A Tale of Two Châteaux

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France is a country full of surprises. It is a land of two characters, one a hi-tech modern nation capable of putting satellites into space, a nation that pushes the frontiers of modern medicine and makes the world’s largest passenger plane, and the other an ancient landscape of quiet villages in a countryside where chickens peck at passing car tyres and flowers flow over old crumbling walls, a checkwork pattern of wild and homogenised views, when old women still sell surplus pumpkins and the Sunday roast comes from the hen-house. Studded like fantastical chess-pieces across this glorious melange of a landscape are France’s châteaux, triumphant buildings that echo the fortunes of those who built them, and each has a tale to tell from a chequered past. Read more

RENOVATING A CHÂTEAU

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A couple of weeks ago I talked about future blogposts and how I wanted to feature people who had renovated old French houses. I thought we would kick off with a bang and cover the renovation of an ancient château as a little entrée. How ancient? Well, the earliest reference to this fortified building is some 300 years before Columbus set sail with his little fleet for the western Atlantic, and when the first stones were laid for the château’s walls, William the Conqueror (he who smote Harold with an arrow at the 1066 battle of Hastings) had only just died. It all began in that period of history when people still kept animals in the downstairs room of their houses, lived in fear of the devil at night, and all along the coastline of Europe, men stowed their swords and pikes ready to defy intrusions from the sea. It’s all a long, long time ago.

I have been fortunate enough to meet and spend some time with André Rousselot, who is the current owner of the Château Fort de St Jean d’Angle. The son of a businessman from La Rochelle, André exudes excitement, passion and confidence. A man as at home behind the boardroom table as he is at the helm of a cement-mixer, André typifies the endurance of the sort of person needed to see through and complete a project of some 22 years standing. Although still unfinished, the château is very much alive and well now; a far cry from when his father bought it in 1994. Then, it was a ruin; a mound with a clump of trees and stone walls, surrounded by a stagnant moat. Today it has been almost totally restored and transforms during summer into a magical re-enactment of medieval times, complete with sentries on its battlements, a moat which one crosses at your own peril, battles and jousts on summer days between sweating men in full armor on oxen-sized horses, and a swathe of authentic games and interests for people to enjoy. It is also true to its owners’ vision though, and gives short thrift to the glamour of any Disney makeover. Real artisans make pots, beat out sword blades on red hot forges and stitch saddles and boots as you watch; the only fast-food in sight is a suckling pig on a spit attended to by a pitchfork-bearing man in leather jerkin blackened by smoke.

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Last time Roddy and I visited André it was a cold and wet winter’s day, but there was a huge welcoming log-fire burning in the Great Room, and over a cup of tea he brought us up to date with his plans, and explained why the building was now such an important part of his family’s life.

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First, though, the boring bit – some history. This is important because we’re talking about a château fort as opposed to a château, and as a result I need to explain the difference between the two. A château, is a large country house, or a manor house, or sometimes even a castle – with or without fortifications. A château fort on the other hand, is always a castle with fortifications!

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It isn’t until you are actually in the château, looking out across the marais from its windows that one begins to truly understand the importance and significance of the building. Being so close to the original coastline, Rochefort and its islands and marshlands had their fair share of invaders from the ocean – whether they were Vikings, Berber pirates, Anglo-Saxons, Danes or even Celts; by the 12th century all three of the area’s great inland bays were being transformed into areas of marshland, where developing agriculture, aquaculture and the booming salt trade provided rich pickings during occasional incursions by thieves from the sea. As the bays changed from shallow coastal waters into the great marais which are still used today, the ridge-tops provided a sound defensive position for the developing marshes. Perfectly placed on the skyline just above the marais, a fortified castle could act as both a deterrent and as a refuge for those working on the water and in the fields about it. This is how and why the château fort was born – to defend some 6000 acres of considerably wealthy revenue. André took us up to the battlements to demonstrate the significance of the position. I mentioned to André that the English had probably paced the same ramparts. “Absolutely,” he replied laughing. “The same family may have owned the château all that time, but sometimes they were under French rule, and sometimes under English.”

