If it is abbeys, castles, fortresses, and chateaux you’re looking for in your desire to travel, Europe is the place to be. England is the place to be. France is the place to be. Any country is the place to be. Wouldn’t I love to aspire to visit them all! I confess, it’s one of my favorite things to do even if all that remains is a jagged wall. There’s always something new to discover with castles and the mystery surrounding their spot in history. I’ve only recently learned about star fortress villages and about ‘donjons’, which are really impressive, menacing keeps with few windows.
Normandy strings the architectural pearls of abbeys, chateaux, fortresses, and castles along 1400 years of history. Add to this the many manors, imposing fortified farms that began to sprout from the fertile land following the 100 Years War, and you know surprises lie around every curvy bend in the narrow roads, behind every hill on the horizon, and yes, even in the sea.
The oldest fortresses, dating back to the days of William the Conquerer, still live in the very heart of the bigger cities at defensive, strategically chosen positions. They tend to be away from the coast, though not too far. There are also a number of fortresses jutting from the sea. The coasts of Brittany and Normandy are dotted with them! From the beach near our house, you can see two of them at low tide, one of them Ile Tatihou, which is part garden, part fort, and part bird estuary. There are a few round fortresses forming pretty harbor entryways to Cherbourg, some commissioned by Louis XIV, the Sun King; others by Napoleon Bonaparte. Both were a bit war crazy then, but we can thank them now for having cool things to look at from a distance or to explore where they are open to visitors.
Later on in the ages, the aristocracy sought to escape the bustle of Paris by building small chateaux in the countryside. I’m grouping together here the few I’ve managed to visit in recent months. Two were impeccably restored and offered a few surprises you wouldn’t expect to find, and the third’s facade was in some state of disrepair while the inside was well maintained.
CHATEAU de FONTAINE-HENRY (16th Century)
A rare example of a chateau that has never left a family since being built in 1530 (a fortress stood there for centuries before that though), the grounds of Fontaine-Henry boasts a lovely 11th-century chapel and a slew of medieval games to try. The exterior of the chateau itself seems run-down and in a movie about its history, the current Marquis graciously asks for donations to repair it. As a means to an end, the family also became involved in horse breeding -and racing and remains important in the sport.
My favorite part about this chateau was the art. I love looking at Rubens paintings without having to stand in line for hours at the big museums around the world! The Marquis has obviously been successful in retaining the art and I really do hope this family continues to do so. It’s so cool to see art like that in a private home, and not because it was bought for a bazillion bucks, but because it was commissioned and therefore belongs with the house rather than with an individual.
The biggest surprise here was the memento of a queen. A piece of Marie-Antoinette’s cap—the one she wore while being imprisoned in the Bastille—and a delicate snip of her hair are among a small collection of sentimental memories. The guide spoke rapid-fire French so I’m not sure exactly who (associated with Fontaine-Henry) was a lady-in-waiting to the queen, but I thank her for harvesting these things for me to look at. It’s not often you find something so personal outside of Versailles and being somewhat Marie-Antoinette obsessed, I was quite moved by this very simple, but tender tribute!
CHATEAU de BALLEROY (17th Century)
Owned by the Forbes family since 1970, Balleroy is a little gem of architecture and engineering. Designed by Mansart (who also designed Versailles) and built in 1631, the chateau features the first ever suspended staircase. He designed the chateau to be centered on a spruce tree atop a hill some half kilometer away. While there is an impressive defensive mote around the fairly small chateau, it was never filled with water because that would have been regarded as an act of hostility.
Malcolm Forbes fell in love with the Normandy peninsula in the WWII invasion of the US and kept true on his vow to return. He had a fervent love for hot air balloons and like previous owners he put his fingerprint on the chateau: he had the dining room ceiling painted with balloon murals! I must admit, as chateau ceiling art goes, it’s just really not good, in fact, it’s really bad, so this is one mural that gets my thumbs up for being the colorful kick in the teeth that it is. There’s a balloon museum on the premises.
My favorite part was the absolutely huge pigeon cote with around 1600 individual compartments and a stunning beam structure. The pigeons were used for messaging, and for food, and their poop was used to fertilize the land. I cannot even begin to imagine having to clean this place of pigeon poo! Yuck in job security!
CHATEAU de VENDEUVRE (18TH Century)
Another family-owned chateau, located literally in the middle of nowhere Norman countryside, is Vendeuvre, built in 1741. The boss here is a count who makes his home on the second floor. We heard a baby crying through the open windows upstairs which immediately reminded me of the Gothic novels I used to read as a teen!
I enjoyed looking around the first floor collections of porcelain and art, but what I loved the most about this place was that you can see the kitchens (this is rare), and, obvious dog lovers throughout the family’s history, there is a huge collection of dog kennels and pet beds through the centuries. A stroll outdoors brings, tucked within the chateaux’ lovely gardens, a grotto made entirely of seashells, an amusing collection of Victorian era fountains, and exotic flora.
As an added bonus, there is a small museum of miniature furniture. When I read about it I thought a dollhouse-furniture museum didn’t seem interesting enough to lure me. Museums are not really my thing. But this wasn’t tiny furniture; they were furniture samples constructed by carpenters selling their products to the aristocracy—in other words, the real thing, only small scale. Everything we saw was very cool, but there were samples among them that were stunning pieces of craftsmanship.
There you are: three still-inhabited chateaux in Lower Normandy, one by a rich capitalist from the US, the other two through the threads of history belonging to their rightful heirs … a little tease behind a Normandy itinerary I’m working on!