Castelmoron d’Albret is the smallest commune in France. It’s, perched on a hill so high that when a King and a Prince visited in 1828, they had to get out of their carriage and help push it to the top!
Spending time and traveling in Europe can be a magical thing. There’s such a long, rich and layered history of rising and falling empires, turning points in history, great minds, food, wine and cultural differences. It can overwhelm the best of us at times, so you end up seeing things, but not may not have the chance to absorb or reflect on what you see. Finding somewhere that can easily transport you to a different place or time, and the peace to consider what you find, can be a rare thing. Castelmoron d’Albret, the smallest commune (a commune is a territorial division for administrative purposes) in France, is one of these places.
Lessons from history
Few towns have had the precipitous rises and falls in fortunes as Castelmoron, located amidst the vineyards that surround the great city of Bordeaux. Its fortunes spring from its strategic position as a regional stronghold, perched up on a rocky outcrop, but with little else on which to build a community, it struggled for a raison d’etre when there was no need for defence.
The Moors swept up from North Africa to conquer Spain and southern France which gave birth to the town as a fortified base camp, its name Castelmoron means ‘the castle of the Moors’. They were turned back by Charles Martel in 732, and the town was pretty much abandoned.
Next was the Hundred Years War in the 14th century, when the French and English battled over this region and several others. Castelmoron once again became a valuable stronghold, changing hands several times. With the peace that followed, the town’s defensive qualities fell redundant, and the life of the town once more drained away.
The history of Castelmorom since has followed this pattern: relative obscurity except for a few moments in the limelight during the Wars of Religion during the late 16th century and the Revolution of 1789. A locally famous impromptu visit from a King and a Prince in 1828, where they both had to get down from their carriage and help push it up the hill that Castelmoron sits atop highlights the sheer steepness of the place.
Today the population numbers but 50, and with only one remaining small shop, open part time. Its beauty and charm remain for all to see, albeit a little faded in some quarters, but it is once again a forgotten town. What sets it apart from so many others though, what makes it worth a visit, and even a revisit, are the lessons it always seems to tell.
The Dark Corners
Walking through the very well preserved old gates, along the small, cobbled streets and thinking of the history of those that walked there before, one can’t help contemplate the story of this town. The fading glory of the slowly crumbling manor houses, the loss of jobs and businesses as towns like this whither, and beyond the physical, the risk to that community spirit of sharing life’s trials and tribulations together.
Throughout history Castelmoron d’Albret, with its supreme virtue being defence, is only ever valued in times of conflict, while the town remains otherwise anonymous in good times. Long after its walls have fallen, and even though parts of the town are showing signs of old age, Castelmoron remains a very special place.
By Justin Parr who runs chic and gorgeous hotel/B&B l’Autre Vie in Bordeaux