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The château fort is believed to have been originally built around 1180 by Guillaume de Lusignan, who was from one of the most powerful families in the region. It remained in the possession of different parts of that family through most of the succeeding centuries. However, by the beginning of the 20th century, it was in ruins, and the land was used as common grazing ground by villagers. Two world wars later, we come to 1994 and André’s father, Alain; driving through the area regularly on business, he became enchanted with the ruins and the thought of restoring the battered old building, whose walls were literally held up by the vegetation that had grown up amongst them. In December of that year, he finally bought it.

But who would take on such a project and why? It had taken Alain, André and other members of the family some 22 years before they were able to officially open the château to visitors. It all began with six initial years of work in January 1995, in collaboration with the Monuments of France. Helped in small part by some grants, most of the restoration has been funded by Alain’s own money and as a result there were periods when little got done, when cash was tight. The château lived for many years enveloped in a nest of scaffolding as the walls were almost totally rebuilt, to rectify massive settlement fissures that had developed over the centuries. Much of this work was done by the highly skilled artisans from the Monuments’ own taskforce, and such was the quality of the work that in 2003, the chateau received two prestigious awards; the Grand Prix of the French houses and the Prix Europa Rostra. Looking around the great room, I could see the new huge beams above my head, and the fresh sandstone pieces in the fireplace and walls. Succeeding bouts of restoration have included new roofs on the Great Hall and its adjacent buildings, excavations of the cellars and dungeons, new floors throughout all the buildings, and a crash course for many in the art of cutting stone; shaping some of it into intricate pieces and shapes, and using traditional and tested techniques for specific architectural contexts, such as mullions for windows, interior archways and exterior staircases.

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André was keen to show us the progress they had made in the upstairs rooms and we followed him through an interior doorway to a screened staircase. Along the way we passed a tableau of mannikins in full costume enacting a typical kitchen scene, and gingerly stepped over a recumbent soldier asleep on some hay in a guardhouse. As we went up the curved spiral stone stairs, he kept pointing out the features that were original and those that has been restored. Up on the second floor above the Great Hall, newly restored floorboards have replaced the hundreds of wood-worm riddled planks. Old windows have been unblocked, and all of the château’s fenestration has received new mullions and new glass, a project all to itself.

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Ancient fireplaces have been carefully restored, half-finished electrical wiring and copper plumbing artifacts weaved here and there, testament to the ongoing work and hinting at the plans afoot for the future. André paced from wall to wall, telling us about imaginary bathrooms and spaces for beds, as he outlined his plans for six en-suite bedrooms and weekends for enterprising visitors. He had visions of grand banquets and ideas came pouring forth in conversation; I was amazed at the energy of someone who had spent 20 years looking at what must have appeared at some stages to be a complete mad loss.

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It was this final understanding of André and his family’s commitment that finally got to me. It is one thing to pass by the colourful medieval pageant that the château embodies on a summer’s day, but it is quite different to the reality of listening to someone who explains that all of the previous work is but a foreword to a much greater plan, and that the plans also include building a second fort on the site where an 8th century wooden structure once stood, transforming 20 acres of surrounding land into the original ordered and regimented potagers, orchards, stables, outhouses and other buildings.

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However, as with any renovation, budget is always a concern and given the sheer size of this project I imagined it must be a constant companion to André, and so I asked the inevitable question.

“How much has it all cost over the years?”

“Who knows, who is counting? We do not. If we did we would never finish; but it must eventually pay for itself,” explained André with that typical French shrug; but I definitely got the feeling that behind the casual reply he does indeed know exactly how much has been spent and how much more is needed.

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One story more than most embodies the struggle André’s family has had to endure during this amazing restoration is the tale of the Tour de Clio. One summer’s day, a decade in the past, he and his father received a phone call from the foreman of the workforce.

“Come quickly,” the terrified man said, “the tower is going to fall down, it is swaying”

In a state of panic they asked what needed to be done.

“We need money, I can save the tower with money,” said the foreman. It needed some urgency, since no one could stay on the scaffolding, but a huge 20 metre baulk of timber was needed to shore up the cracked castle wall while they repaired it. A beam this large would cost a fortune, but there was no spare cash available for it. André and his father desperately searched for a solution all morning and then Alain rang his wife, and informed her that the money they had put aside for a new Clio (at the time the newest and most sort after small car built by Renault) was going to have to be used instead for a giant wooden prop.

“You mean I cannot have the car?” asked his wife incredulously.

