Castelnou: Timeless Beauty
The medieval village of Castelnou has altered little in centuries. Sylvie Wheatley asks artist Val�ry Quitard why this tiny corner of France is so special
Nestled at the base of Les Aspres foothills, close to the Spanish border, the village of Castelnou is a magical place where time truly does appear to stand still. Little has changed since the 14th century, the cobbled streets, fortified ramparts and modest houses of this tiny place have earned it a ranking as one of the four most beautiful villages in France. Located around 20 kilometres southwest of Perpignan, the village is set against the stunning backdrop of the Canigou, the Catalans’ mythical mountain. It is guarded by Ch�teau du Vicomtal, which originated in the 10th century. Its roughly pentagonal shape was dictated by the sheer, jagged ridges of the rock on which it was built and over the centuries the castle has been destroyed and restored twice. Ramparts were built in the middle of the 14th century to protect the village. They feature eight towers and you access the village between two of them, known as le portail nord or le portail de Millars.
Sitting outside the village walls, l’�glise Sainte Marie del Mercadal is a beautifully modest, Romanesque church. It is dedicated to Saint Mary of the Market, as in the 13th century, Castelnou held a busy sheep’s wool market in front of the church. Today, to keep the tradition alive, a picturesque market is held every Tuesday from June to September, and many local artists and artisans sell their wares.
Val�ry Quitard, a local artist, moved to the village seven years ago from nearby Perpignan. “When I was a child I used to watch American cartoons on French television with my father. I think it was the drawings he was mostly interested in. Generations before him included painters and here I am today, well and truly in love with pictorial art too, lucky to be able to live off my painting, in the most beautiful village in the south of France!”
Living the dream“I was born in Perpignan and, as an adult, eventually settled in its suburbs. I had space, a garden, a garage – everything most people would call ideal – but I wanted a different kind of home. I had admired Castelnou for many years and dreamed of living there but first I wanted to tour the south of France to view other plus beaux villages, just in case there existed an even better one. I looked everywhere. Believe me, Castelnou is the most beautiful village there is! Il fallait que j’habite ici. I sold my big house in 2002 and for the same money bought a much smaller one on the very ramparts that surround Castelnou, and I have never regretted the swap.”
M. Quitard says it is the authentic nature of the village that makes it so special.“This place is truly unique. What it offers is uniformity of beauty. It is quite rare to find such unbroken harmony. Even nearby Collioure, which I love, has been compromised by modern input. Here, everywhere you look is beautiful and belongs with the rest, in terms of style and period. Nothing jars and all is consistent with a bygone era. Cars are not allowed inside the village at all (there is a car park outside the walls), you can’t see a single electrical cable, all the streets are still cobbled, all the houses are authentic and the fa�ades are en pierres apparentes.
“Building is prohibited and renovation work is strictly regulated to stay faithful to the original materials and techniques, and there are no modern constructions anywhere. In this village you can pretend you live in the Middle Ages. Early in the morning a mist settles on the valley and I watch wild boars come and dig the ground just outside my back door while owls hoot in my loft.”
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Creative centre M. Quitard says his house would have belonged to a shepherd originally, but now the proximity of Perpignan and the sea, together with the preserved architecture, means that the houses in the village are sought after and about half are second homes, mostly belonging to wealthy Parisians. The village attracts artists and artisans too, including jewellery-makers and potters.
“We are all welcome and integrated. The local community is so small (only 70 regular inhabitants) that the ambiance is neighbourly and trusting. Apparently in the 1960s and ’70s a crowd of musicians and entertainers swamped the village and their lifestyle was so wild that they are still referred to as the faune exotique d’une �poque folle.
“Personally I am not here to push cultural boundaries. I am here to share with them this exceptional living environment. My art in some ways has nothing to do with the village, and the locals don’t tend to like my pictures (my clients are city-dwellers and foreigners mainly), but it is definitely the nature and beauty of the village that inspire me. I experience plenitude here and this reassures me. Also the heritage of this place reflects what I am passionate about such as 17th century arts.”
He says his wife has just bought a little house in the village and will turn it into a gallery. “So you see we belong here. If I had to leave I would have to find another beautiful tiny village just like this one. Nothing else would do.”