On her first visit here a cousin described our home as having chateaux every direction…which is true and she didn’t even know about the one in the Correze at around eleven kilometres to the north of us. That one I visited many years ago with our local history group. I had no idea why at the time as it seemed a gloomy edifice and we couldn’t even visit the interior. Built at the turn of the 20th century as a hotel with great views it is now one of the ubiquitous chateaux featured in Escape to the Chateau DIY, just in case anyone is looking for a wedding venue!
But to ‘return to the sheep’, as the French say, my favourite chateau, Montal, of the three in easy reach of home, had advertised it was holding an exhibition of Renaissance costumes, not originals but those created for films and theatre. This sounded very interesting and by the time we get to February I am always desperate to get out after days spent inside, especially since doom virus stopped a lot of activities and the bitter January weather meant I was disinclined to walk, preferring to ride my exercise bike in the warm.
It was a gloriously sunny morning when I parked up in a deserted car park below the chateau. Lots of scaffolding suggested the roof was receiving attention. The chateau used to be in private hands, the last owner’s descendants benefitting from usufruit until fairly recently. When I first visited in the 90s there were private apartments closed to visitors. Since the Historic Monuments department took over they have steadily restored various parts. When it closed in 2015 for a big refurbishment I was very anxious that the intimate quality that I had loved so much would be lost. Happily, when I was finally able to visit again I discovered it was still ‘my’ chateau, just a better entrance and tiny shop having been created and the garden opened up for visitors.
Maybe it is its size or the fact it was designed by a woman that appeals to me but I love it. Not much is known about the original chateau, simply a mention of a repaire Saint Pierre in 1474. The northern and western facades have retained their typical medievil defensive architecture, pepper pot towers with cannon slots.
But it is the southern two sided courtyard that is the main attraction. refurbished by Jeanne de Balsac, daughter of Robert de Balsac, seigneur d’Entraygues, widow of d’Amaury of Montal, seigneur de Laroquebrue. She had two sons and a daughter and it was for her eldest son, Robert, away fighting with the French army in Milan that she dedicated the work, starting around 1519. Sadly he was lost in battle in 1523 and the work was finally suspended at her death in 1534, meaning the completion of at least one more wing around the courtyard never took place. The medallions set into the walls facing the courtyard are of herself, her husband, their sons, Robert and Dordet and daughter Nine and Nine’s husband, Francois de Scorailles.
Much later, after several disinterested owners, in 1888 parts of the chateau were dismantled and sold off. Just before the scheduled dismantling of the central staircase which apparently would have meant the building collapsing, a saviour, in the form of an industrialist and well connected art collector, Maurice Fenaille, bought the chateau in 1908 and set about reuniting all its treasures, in some cases commissioning artists such as Rodin to recreate certain items.
This is a potted version of its history, gleaned from various sources, but such a romantic one. Saving these old buildings for posterity isn’t just a modern phenomenon despite what the tv shows would have us believe. The nearby Castelnau Bretenoux (joint ticket of 12 euros gets you into both) was also saved about the same time by a tenor of l’Opera Comique, Jean Moulierat.
The girl at the box office was probably glad of my arrival. The chateau was deserted apart from the sound of a unseen guide delivering his version of its history in the courtyard. Armed with the printed guide to the costumes I set off, pausing to feel a piece of ‘brocatelle’ as instructed by a small tablet beside it. This was a chance to appreciate the ongoing conservation work of the fabric covering several of the walls in certain rooms. It is a fabric woven from a mix of mostly silk and cotton.
I went into the large hall that runs at right angles to the corridor from the entrance. It is beautiful with a ceiling of low ribbed vaulting, a huge dining table, a flagged floor and splendid fireplace with the blazons of various Balzac family members . The costumes were placed sympathetically around the space with small explanatory panels.
Moving through to the ground floor bedroom, my eye was taken by a beautiful yellow dress. During the renaissance this colour was obtained by using saffron imported from the Levant or so my brochure told me. The turret room in the corner of this bedroom has two gunports, used for cannon and firearms, so although elegant this chateau clearly wasn’t taking any chances!
I peeked into the kitchen built in the 17th century and saw it has a souillard as indeed does our house. This was the food preparation area, big stone shelves on each side and a sink with a drain out to the exterior on the rear wall. If you ever see a small hole in the wall of a house in our area with a stone beneath with a small channel cut into it, chances are there are the remains of a souillard on the other side.
Now it was time for the upstairs rooms but first I had to stop and admire the staircase, the removal of which might have caused the chateau to disappear forever. It is truly beautiful and I am so glad it survived. I always have to pause to stroke the marble and try to make out the symbols, ‘putti’, carved on the panels, amongst them candelabra, birds and dolphins.
The stairs look slippery so, for me, progress is slow but it gives you time to look at the carving underneath the upper steps as you ascend, carefully!
And a pause to note the scallop shells indicative of the Compostela route said to pass nearby as pilgrims made a detour from Figeac to visit Rocamadour. Plus a peep out of the window as you catch your breath.
The upstairs grand hall has several tapestries from Fenaille’s collection. There is a sumptuous fireplace topped by a magnificent seated stag. I much prefer the stone versions to the stuffed ones that used to be much more prevalent on restaurant walls when we first started visiting this area.
The dresses in here were pretty special too. Several were worn by Cate Blanchett in the film Elizabeth. I was delighted to find they came from the Angels collections in London. Many years ago when working in repertory theatre, it was my job to collect costumes from Angels. Ah, memories.
Beyond this huge salle is the master bedroom, furnished in the regency style by Fenaille. There is a beautiful bed with lots of golden curtains to keep out the draughts. I love the tiled floor in here as it is the same pattern as the tomettess that make up our kitchen floor but much shinier.
Another glorious dress but I forget which film. In the corner is the master dressing room with a modern ensuite which always makes me giggle at its incongruity.
Crossing past the top of the stairs (access to the next floor is not permitted) you find three more bedrooms which are kept dark. I assume it is to protect the brocatelle. In the first I found costumes from ‘Shakespeare in love’, the dress stunning but looking very uncomfortable to wear.
As I turned I was momentarily spooked by a figure in the tiny bedroom in the corner. This was Rhys Ifans, or rather, a costume he had worn. The bed in this room reminds us how short our ancestors were.
I still had the chateau to myself, if you didn’t count all the headless mannequins.
In the last bedroom I was amazed at how small the dress was worn by Natalie Portman as Anne Boleyn. I wish!
It was past midday and the chateau closes at half past so, reluctantly, it was back down, carefully, the beautiful staircase and,
after a quick peek in the courtyard where the guide was still talking to one other person, it was home for lunch.
ps the costume exhibition runs until 8th May 2022, closed on Tuesdays 8 euros to visit the chateau, exhibition free http://www.chateau-montal.fr