“No, I am sorry,” said Alain, sadly, “the château is more important.”

And so the Tour de Clio, the tower at the back of the château, was born and it has been called that to this day.

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You can find out more about the Château from their website here, http://chateau-stjeandangle.fr and if you are in the Charente Maritime do take the time for a visit. It is open spring, summer and autumn and you will not be disappointed.

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AMERICANS IN FRANCE

 

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Some very good friends came to visit us recently from Florida with their ten year-old son, and as for two of them it was a first time visit to Europe, I wanted the trip to be perfect. Excitement built on both sides of the pond and I planned all the things we should do and all the places we should take them. I checked the long-range forecast on Meteo France more often than I checked Facebook the preceding weeks and everything looked perfect, even the weather. We met them in some brilliant early evening sunshine at the architecturally stunning train station in La Rochelle, almost 24 hours after they’d started traveling, but the next morning it all changed. The perfect round sun over the Charente Maritime slowly turned to grey and a slight sprinkling of rain began to fall – and then, horror of horrors, it started to pour, with some thunder and a few bolts of lightning thrown in for good measure. So what did we do? Well, with true British stiff upper lip, or in this case American and British stiff upper lips, we donned raincoats, grabbed umbrellas and did pretty much everything just as we had planned, and it didn’t deter our spirits one little bit!

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One small hitch arose on day one when we decided kayaking in the rain was a little too much to bear, even for our cavalier spirits. Instead we all bundled into a fabulous small crêperie, typically French (perfect for their first day) and ate far too much! We returned home, lit the fire for the first time since last winter, made a big chocolate cake and ate some more! it was a good excuse to hunker down and catch up on a year’s news.

Day Two was a Monday, and it dawned with leaden grey skies and steady rain, again. We headed out to the Château de la Roche Courbon and unsurprisingly we were the only people there; thus proving that rain does have some plus points because it felt as if we really were the owners of this magnificent property and we had the place to ourselves. We explored the acres of grounds which included rivers and waterfalls, an apple and pear orchard and gardens that were utter perfection, even in the drizzle. I am surprised I didn’t suffer from neck-ache after the number of times I looked to the sky to watch the clouds as they scurried past. Then, just before lunch I spied the first break in the weather, a glimpse of blue which grew and grew into a beautiful autumn sky, and as we left the Château and drove into Rochefort for lunch, it developed into a miraculously warmer day and we were able to eat outside at our favourite restaurant in the Place Colbert.

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A visit to the stone sculptures just outside Crazannes (which I wrote about recently) then followed before we hurried home to put a blanket on the bed in the downstairs guest room as another friend was spending the night with us on her way south – we really were a full house that night!

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We woke on Tuesday to more autumnal skies and a steady downpour as we made breakfast. We sat around the kitchen-table, our American friends loving the choice of croissants and pain au chocolat from our bakery in the village. They had bravely confronted the rain to pick up our fresh supplies for breakfast, and our friend heading south was in no hurry to leave in such weather. Huddled under umbrellas we picked some of our last figs to enjoy with the patisserie; hardly sun-warmed but fresh and sweet none the less, and we drank coffee, told tall tales, laughed a lot and put the world to rights from all three of our perspectives. However, our happy mind-fest was rudely interrupted mid-morning by a text from Millie which pinged onto my phone during her break at school; “Is it true WW3 has been declared ?”. I unintentionally read it out loud and within a nanosecond a small army of iPads and iphones feverishly sprang to life as five adults checked their various favourite news sources; BBC for the British and CNN for the American contingent. Two minutes later our international collective drew a sigh of relief and I am very happy to report that it seemed there was something of a misunderstanding at school.

The rain let up temporarily just before lunch and we were able to take the dogs out for a walk and blow away the cobwebs for an hour before we sat down to another meal that Roddy conjured up out of a fridge full of leftovers, he is an absolute master at this and as normal we ate, if not likes kings, then certainly like princes. A huge frittata seemed to fit the bill for most. In the afternoon we visited the Hermione on her dock in Rochfort, and then the fascinating citadelle de Brouage, a Catholic town that was fortified between 1630 and 1640 to counter the protestant stronghold of La Rochelle.  A break in the ominous big black clouds gave the light a surreal dramatism at one stage, and as flights of dark crows circled the battlements, they contrasted vividly with the flecks of white that the egrets showed off as they settled down into the reeds for the night.

