Perched high above the valley of the Vère, overlooking the vineyards of Gaillac, stands the village of Castenau de Montmirail, classed as one of the most beautiful villages of France.

The village was founded in 1241 under the name of “Castelnou” – new castle, “de Montmirail” – an admirable mountain of beauty, or a place where a watch can be kept over the surrounding countryside, although there is evidence of a much earlier Gallo-Roman settlement on the spot.

Raymond VII, count of Toulouse, ordered the building of the village in 1220, basically to keep a close eye on the people of the area in one place.

Attacks on the surrounding countryside, by the armies of The Black Prince, were rife during the 100 Years War – although they didn’t dare attack the stonghold at Castenou de Montmirail.

During the Wars of Religion, Castelnou de Montmirail welcomed Catholics who were chased from Gaillac by the majority Protestants, which led to attacks by the armies of Captain Bruniquel in 1587.

Legend states that a woman collecting water from the well, saw the armies approaching and raised the alarm in order that the villagers were able to prepare the defences, resisting the attack by Bruniquel.

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There was a château in the village, the crumbling remains were destroyed in 1819.

The church of Notre-Dame de L’Assomption, dating from 15th and 16th century, is not to be missed, especially for the beautifully painted frescoes on the ceiling depicting the life of The Virgin Mary and the cross of immense value dating from 1341, encrusted with precious stones, fragments of the Cross of Jesus Christ and other relics of the Apostles. The cross was made in Albi by a jeweller and finished by a master jeweller in Toulouse.

Jean Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir visited the village, there is a plaque that commemorates this with an inscription by Simone de Beauvoir: “Sartre preferred stones (or buildings) and trees, my plans took his tatstes into account. Sometimes walking, sometimes by bus, we visited the towns and villages, abbeys and castles. One evening we took a crowded little bus which took us to Castelnau de Montmirail. It was raining as we left the bus in the square, surrounded by arched, covered walkways. Sartre turned to me and said that he had now had enough of being mad.”

Of the six original gateways that lead from the village to the ramparts, three remain – the others having been destroyed during th French Revolution.

The architecture of the village varies between cut stone to half-timbered houses, overhanging the main square, mainly dating from the 15th and 16th century.

There is an imposing pillar in the main square called “Le Pillori”, where livestock were tied 24 hours being killed and butchered, but also where adulterous women and marauders were also put on show for all to see.

Further on, the “Fontaine des Canelles” which i originally a Gallo-Roman spring, but which has the date 1597 inscribed into the stone and two shells signifying St Jacques de Compostelle.

There is plenty of room for car-parking around the ramparts for visitors, where the views over the surrounding countryside are truly stunning.

If you are in the area, don’t forget to visit Cordes sur Ciel (see our post on this), Gaillac, Albi and the beautiful villages in the immediate vicinity.

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