Semur-en-Brionnais, classed as one of the prettiest villages in France, sits on top of a ridge with its 10th century chateau St Hughes, the oldest one in Burgundy, overlooking the Burgundy hills.
Situated in southern Burgundy and the former stronghold of St Hugues, founder of Cluny Abbey, is the historic capital of the Brionnais region. There is plenty to see if you visit this pretty village as part of the self guided walking holiday Beautiful Brionnais: Secret Hills of Burgundy. There is a fortified castle with a square keep dating from the 9th Century, the superb Romanesque Church of Saint Hilaire with its tower displaying eight arches and columns and its carved gate and the old houses with their almost pinkish hue.
Semur’s position between Burgundy, Maconnais, Mont du Forez and Auvergne, made it strategically important from its earliest days. It is probable that a Galois settlement originally occupied the site and then the Romans before it was reclaimed in the 10th century. The name Semur comes from Senemurum, meaning 'old walls.' Semur is built at the end of a ridge at 400m in altitude and the chateau was the catalyst for the construction of the town's fortress and the rest of the buildings within it. In the 13th century Semur became the seat of power in the Brionnais, before it became attached to the Duchy of Burgundy in 1379 and the Kingdom of France around 1475. Today the village has been awarded the label of one of the prettiest villages in France.
Built during the 10th century along the southern edge of the ridge, the Château Saint Hughes, dominates the Loire Valley and the Mont de la Madelaine. The chateau was home to the Lords of Semur, including Hughes of Semur, who founded the 3rd abbey in Cluny and was one of the most important figures in the history of its development. The Lords of Semur were among the most influential families in Burgundy.
The château is composed of a square dungeon, a Romanesque dungeon and two circular towers built in the 12th century between which is situated the draw-bridge. A building was constructed in front of the château in the 18th century to house the Prison guard, as the round towers had been used as jails since the 16th century following the religious wars. Restoration of the château took place from 1968.
The round towers which were used as prisons, contain an oubliette or dungeon to house prisoners, a silo and a stairway created in the walls. The walls of the cells still contain paintings and engravings left by the prisoners. The square tower was built in 2 phases, the first from the first half of the 10th century and the upper level from the 11th century. This tower, which is 22m tall is the oldest château remains in Burgundy and is the only fortified château in the Brionnais.
Open from 1 March to 15 November, Monday to Sunday: 10-12hr and 14-18hr. Sunday only open in afternoon. In summer months open until 19hr. Entry cost: 3 euros.
The Salt Cellar
This building lies between the castle and the church. Up until the French Revolution, the inhabitants of France had to pay a salt tax, called the Gabelle. At Semur, the tax was called the Haute Gabelle, whilst in Charlieu it was known as the Basse Gabelle. Each summer, the rooms are used as art galleries.
The church of Saint Hilaire sits on the ridge-top close to the chateau and was built in the 12th century. It was one of the last Romanesque churches built in the area and its style is a mixture of Romanesque architecture and similar forms to those found in the 3rd abbey in Cluny founded by Saint Hughes, who was born in Semur Chateau. It also shows the first traces of gothic styling. It is one of the most impressive churches in the Brionnais. It became the parish church in the 13th century.
The hamlet of St Martin was the site of a settlement before the construction of a chateau on the ridge. The church in St Martin was built in the 11th century and remained the Parish church until the 13th century. It contains some rare murals dating from the 12th to the 16th century. The church is only open during the summer season.
Les Demeures de notables
When Semur passed under the control of the kingdom of France, officials were sent to administrate. The beautiful facades to these 16th century buildings show how important these people were. The houses are located behind the church in the village and were built against the town walls.
Priory of Saint Hughes
Built from 1830 to house a small religious seminary, the building became an annexe to the local asylum in 1905, before again becoming a seminary from 1944 to 1968, and finally in 1992 it was home for apprentice nuns from the Congregation apostle of St Jean.
Semur is just one of the many interesting historical sites that are visited on the self-guided walking holiday in Burgundy, France - Beautiful Brionnais: Secret Hills of Burgundy
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