The Chateau of Secrets
My tale begins on a rocky spur overlooking the pastoral landscape of what was once called Gascony. Here stands Chateau Gramont, a great home filled with surprises, many so extraordinary they are barely imaginable. And fuelling the fancy of others was precisely the intention.
Like many others in the southwest of France, Chateau Gramont has links to the Cathars. In the early 13th century, Odon Montaut built the fortified castle in a fief belonging to Simon de Montfort, who was the leader of the crusade against the Cathars. As fans of the Middle Ages, my friend and I decided to go along for a look.
Our route into the Gers was lined by blazing sunflower meadows and golden corn. After about an hour of driving through this gorgeously undulating countryside, we reached the tiny village of Gramont. With fewer than 150 souls living here, this limestone gem filled with promise sits on the border with Tarn et Garonne.
We parked a short distance from the chateau and gasped at our first sighting. Its medieval tower embellished with gothic decorations was a show-stopper. As we approached the gatehouse, a wannabe tour guide burst around a corner and bounded towards us. Despite loving the idea of having this handsome boy with us, sadly, we knew he wouldn’t be allowed.
We were the first visitors that day. Always exciting. It meant we could roam around undisturbed, guessing what it would be like to live in a great place like this. A young man gave us 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.” “Goodness, the architectural styles must be very different.” “Indeed. Like many great houses, Chateau Gramont has seen several changes in its life.”
Monsieur led us through the entrance and pointed at a steep slope.
“You can reach the front garden from here. Oh, and when you return to the chateau, take a look at the kitchen first. The furnishings were used in the 19th century.”
Increasingly intrigued, we followed a stony trail to a high hedge, a leafy barrier with narrow arches, just wide enough to pass through. We spied a line of specimen shrubs with simple yet elegant topiary designs. This was too enticing for Sarah and me. With an ungainly bustle, we burst onto the garden terrace.
The sky had clouded, but that couldn’t tarnish our appreciation of the mighty specimen trees and far-reaching views. But for me, the greatest jewel stood in the centre. I was unsure about the species; it looked like an old corkscrew willow, and it had a stone seat at its base. It was gracious, discreet, the perfect place for a secret liaison – or reading a book.
Sarah claimed our skinny guidebook, which is just as well since her French is better than mine. We tracked back to the chateau grand entrance in the ‘newer’ wing. And in true Renaissance style, the key features of architecture were easy to see: the use of pleasing symmetry, proportion and harmony. We gazed at the beautiful building, the mullioned windows and exquisite carvings. It seemed as though no detail had been overlooked.
We ambled down a short passage to the kitchen, which immediately propelled us to another era. We had to chuckle. The 19th century furnishings had marked similarities to several treasures our families had discovered in our old farmhouse outbuildings. Brass pots, candlesticks, and I could have sworn the kettle was the same type we found in our gardien’s house. One feature especially caught our fancy. To the right of the fireplace, ten spaces had been created in the surface to grow food for cooking. A baby potager. With warmth and natural light, it was an inspired idea.
We returned to the main house and the guard’s room with a glorious tapestry filling one wall. 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, rare finds from nature transformed by artists into ornaments.
Sounds of nature: running water, crickets stridulating and birdsong coming from the next room piqued our interest. It was another exhibit, this time entitled Room of the Faraway. After discovering America, explorers returned from far-flung lands with extraordinary specimens. Animals, plants, and rare objects, 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. Each display had been meticulous fashioned.
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 a remarkable ensemble of scientific instruments. These, along with clocks, mechanical constructions and microcosms of mini worlds, were marvels of their age.
But what particularly attracted me were the books. I could have spent all day trawling through those leather-bound tomes. No go there. Sarah was on a mission, she’d heard new sounds, music, and it was decidedly Tudorish.
“Wow, look at this cabinet. It’s another Renaissance piece called a Cabinet of Dreams. That’s quite appropriate since we’re now in the bedroom,” she said, “although, apparently, the room was used for private financial discussions, oh, and affaires de cœur.”
The strains of birdsong and music filled the room as the white cabinet of dreams began another cycle. (Click on the Youtube link below to watch the cycle.) We were enthralled by its complex diorama, the motion, the rotating statuettes and clock, amazed that such a piece would have been built during the Renaissance. Lulled by the melody, we gazed at the ancient floor and furnishings, trying to guess the secrets shared here.
Whenever I visit an ancient building, I seem destined to end up slogging up and down a spiral staircase, and today was no exception. Since this one looked relatively gentle compared to my last marathon session, in the interests of historical discovery, obviously, we had to scale them.
Chat was replaced by panting as we staggered up the medieval steps, but we did manage to squeeze out exclamations when we reached the top. The last thing we were expecting was what we saw. It was a little room with a brick ceiling. This was the household safe. The brick surround was used to help protect the contents in the event of a fire – a practical idea.
Back downstairs, we followed a passage to the staterooms via a magnificent vaulted stairway with a huge wow factor. No wonder the building is held in such high regard. Mighty sconces were positioned on either side of oak seats on the first landing – they looked more suited to a church.
The second stairway took us to a large room, which occupies almost the entire first floor of the Renaissance wing. It was a stateroom used for entertaining, and we could understand why. A grand fireplace dominated one end, facing a vast tapestry on the opposite wall. Comfortingly hefty beams, warm tiles, and large windows giving occupants panoramic views over the Arras river valley and beyond; this baronial hall was impressive.
Sarah, top tour operator, ruffled her guide pamphlet. She’d strolled on ahead, fact-finding, while I took yet more photos. “We’re heading back into the medieval part of the chateau and the Simon de Montfort tower,” she yodelled. “Ooh, a skeleton!”
This was irregular.
“If you say it’s in a closet, I’ll have to tease you!” “No, although it is in a presentation case. Come on; there’s lots of scary stuff in this room.”
