a chapel. Both of those were constructed in the Romanesque era, so sometime between 1000 and 1150. The Cardaillacs built a new chapel on the remains of the previous one.
The origins of the first château are the subject of legend. When the Aveyron flooded, a princess managed to save herself on a small hillock. Her grateful father, a rich seigneur, built a chapel on the spot and later a château. The local people settled around the protective château.
The present château is built of the warm red brick characteristic of the plain around Montauban, but the stone foundations of the earlier building remain, a bulwark against the Aveyron’s floods. A defensive moat surrounded the château, ingeniously filled from the river, which formed a natural fortification on the South side. Above the main entrance you can still see the slots (rainures) for the lifting arms by which the drawbridge was raised and lowered over the moat, filled in long ago.
The rectangular shape around an interior courtyard remains, but the original stone keep was demolished during the 19th century. A walkway once went around the entire upper part of the château.
A curious tower topped with a belfry is a distinctive feature. A chiming clock dates from the 17th century, now replaced by a modern mechanism.
You can see an aerial photo of the site here.
The guide showed us the large dining hall on the first floor of the unrestored North part of the château. The kitchens would have been immediately underneath.
The dining hall has a huge fireplace supported by stone corbels carved in the shape of faces, now largely effaced. Behind the corbels, a hand has been carved on each side of the fireplace, ostensibly holding it up. The outline of the original wall paintings appears very faintly to the left of the fireplace and on the opposite wall, but they are too unclear to photograph.
The wall paintings are another distinctive aspect of the château. Remarkably, they have been preserved, although sections of them are in poor condition.
A document dates the wall paintings in the chapel precisely to 1378. They relate scenes from the life of Christ. Humidity has done its work over the years, and the paintings were plastered over during the 19th century. Sacrilege! They have been restored as far as possible, but gaps remain as does the humidity.
The Cardaillac family vault is situated beneath the apse. Interestingly, this has never been excavated, so the remains of some of the Cardaillacs may still repose there. I hope they don’t tell the schoolchildren that, although no doubt some of them would relish the grisly idea of it.
16th-century frescoes decorate la salle des Preux, celebrating les Neuf Preux (the Valiant Nine). This group comprises three pagan heroes (Hector, Alexander and Caesar), three Biblical ones (Joshua, Judas Maccabeus and David) and three Christian era ones (Charlemagne, King Arthur and Godefroy de Bouillon). The latter, of whom I admit I had never heard, was a hero of the First Crusade in 1099. They represented the chivalrous virtues popular from the 14th century. Again, the paintings have been damaged by humidity and the passage of time.
Other wall paintings exist around the building. Some of them are rough sketches, perhaps in preparation for murals that were never executed. Others may be old-style graffiti. At least one is known to have been the work of German soldiers who occupied the château during World War II.
The mark of history
Like all such monuments, le château de Bioule has been subject to the ups and downs of history. It was besieged by the Black Prince in 1346, attacked again during the Wars of Religion, remodelled at various times, abandoned in the 1830s and used as an agricultural store, threatened with demolition and finally rescued from oblivion by the local council. It is now preserved as a Monument Historique.
Finally, friends recommend a hotel-restaurant in Bioule, les Boissières, which serves a menu du marché on weekdays. One to add to the list.
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