A Chateau with Many Secrets
This month the latest piece from Beth is about one of those very old and special places that defies time, like so many others in this amazing area in southwest France. It’s not until you are there in person, soaking in all the history and atmosphere that you realise the immensity of what was achieved all those 100’s of years ago…
“My tale begins on a rocky spur overlooking the pastoral landscape of what was once called Gascony. Here stands Chateau Gramont, a splendid home filled with surprises, many so extraordinary they are almost imaginable. And fuelling the fancy of others was precisely the intention.
Like many others in SW France, Chateau Gramont has links to the Cathars. As fans of the Middle Ages, my friend and I decided to go along for a look.
The first views of the chateau revealed a magnificent medieval tower with splendid gothic embellishments. We were the first visitors that day. It meant we could roam around undisturbed, guessing what it would be like to own a great place like this. A young man handed the tickets and some advice.
“Take a look at the front gardens first. Then you can return to the Renaissance wing.”
“Renaissance?” I thought I’d misheard.
“Yes. Chateau Gramont was primarily built in two halves. The first during the 13th century and the second wing was added later.”
Monsieur led us through the entrance and pointed to a steep slope.
“You can reach the front garden from here.”
Intrigued, we followed a stony trail to a high hedge with narrow arches just wide enough to pass through. Ahead was the garden terrace. There was a line of specimen shrubs with simple yet elegant topiary designs, the outlook was over a park and far-reaching views beyond. It was a gorgeous setting.
We returned to the chateau grand entrance in the ‘newer’ wing. And in true Renaissance style, the key architectural features were easy to see: the use of mathematical precision in height and width, pleasing symmetry and proportion. We gazed at the beautiful building, the mullioned windows and exquisite carvings. It seemed as though no detail had been overlooked.
The guard’s room with a glorious tapestry filling one wall was our first to view. To one side, there was a cabinet filled with strange objet d’art. Stranger still was the black veil draped over. The pieces were a collection of Renaissance mirabila, prized by European nobility at the time, shells and other rare finds from nature transformed by artists into ornaments.
Sounds of nature: running water and birdsong from the next room piqued our interest. Another exhibit, this time entitled Room of the Faraway. After discovering America, explorers returned from distant lands with extraordinary specimens. Many were assembled in presentation cases to create a story. These were called exotica and highly sought after. We examined the examples, fascinated by the figurines, Egyptian artefacts, even a miniature galleon.
The next salon was captivating for different reasons. The first feature to catch our eye was the substantial fireplace, deliberately constructed off-centre. Why? So a bed could be placed between the wall and fire during the cold weather. Cosy. The space was now filled with an outstanding ensemble of scientific instruments. These, along with clocks and mechanical constructions, were marvels of their age.
Strains of birdsong and music came from the next room. It was where private financial discussions and affaires de cœur took place. The music was produced by a delicate dresser called a Cabinet of Dreams. Its complex diorama, the motion, the rotating statuettes and clock were remarkable. It was hard to imagine that the piece had been built in the Renaissance period.
We followed a passage to the staterooms via a magnificent vaulted stairway. The first occupies almost the entire first floor of the Renaissance wing. It was used for entertaining, and we could understand why. A grand fireplace dominates one end, a vast tapestry on the opposite wall. Comfortingly hefty beams, warm tiles, and large windows gave occupants panoramic views over the Arras river valley and beyond; this baronial hall was impressive.
We continued to an area restored using a mix of river stones and tiles for the floor. There were more exhibits. This time they were medieval in origin, bizarre and unnatural. Haunting music came from somewhere. Owls hooting, and I’m convinced a wolf howled. As we read the blurb, I’ll admit we came out in a rash of unseemly goose bumps. This was the room of monsters and miracles, stuffed animals and skeletons. Cabinets of Curiosities.
Gripped and flustered in equal measure, we climbed another set of bevelled stone steps to the highest room in the tower. And it was magnificent. Its mezzanine floor created a sense of light, space and order, welcome after our eerie encounters with peculiar trophies.
“What a beautiful room,” I sighed. “I’m sure there can’t be any hidden secrets here.”
“That’s where you’re wrong. Have a look at this.”
A tiny room called a bretèche, a cabin, was situated above the gatehouse. It protrudes from the tower. It was built during the chateau’s early days as a fortification. There were three square spaces in the floor. These were murder holes, meurtrières, used by defenders to hurl or pour harmful unpleasantries such as rocks and boiling oil onto attackers.
Having seen so many mysterious exhibits, this last room seemed positively tame. We left via the gatehouse and walked to the church standing opposite. The interior was simple, the atmosphere calm, relaxing and somehow special. We looked back at the great house, split in two. It had been lovingly nurtured and restored over the centuries by nine different families.
It was very easy to understand why the chateau is now a listed Monument Historique de France. And as for the secrets it harbours? We decided our day of discovery had barely scratched the surface, we’ll need to return to learn more secrets about this special place.”
For more lovely France related stories, make sure you check Beths’ books, all about country living in her estate in southwest France, and a great idea for Christmas. And if you’re passionate of French Chateaux, we have more articles on this blog, enjoy.