As well as all the magnificent abbeys, churches, Cathar castles and Vauban forts, Occitanie is home to another outstanding category of architectural heritage: it is the region with the greatest number of pigeonniers, or pigeon towers. Arguably, no creature has had more beautiful homes built for it than the pigeon, and the 6,000 that remain in our region display an astonishing variety of shapes, sizes and styles. This raises an obvious question: why did so many people go to so much trouble to house a bird?
The pigeon’s secret is that it knew more than one way of earning its keep, and its home had two main roles: the pigeonnier was a living larder providing fresh meat on demand, and a fertiliser factory whose output was often reserved for vineyards and fields of hemp. Their popularity had unforeseen consequences too. The pigeonnier and its pigeons fuelled the discontent that led to social unrest and the Revolution of 1789.
The first pigeonniers in France
It was almost certainly the Romans who introduced the concept of the pigeonnier to France, but traces of this activity are rare until we reach the 16th century. There are, however, a few exceptions in the form of magnificent pigeonniers which were created by chiselling niches into rocky cliffs. This was an age-old practice, and the best example in southern France is at Les Baux-en-Provence where pigeonholes were carved into the rock at the foot of the castle keep in the 11th century.
When it comes to the grand, free-standing pigeonniers that grace the French landscape, particularly in grain-growing areas, even the experts find it difficult to determine their age. One of the oldest was built at the Château d’Assier near Figeac in 1537. It was a cylindrical brick tower eleven metres high containing 2,300 nesting niches.