Collonges-la-Rouge, a village of 491 inhabitants in the Corrèze department, is impossible to disassociate from the reddish-purple-coloured hue of its buildings.
The village has grown its nationwide fame through its colourful name, labels, and nickname, all earned from the sandstone houses that line its quaint little streets.
The tiny village is a happy jumble of churches and small houses in narrow streets that take their intense red colour from sand grains of the nearby Massif Central – particularly those of Meyssac and Brive.
Former mayor put village on the map
But the mastermind behind the village’s national reputation is Charles Ceyrac, former mayor and a local figure whose buzzy ideas helped Collonges-la-Rouge attain higher recognition and conquer new markets.
He achieved this first by changing the village’s name from Collonges to Collonges-la-Rouge in 1969, to distance the village from six homonyms, the addition of the colour to its name clearly signposting this village’s unique character.
Second, by creating Plus Beaux Villages de France in 1982, after being inspired by an article published in Reader’s Digest.
First ever Plus Beaux Villages de France
Ceyrac ran Plus Beaux Villages de France, an independent association for the promotion of small rural villages, until his death in 1996.
Collonges-la-Rouge was the first village labelled by the association, and more than 170 villages have since gone on to earn the prestigious accolade.
“I think Collonges-la-Rouge got lucky by being situated away from busy roads and motorways.
“Its pristine atmosphere has been maintained by being preserved from modernity,” said Agnès Brahim-Giry, a historian who conducted a heritage inventory there from 2007 to 2009.
‘Village with the 25 towers’
Collonges was built in 782, around an 8th-century priory inhabited by monks who had conserved a fragment of the Holy Cross.
The village was included within the viscount of Turenne’s territory, attracting a population of agricultural farmers, craftsmen and shop owners.
The 16th century is considered to be “the great century of Collonges”, when the village was at the pinnacle of its influence with the powerful neighbouring Turenne (Corrèze).
It is nicknamed the “village with the 25 towers” from the time during which the Viscount of Turenne built most of what Collonges-la-Rouge is now known for.
Tourists come, for example, to see the Black Penitents’ chapel, Saint-Pierre’s church or Vassinhac castle.
The result is that Collonges-la-Rouge has no fewer than 26 buildings that are listed as Monument historique, a designation given to France’s national heritage sites.
Village suffered from crop failures and WWI battles
The village has been a stopover for pilgrims on the Saint-Jacques-de-Compostelle trail since the 9th century.
But when Charles Godefroy de la Tour ceded Collonges to France in 1738, which was then run under French jurisdiction, the village entered a downward spiral, with the population declining after the phylloxera plague that killed the crops, and following WWI battles.
After this slow and steady fall in population, which could have left the village’s pretty, historically significant buildings to deteriorate beyond repair, help came from a few important figures.
New danger from tourism
After more than two hundred years of inertia, the Amis de Collonges association and Charles Ceyrac collectively worked to stop the rot in the 20th century, and to bring the village back to its former glory.
But now Collonges-la-Rouge faces a new danger from tourism, in which the heart of the town centre is losing its residents as more and more houses are turned into shops.
“I wonder how M. Ceyrac would react, and what he would do against the phenomenon,” said Michel Charlot, the village’s new mayor, who agrees that he must support the heritage of Ceyrac.
He is looking to ban buyers from turning houses into shops by introducing a plan local d’urbanisme.