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Wednesday morning and it was still raining. Somewhat downhearted I resumed my staring at the sky in despair or clicking onto Meteofrance, just in case something had changed in the last ten minutes, or that someone had made a mistake and everything would be suddenly sunny. We really wanted to head to the Île de Ré and spend the afternoon cycling around the Island. Much muttering ensued and a decision was made – an Anglo-Amercian collective decision, I hasten to add. As I collected the children from school (half-day school on Wednesdays) the wipers were still going firmly back and forth and so they all looked somewhat surprised when I told them we were still going to the Island. “The meteo says it is going to be a lovely afternoon.” I told them, “and we simply have to believe them.”.

Rather dubiously we bundled up the two families into two cars, complete with Roddy’s beloved Brompton, and we firmly headed north. As we crossed the bridge from La Rochelle, the first hint of blue appeared, and by the time we had driven further onto the Island, parked and then rented bikes, the sun was actually shining. Of course now I am totally beholden to MeteoFrance; they have become my new weather gods – they were 100% accurate, how could we ever have had any doubt!!!

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We cycled for four hours, travelling about 20kms, and our friends fell totally in love with the beautiful Île de Ré. Almost all the summer visitors had long since gone home and the pace of life had returned to that slower, more gentle speed that island-life is so well known for. Of course we got lost a few times; we always get lost cycling on the Island, but in turn it meant we found some new tiny narrow cobbled streets winding their way in between white-washed houses, all with the obligatory green shutters. As always, I fell into my favourite daydream of owning the cutest of them, living island life with ease, surrounded by sunshine and tables of freshly grilled fish and platters of ripe melons. In the Island capital of St Martin en Ré we stopped for a break, and leaving our bikes by the quay, headed to my favourite bakery where we bought gôuter; we ate our goodies sitting outside on benches overlooking the boats, the warmth of the sun reminiscent of summer. Rows of boats still lined the pontoons and there was just enough traffic and people to keep us amused. It’s one of my favourite places in the region.

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Time slipped by and we lingered a little too long enjoying the views which meant we faced a furious 40 minute mad cycle back to the bike-shop to return the bikes before we incurred wrath and financial retribution. Legs burnt as the tiny road signs told us we still had another four kilometers to go, and we pedalled on, harder and faster. We arrived breathless and redfaced 15 minutes late, but as is the way with so many people in this area the owner of the shop was not at all perturbed, and waved off our gushing apologies. He told us he had visited Florida before and had many English clients in the summer months; he wanted to talk for hours and couldn’t have been friendlier.

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Once we had de-biked and got back in the cars, we headed back into St Martin en Ré for some much needed supper and as darkness drew a veil over the westerly sunset we stumbled surreptitiously over the harbour’s cobbled quayside onto some of the best pizzas we have ever eaten. By the time we had finished and left, night had turned stoney black and the harbour no longer bustled with activity; instead it lay gently dozing in a subtle seascape of soft lights and salty shadows where crabs scurried and scraped. We headed home across the bridge in our respective mechanised chariots, small people’s small-talk slowly slipping away into silence as our headlights burnt a route home.

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As is always the way the weather finally turned the morning our friends left for a few days in Paris before they headed back over the Pond. The beautiful train-station at La Rochelle was once again bathed in sunshine as we said our very sad goodbyes, but no one can say we had not made the most of everything despite the rain. We are already planning all the things to do on their return visit next summer!

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ESCAPE THE CROWDS – HEAD INLAND

This week our lives turned upside down –  we have a new puppy!  We drove inland and chose her from a litter of six in the neighboring department of the Deux Sevres at the weekend and she was delivered to us on Tuesday afternoon amidst much excitement.  A gorgeous little short legged, broken-coated Jack Russell whom we have named Evie. She is 9 weeks old and a playmate for Bentley; or at least, that is the plan.  So far he has tolerated her!  As have the chickens, the ducks and the cats, up to a point.  Evie thinks everyone and everything is a playmate and is rather surprised when she is given short change by most of the other residents of the property, with the exception of the humans, who she has quickly come to realize dote on her hand and foot!  I am sure you will get pretty bored with photos of her over the coming weeks and months, but at the moment Evie is incredibly difficult to photograph.  She doesn’t understand the command ‘sit’, and she doesn’t stay still long enough for me to take a decent photo.  One minute she is playing and the next she has collapsed in an exhausted heap, instantly sound asleep, as puppies are prone to do. As you may be able to tell I am quite smitten with our latest addition, and I just adore the fact she has black eyelashes on her left eye and white eyelashes on the right one!

