This summer I was on holiday in the Cévennes. It’s a ritual, every year, to return to this corner of Lozère where my whole family comes from. A return to my roots in a way. During the month of August, I finally went to visit a place I have known by name for a long time but where I had never had the opportunity to go. Not that it’s very far from my family home, but the road – which turns a lot as well as being narrow – is quite tiring so I don’t use it much. I went to the castle of Saint-Germain-de-Calberte for a very particular reason: to tell you how a goldsmith from Lyon fell in love with it and decided to restore it for more than 50 years…
The castle as seen during the climb, 2017. Photo: ©MarieChabrol/legemmologue.com 2017
The castle at the beginning of the 20th century. Photo: JFM Collection
In 1964, who remembered that a castrum was hidden in the middle of the vegetation? Few people except a few Calbertois and other Cevennes enthusiasts of medieval history. Situated on a rocky schist piton, in the middle of the Gardon de Saint-Germain valley, it includes a large rectangular dwelling, a square tower, a castral chapel, a round tower and five buildings, all surrounded by a wall. In addition, there is a village in ruins, built against the enclosure, which is itself protected by a rampart with an access gate to the north. To get there, you have to take a dirt path, which is perfectly passable today, and then climb a staircase carved into the rock. But this was not the case for a long time. The place is mentioned in the texts as early as 1092, it is part of the feudal castles that held the Cévennes valleys. Then controlled by the lordship of Anduze, it was confiscated in 1229 by King Louis IX of France at the end of the Albigensian crusade. This marked the beginning of a long dispute over ownership between the bishop of Mende and the king. It returned to the de Portes family, who sold it in 1320, and in 1322 it became the property of the Budos family, before being confiscated again by King Philippe VI in 1340 because they had sided with the English during the 100 Years’ War. It was returned to the family in 1384 after a long legal battle.
The path to the castle. Photo: ©MarieChabrol/legemmologue.com 2017
Finally, and without the exact reasons being known, the village was completely emptied of its inhabitants between the end of the 13th and the middle of the 14th century. Then the Saint-Pierre castle was abandoned at the beginning of the 15th century. We know that this abandonment was voluntary, as evidenced by the absence of archaeological material. The people closed the buildings and left, perhaps to settle in the neighbouring village of Saint-Germain-de-Calberte, which was better served, easier to access and rapidly expanding. Among the reasons that may have been given is the presence in the castle and the village of a large proportion of iron ore slag, rich in magnesium and manganese, which was certainly used in the manufacture of weapons. Perhaps it has become scarce? Perhaps the castle was a toll point between the two valleys and became useless. The presence (or rather absence) of water is also a possible reason. The habitat in the Cévennes is scattered and depends on the presence of potable springs that supply the farms with water. The maintenance of springs is a question of survival here! And many hamlets here have been abandoned for this reason. As nature takes its course and time passes, it falls into oblivion.
The abandoned village. Photo: ©MarieChabrol/legemmologue.com 2017
In 1964, when Irène and Daniel Darnas became the owners, most of the buildings were down. They then decided to undertake its complete restoration: for decades, they would come to work during the school holidays – with their children (the youngest was two years old when the work began) and carrying the materials by hand as vehicles could not use the road until 1972 – ignoring the scepticism of the Calbertois. The site, which is very isolated, has not been looted and most of the stones are still in place. It must be said that the castle, built in schist, blends in with the surrounding vegetation and the ruins are only visible if one is careful. Eventually, the place was opened to the public and electricity was brought in in 1976.
Bracelet in yellow gold 750 created by Daniel Darnas. Photo: ©MarieChabrol/legemmologue.com 2017
The interior of the castle. Photo: ©MarieChabrol/legemmologue.com 2017
You have to hear Irène and Daniel tell the story of this adventure, because it is indeed an adventure! For almost 10 years, they had to carry 50kg bags of cement on their backs, jerry cans of water from the river until the castle was connected to a spring, chestnut beams, supplies… Then they managed to install a manual winch which made the work much easier. Since last year, it has been automated with a remote control and it’s a real relief for everyone! You have to listen to Daniel, who has a passion for mathematics and geometry, tell you how the castle was built, the special skills of the architects of the time and the questions that arise. The place probably dates from before the year 1000 and was for a long time a place of pagan worship. The presence of a lying menhir, covered by the chapel (testifying to the Christianisation of the place) is indisputable proof of this. The chapel was built according to the Al-Mamoun cubit (or black cubit), a measure invented by the 9th century caliph of the same name. The architects of the place were initiated into these particular measures as well as the golden ratio. How did they arrive in the Cévennes and where were they initiated? This is an enigma. Finally, the sun, at its highest point of the day, hits the ground of the chapel (on the site of the menhir) on June 29th, Saint Peter’s Day. As you can see, this is a very special place.
Medal in yellow gold 750 created by Daniel Darnas. Photo: ©MarieChabrol/legemmologue.com 2017
Today, you can visit it on weekdays from mid-July to mid-September from 4 to 7 pm. Access is subject to a fee (5€) which helps finance the maintenance of the exterior of the site.
Mr. Darnas’ daughter, Isabelle, is a medievalist by training and is the chief heritage curator for the Lozère departmental council. Each building has been excavated and studied and published. The last campaign ended in 2003. It is a place that I advise you to visit because it is really worth it. Just to imagine the work done by this family of enthusiasts to reconstruct the buildings. Finally, you will discover some pieces by Daniel Darnas, a chiseler and goldsmith by trade, who presents some of his work during the summer in this place.
See you soon!