Polignac Fortress

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Polignac is a marvellous defensive site just north west of Le Puy-en-Velay. There are superb views of the fortress built on top of a volcanic hill surrounded by 100m cliffs from the D102. Round the base of the cliffs nestles the small settlement of stone houses with red tile roofs surrounded by very fertile farmland with pasture for grazing, hay fields and some already ploughed fields. To the north are the tree covered slopes of the mountains. There is a large car park just below the church, by the school. The local tourist office has a leaflet (in French) with details of a 2km walk through the settlement round the base of the rock, with 16thC houses, dovecot and fountain.

There is a very steep climb up to the the fortress up narrow cobbled streets. The top of the rock has been settled since the 10thC and was home to the powerful Polignac family. As Vicomptes de Velay they were in a continuous power struggle with the bishop of Le Puy-en-Velay. Their fortress reflects this. It could accommodate 1000 people and the Vicomtes had permission to mint money.

The remains of the 11thC chapel are the oldest part of the site. It was protected by a defensive wall with six fortified gateways. The donjon dates from the 14thC and was built during the Hundred Years War. By the end of the 15thC more comfortable accommodation was needed and a new block was added for the vicomte and his family. By the 17thC the need for a defensive residence had passed and the family abandoned Polignac to live in the much more comfortable and luxurious Château de Lavoûte-Polignac.

Only two of the original six gateways survive, reached by a long climb up a path between tall banks. The fifth gate is an archway through the curtain wall. It would originally had a drawbridge over a dry pit and the slits in the wall for the drawbridge axles are still visible. Above is a murder hole.

It leads into what is described as the ‘Mousehole’ between the fifth and sixth gateways. Visitors to the castle could be held here and if decided they were a danger were subjected to fire from surrounding soldiers. They meant business as there are are two canon loopholes by the sixth gateway. The small ticket office is here which has a free guide in English.

The sixth gateway leads into the site. The level inside was raised artificially when soil was brought up in the 19thC when the site guardians had a small farm here. Ahead is the former guardhouse which has an exhibition about Polignac and an exhibition about food in the Middle Ages in the adjacent building. These buildings are in reasonable condition as they were used as a barn and stable in the 19thC. Beyond are the remains of workshops and the probably site of the mint as well as the kitchens with a bread oven.

From here, steps lead up to the rampart walk where there are excellent view. This goes past the round Géhenne Tower which had a prison in the basement to the donjon. This originally had five floors reached by spiral staircase. The ground floor was used for storage with living quarters above. On the first floor there is an exhibition about the Polignac Foundation. It is possible to climb the 141 stairs to the roof terrace, but it was a very hot day, so we didn’t bother.

On the ground floor is a display of carved stones collected from round the site. The most famous is the ‘Apollo Mask’. There is a legend that the site had been a place of worship dedicated to Apollo, the god of oracles, and members of the family were priests. The story is told that the priests would greet pilgrims at the base of the rock and ask some general questions. The pilgrims would make their way to the top of the rock while the priests entered underground passageways which brought them to the bottom of the well. Here they prepared answer to the questions and lit a fire to boil water in a cauldron. The smoke and steam floated up the well to fill the temple with a satisfying mist. When the the pilgrims arrived in the temple the ‘oracle’ mask would answer their questions with the well amplifying their voices.

This makes a good story but is a bit of a con, as the mask is actually of Neptune and was probably a fountain mask and water flowed out of a lead pipe from the mouth.

Beyond the donjon are the fenced off remains of the original 12thC residence and the later Vicomte building. The oracle well is between the two. Beyond these are the scant remains of the chapel with an early cemetery. Beyond, the curtain wall is now just a tall wall of a single layer of stone.

This is a beautiful site and well worth the climb up to it.

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