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‘Bâtir des châteaux en Espagne’: Our French expression of the week

We look at a dreamy building-related expression to tie in with this weekend’s Journées nationales de l’architecture

We look at a building-related expression in this week of the Journées nationales de l’architecture Pic: Susanitah / Shutterstock

Between October 14 and October 16, France will celebrate the Journées nationales de l’architecture, a weekend dedicated to highlighting the cultural, social, scientific and technical value of this practical artform. 

Read more: What’s coming up? The week ahead in France

This made us think of a French building-related expression we particularly like.

Bâtir des châteaux en Espagne’ (literally: building castles in Spain) is a phrase often used to describe someone who creates unrealistic plans or chases distant, unachievable dreams. 

In English, it may translate to ‘building castles in the air’ or ‘building castles in the sky’. 

The expression was already being used in the thirteenth century, and appears in the Roman de la rose Old French poem, which is written in the form of a dream vision. 

In the poem, which was written around 1230, the poet Guillaume de Lorris writes: ‘Lors fera chastiaus en Espaigne’. 

Lawyer and poet Étienne Pasquier later explained in the sixteenth century that there were then no French-style châteaux found in Spain because of the Moorish conquest of the Iberian peninsula, which began in 711 and lasted until 1492.

Language website Expressio also states that there once existed different variations of the phrase, including ‘bâtir des châteaux en Brie’ and ‘bâtir des châteaux en Asie’. This suggests that the expression could be adapted to refer to any place which was inaccessible, either by dint of its location or its defences. 

However, only the Spain variation endured, and has been used by such famous writers as Montaigne Stendhal, Jean de la Fontaine, Charles Baudelaire and Émile Zola. 

In the popular 2004 film Les Choristes (The Chorus), the song ‘Caresse sur l’océan’ also contains a reference to ‘châteaux en Espagne’ as it encourages its listener to aspire towards a brighter future. 

Other French phrases which capture a similar meaning include: ‘faire des projets irréalisables’ (create unrealistic projects) and ‘se repaître de chimères’ (feed off pipe dreams).

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