The History of Château de Picomtal


A thousand years of history, from watchtower to guest house...

Chateau de Picomtal

In 1080, the Lords of Embrun were retainers to the local archbishops. Dispossessed of this duty and chased out of the town during a rebellion, they withdrew to their domains in the parish of St. Jean des Crottes, where they built a wooden keep at a place known as "Picomtal". The 1080 keep, a rustic structure made of larch beams, was only a look-out post surrounded by a stockade fence inside of which stood the scanty lodgings of the small garrison.

The building was part of a surveillance network over the main Durance road stretching from village to village all the way from Tallard to Briançon. By emitting signals from the upper levels of these watchtowers, the local population could relay information to one another in order to prepare for the arrival of any intruders, either by organizing a system of defense or by fleeing up into the high pastureland.

At the end of the 13th century, Hugues II and Boniface d'Embrun replaced the rickety, worm-eaten watchtower with the massive tower that stands at the southwest corner of the castle today. Like the previous building, it was a simple, uninhabited military structure where the lookouts stood guard after climbing to the top of a series of ladders.

In 1368, Louis, Duc D'Anjou and a Capetian prince, had a brush with Queen Jeanne of Naples, Countess of Provence. War raged in the Haute-Provence and Bas-Dauphiné for over a year. The Embrun region, which had been attached to the kingdom of France since 1349, was ruthlessly destroyed by the Provençal troops. It served as a lesson to them ...After this disaster, the region's villages and towns were seized by a frenzy of defensive construction to make up for their previous foolhardiness in totally neglecting to maintain their fortifications.

It was under such circumstances that Antoine d'Embrun transformed the solitary tower of Picomtal into a real military base of operations. Using the stone keep erected in 1270 as a starting point, between 1375 and 1380 he built a one-story rectangular castle delimited by four towers. The ground floor was composed of a kitchen and vaulted stable. On the first floor were two large-sized rooms which all the men of the garrison, as well as the farmers and their families, were packed into. The northwest tower was used as a staircase.

In 1417, Antoine de la Villette became the new lord of Picomtal. Like his predecessor, Martin de la Villette probably entrusted the expansion work to an Italian master builder between 1505 and 1510 for the sum of 5 000 livres. The two 125-year-old towers on the north side were razed, and what was left of the building was extended eleven meters to the north. The two 16th-century towers were rebuilt identically on either side of the new façade. Finally, the entire structure was raised one story higher and the service staircase was brought inside the building.

Thus the castle has one tower that dates back to 1270, another to 1380, and two towers built in 1510, all very similar in look and diameter.

In 1724 when Lazare de Ravel, a councilor in the Aix-en-Provence parliament, bought the Crottes land, he was charmed by the beauty of the site and was probably even more impressed by the prestigious past of a domain that could enhance his recently acquired status as a noble. He spared neither time nor money in transforming the former barracks into a residence worthy of his rank and fortune. First he divided up the vast medieval barrack-rooms with partitions in order to increase the number of rooms and make them more convivial. Concerned with making the place more comfortable and convenient, he built a terrace and a greenhouse onto the southern façade, as well as an independent kitchen, the beginnings of a bathroom, accessible running water, etc.

At his death, his youngest son René-Hyacinthe, a priest, inherited the lordship of Crottes along with its land and castle. His thoughtful father had built a chapel for him that is still standing against the northeast tower.

The next man to acquire the property, in 1831, was a "man of the arts", Barthelemy Ferrary. He was responsible for creating the pepper-box roofs on the four towers and for putting in large windows.

In 1846, a new owner, Louis Berthe, had the Louisiana-style veranda built on the southern façade. From America, where he had maintained business contacts, he imported two rare "Virginia junipers" that still provide shade on that side.

Louis Berthe was mayor of the Commune of Les Crottes for 23 years. He died in July 1870 and his funeral chapel still stands in the old section of the communal cemetery.

The castle was sold by public auction in 1876 to Joseph Roman, former lawyer and descendant of an old Provençal family. He tastefully redecorated the interior of the castle and much of what he added remains today. Joseph Roman was also mayor of Les Crottes and a member of the Institute of France.

After his death in 1924, the castle stayed in the Roman d'Amat family until 1998, at which time the edifice was bought by Jacques Peureux and Sharon Halperin. Entirely renovated from 1999-2003, the château is now open to the public for conferences, workshops, receptions and cultural events and as a Bed & Breakfast.

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