Sarah was right. I joined her in a remarkable room that had been 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 decidedly unnatural. Haunting music came from somewhere. Owls hooting, and I’m still 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 and Cabinets of Curiosities.
I hadn’t realised the medievals loved creepy stuff. I thought that was a Victorian thing. We learnt that some collectors were fascinated by the rare and abnormal. Often their finds were associated with pagan beliefs. Eggs, coconuts, and rhinoceros horns were engraved, and furballs found in certain animals (yuck) were set in gold. The stranger, the better. Death was welcomed into these collections, too. Our blingy bandage-covered skeleton bore testament to that.
It was apparently a fad favoured by the religious to gather fantastic finds and place them alongside the relics of saints. Giants’ bones (actually from giraffes), unicorn horns (narwhal tusks), crocodile heads boiled in oil, mummified mermaids (I dread to think what they originally were) and more, the presentation cases were stuffed with bottles of bizarre beings.
Gripped and flustered in equal measure, we scuttled up another set of ancient stone steps to the highest room in the tower. While its original height had been reduced by three metres during earlier restorations, the adjustment could not detract from its magnificence.
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.”
Sarah’s trusty guide notes had directed her to a tiny room called a bretèche, a cabin above the gatehouse protruding from the tower. It was built during the chateau’s early days as a fortification. We peeked in to find three square spaces in the floor. These were murder holes, meurtrière, used by defenders to hurl or pour harmful unpleasantries such as rocks and boiling oil down on attackers.
It was the last room on our visit list. Having seen so many mysterious things, this seemed positively tame. We left via the gatehouse and walked to the church standing opposite. We guessed the chateau families must have worshipped here. It was en route to the car, so we decided to have a quick look. I’m so glad we did.
The church interior was simple. The atmosphere was calm, relaxing and somehow very 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 easy to understand why it is now classified as a French Monument Historique. And as for the secrets it harbours? Our day of discovery had barely scratched the surface. Still amazed and inspired by what we had seen, we promised ourselves a return visit to find out more.
Jenny Hamilton Cody
5th September 2022 @ 7:04 am
What a wonderful place, a surprise around each corner. The history, the stories it could tell. It is amazing how these buildings were built and are still standing. Loved the YouTube video, what a delightful sound and so peaceful
5th September 2022 @ 10:06 am
Thank you, Jenny. This really was a home filled with surprises. We loved the cabinet too and had no idea the exhibition was in place. It added such colour and learning to our experience.
5th September 2022 @ 2:25 pm
Wonderful read Beth… such an amazing place! Thank you for sharing 🤗🤗
6th September 2022 @ 9:18 am
You’re very welcome, Jackie, I’m so glad you enjoyed the read. It truly was an extraordinary visit.
5th September 2022 @ 5:57 pm
Beth, thank you for such a lovely tour of this castle. As usual, your thorough descriptions and corresponding pictures made me feel as though I was right there walking along beside you. The little YouTube video was enchanting. Oh, and that handsome “tour guide” who showed up at the beginning of your visit was an added bonus! ❤️
6th September 2022 @ 9:21 am
You would have loved our canine tour guide, Faith. It was such a shame he couldn’t join us! The chateau certainly far exceeded our expectations. As you read, each room was filled with grace and wonders, and it had been beautifully restored. And yes, that musical cabinet was charming. I’m so glad you enjoyed the trip too. 🙂
5th September 2022 @ 10:35 pm
Lovely tour of a fascinating architectural gem! From your writing and photos I felt like I was standing next to you as you explored each room as well as the surprise church at the end. I never knew about those “murder holes,” and was creeped out by that skeleton – it looked almost mummy-like. The diorama was an incredible masterpiece and I was curious as to how they produced the birdsong. Thank you so much for sharing, Beth. This was a wonderful vacation break.
6th September 2022 @ 9:25 am
Bless you, Paula, I’m delighted that you enjoyed my account. There were so many creepy/enchanting/beautiful pieces that it was hard to know where to start. You’re right about the skeleton, we’re sure it had been mummified but remain mystified by the broches on its skull. All very strange. The church was glorious in its simplicity, and a fitting end to our visit. 🙂
6th September 2022 @ 11:04 am
Land of the Faraway stole my heart, Beth. Particularly Egyptian scene and the galleon. Truly amazing. What a super castle to explore! Much love Jean
6th September 2022 @ 11:26 am
Mine too, Jean. The Land of the Faraway was enchanting. Thank you, I think you would have loved exploring this extraordinary place! Much love to you too, xxxx
10th September 2022 @ 5:19 pm
Without doubt a place of beauty and wonder. I am so envious of your exploration without hordes around you. (p.s. a silly story about Simon de Montfort. you know there is an English university named after him – well, a group of my colleagues were in Malaysia drumming up business for students to choose our university. A hopeful young man rushed over and asked for directions to the stall for Demonfart University. We have never been able to think of poor Simon as anything else ever since)
11th September 2022 @ 10:36 am
Teehee. Now you’ve done it, Carolyn – ruined my image of the great man! You’re right about the chateau. It wasn’t enormous, but it was filled with fascinating facts and amazing exhibits. I think it pays to visit these places as early as possible. It enables better browsing and allows an imagined immersion into the environment as it would have been in its heyday.
1st October 2022 @ 6:35 pm
What an absolutely wonderful place, Beth. So much history and so many beautiful rooms and furnishings. It has its share of quirks and creepy stuff too, I see. I also never knew the medieval folk were interested in that sort of thing.
2nd October 2022 @ 9:51 am
I’m so glad you enjoyed the tour, Val. It was teeming with interesting, unusual displays. We learned so much that day and could have stayed much longer, though perhaps not among the creepier exhibits!