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Evie has arrived in August, of course; the busiest holiday month of the year. As a result, the roads are crowded and the resorts are bursting with people.  Where we live, a mere fifteen minutes from the sea, is very different to the coastline where everyone is drawn to the vast flat Charente Maritime beaches like bees to a honeypot; the long glittering washes of sand are magnetic strips for jaded Parisians and others.  There is much action on the water; be it surfing, or bodyboarding, or boating, or fishing, or swimming, and then one can also hire jet-skis, boats and windsurfers; the action is there for all to see and do. However the beaches are packed and as our son pointed out, they are just a sea of colour at this time of year, pimpled with colourful umbrellas and spots of extravagant bikinis; this is after all a major holiday destination which boasts the second highest levels of sunshine in France after the Mediterranean and it appears that this summer it is certainly living up to its reputation.

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There are still beaches and tiny secret coves to be found where the crowds don’t go and the locals keep a closely guarded secret, even if some of them do involve a slight trek through vast sandunes and past ruined WWII bunkers subsiding softly into the coastline they were once built to protect.

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But if you really don’t feel up to battling the traffic and the masses, it’s a great time to turn the other way and head inland! France is quite a big country and parts of it are very sparsely populated; something that is a part of it’s immense charm and a feature we simply adore. Turning away from the coast and driving in the opposite direction along a good selection of different routes soon brings you to beautiful countryside, where fields of maize ripen under the same sultry sun that wilts sunflowers in the heat.  It’s amazing, even during France’s busiest holiday month there are really very few cars on the inland narrow country roads; one sees the odd local, the occasional tourist and some foreign cars, usually with either Dutch or British license plates. We pass houses that look neglected with their shutters firmly closed but they’re just going about that age old tradition, shutting out the sun and keeping the interior cool.

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Locals sit in the shade, nothing is hurried, in such heat it cannot be; a game of boules under the coolness of trees, a quiet afternoon fishing by the river. In the country time passes slowly for locals who know how precious their summer is.  Far from the maddening crowds the water flows slowly….

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There are still plenty of watersports available on the River Charente, albeit with a slightly more relaxed atmosphere. Kayaking is very popular in France and it’s easy to find a spot to hire some for the day.

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Without so many people it is possible to really enjoy the beauty of France.  This is inland Charente Maritime, still only 30 to 40 minutes from the coast, but a world apart.  Here restaurants still enjoy their summer visitors, but they’re not groaning with hordes of tourists; as a result,  everyone is charming and everywhere looks so perfect – so perfectly French!

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While enjoying a little bit of casual culture it’s also a good time to visit one of the many châteaux of the region.  Château de Crazannes is well worth a visit, nestled amongst the trees just outside the village of the same name. Built in the XIVth and XVth centuries and classified as a listed historic monument in 1913, it was one of the first private castles to receive this classification in France. Both Edward lll’s son, the “Black Prince” and the King of France, Francois 1st,  stayed here. It is here that the tale Puss in Boots is also based – this goes back to the XVIIth century when the Marquis of Carabas owned the Château and he is indeed the master in Charles Perrault’s tale.

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In the grounds, the Roman chapel, the keep, the moat and the dovecote are the remains of an ancient medieval fortress, which used to be a place for the pilgrims to stay for the night on their way to St Jaques de Compostelle in Spain.

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The best bit of all for us, of course,  is that wonderful stretch of countryside between land and sea right on our doorstep –  the Marais de Brouage; where cattle and horses roam and where there is wildlife in abundance.  For us it seems untouched by tourism and ignored by most people as they speed past it on the way to their coastal resort.

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On the one hand I am glad it is largely ignored, but on the other I am sad that so few people take the time to appreciate it; it’s somewhere where one can walk and cycle for hours on end and not see a soul. It’s a land where one can reflect, a place so near to everything and yet so far from it all; a place full of discovery and a place I will never forget. It’s a good place to call home.

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