Sunday, December 4, 2022

Chateau de la Mercerie

Chateau de La Mercerie - Le petit Versailles of the Charente

As we seem to do quite often, we’d taken a wrong turn. The country lane was narrow and twisty with no place to turn around. Suddenly I yelped, “look look!” and Tom was looking, but also driving. It seemed we’d more than made a wrong turn, we’d fallen down a rabbit hole and tumbled out into a fantasy realm. You couldn’t miss the imposingly magisterial building spread out before us. Someone with extravagant schemes and dreams had been here before us. 

Back in Bourdeilles a couple of friends told me childhood memories of Sunday drives to picnic on the abandoned yet still decorated grounds of the mystery chateau. They’d race each other up and down the shady pathways and play hide and seek around the feet of the statues in the arches of the grand colonnade. This was the 1960’s and gods and goddess still stood proudly on their pedestals.

A year or two later I visited the abandoned property. We could only press our faces up against the broken window panes to glimpse blue tiles covering walls two stories high. Streaks of sunshine passed through enormous doorways that led into grand rooms we could not see. The dilapidated chateau looked like a stack of legos that would collapse if you sneezed. One could no longer play hide and seek along the grand colonnade, the statues had all disappeared.

Soon after that visit I started seeing articles in the local newspaper. A group of local citizens had taken on the gargantuan project of restoring the place. I guess impossible dreams are contagious. 

But, let’s start over. 

This sweep of land has been occupied by some sort of home since the early 1500’s. In 1892 the original building was torn down and a fanciful, turreted castle was built in the Troubadour style.

In 1924 two brothers bought the property for 80,000 French francs - about $12,000. Having bought the property at a bargain price they proceeded to pour their fortunes into constructing their dream -  to build a modern day Versailles. 

Who were these two ambitious, obsessed young men with such a passion for beautiful things? Having survived a car accident that killed their older brother, the two younger brothers, Raymond and Alphonse, were knitted together for the rest of their lives. Raymond was noted for his eloquent oratory and his writing. Alphonse was a medical student who saw himself as an architect.

Someone suggested that Raymond could make a very good living in politics in the newly prospering Charente region. He followed this advice heading south from his family home in the Loire valley. He was introduced to the humble chateau of La Mercerie and immediately purchased it. He went to “work” in politics and was elected to the National Assembly where he participated  from 1958 - 1978. 

Meanwhile Alphonse quit his medical studies to join his brother in dreaming up ways to improve the chateau. He began designing buildings and over seeing the monumental work. Local stone cutters and artisans were employed full time working right on location. While some workers updated the Troubadour Chateau others were constructing the 220 meter long grand facade. 

Raymond loved traveling and discovering artist and antiques wherever he went. The blue tile “paintings”  are Azulejos commissioned from Portugal. Returning from a trip to Italy he brought back a painter and a sculpture to realize even more of Alphonses’ dreams. They wanted to commission their own masterpieces for their chateau. Original paintings and sculptures completed the impressive centerpiece of the chateau, a replica of The Hall of Mirrors of Versailles.

By 1975 all the monies had run out. All work came to a complete stop. Alphonse died in 1983. Raymond still an honorary parliamentarian died at the age of 85. Having no heirs he decided to leave the property to the daughter of his gardener, but, the young woman died in a car accident. He then tried to give the property to the French government, they declined the offer. He then tried to leave it to the city of Angouleme - they also said no thanks ( but they did take 5,000 books from the library).

In the end everything that could be carried away was auctioned off in 1987. The abandoned property loomed over the valley like a phantom ship until 2011 when the property was bought by the local commune. Work started right away to save the crumbling monster. If only the two brothers could see the love and care being given to their extravagant and impossible dream.

Tom and I drove back over the other day to see what we could see. The chateau is all cleaned up, the walls sturdy and the windows glistening. It turns out the blue tiles are magnificent scenes of ocean storms, bucolic farmyards and romantic interludes. The arches of the grand colonnade are still empty, but it is easy to dream that they too will one day be full of gods and goddesses with children picnicking at their feet.


