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.