Thursday, October 20, 2022

Standing in Line

 Standing in lines at the Friday farmer’s market I have time to slow down. The other day I realized I was listing out things I have learned during all these minutes— more like  hours— of standing waiting for a package of heart shaped goat cheese or a baguette baked with local grains. 

My simple list of basic observations made me think of the phrase “everything I really need to know I learned in kindergarten” - I know that isn’t really the exact quote but this is how it is in my brain.

Instead of being a young kindergartener soaking up life I’m now an old dog learning new tricks. That kindergarten child was playing with a bunch of rambunctious friends. This old timer is standing quietly in lines with well-practiced French folks. My observations have revealed a lot about how to best experience the French culture.

1.  The best foods are where there is a long line. And you always want the best.

2.  You will have to wait patiently for your turn to get the best.

3.  You better look for the end of the line because you will not be allowed to cut in.

4.  Listen to the conversations swirling around you, one day you will realize you are understanding the sing song of the locals.

5.  Observe how folks are dressed and what kind of basket they carry - better than any fashion magazine.

6.  Notice what others are buying and try it too.

7.  Be brave and ask questions about what you don’t know - how to cook something, why that cheese, what goes with that?

8.  People love to help, and they love to laugh at my accent and the simple things I don’t know. 

9.  Folks are generous.

10. Say hello. Say good bye.

11. Once you are at the head of the line you are queen for a moment.

12. Don’t touch things without first asking.

13. You may have to listen to others as they tell their life story before you get served. You cannot rush this.

14. Every vendor is extremely proud of what they have brought to the market. They will take time to explain anything you want to know. No-one standing behind you will say a thing.  They already know the rules.

15. The locals are thinking of you as a kindergartener.

16. LOOK. This was the first word in the first book of the Dick and Jane series.  For getting to the heart of the French culture, it is as important to this old learner as it was to the kid learning the ropes in kindergarten.

Wednesday, October 5, 2022

Familial Antidotes - Two Former Vineyards

There are two private chateaux on the edges of Bourdeilles. I’d heard vague stories that they were once expansive vinyards.There are lingering clues. The fields are rolling, sun drenched, with limestone soils that are well drained. The farmyards have out of scale barns and grand entry ways leading to quiet courtyards. Nowadays the sweeping fields rotate through wheat, corn and sunflowers. There was prosperity here.  How this prosperity was lost was a mystery. In my last writing I told you about the agricultural history of the times now I’ll pass on some more familial antidotes.

Going through the catalog of private historical homes to be open during Les Journees de Patrimonies (National open house of historical sights) I noticed that several chateau nearby would be open to the public and were noted for being former vineyards. It was the first time I realized there might be a lot in common with our two local fairytale homes. So we set off in search of a little wine history. We struck gold when we were greeted at each house by owners eager to talk about their family’s history and the rise and fall of regional vineyards. One owner greeted us in his pink trousers and fancy shoes. The other owner met us in his paint splattered cut-off blue jeans shorts and I’m not even sure what shoes.

The first thing to remember is that these are not the old, defensive chateaux of the 16th century One Hyndred Years war.  These chateau were constructed at the same time that the young American colonies were questioning their relationship with England. 

You will remember from last week’s story that these chateau were built on large farming properties that already existed. Estates that had agricultural wealth, but were living with out-dated conveniences. A famine in the north was driving skilled and unskilled labor to the south of France where they would find work on these prosperous southern farms.

Down went the old farms with small windows, smokey fireplaces, steep pitched Perigordine roofs, muddy courtyards, a pigsty attached to the house, and stinky barns sometimes under the house.

There would be a sense of grandeur in the new homes, but the farmers made one thing clear to the architects and builders— everything had to function as a working farm. Everything on the property would function for livestock, machinery, wine production, housing for workers and ostentatious comfort for the landowner. Once the plans were approved, hungry builders would get to work - and earn the food they so desperately needed. These grand estates were up and humming.

There are big gaps in the history of these chateau. Here are some tidbits passed on in the family lore-

Architectural tidbits:

On the Chateau de la Vassaldie the beautiful balustrade is actually there for functionality - fancy gutters diverting rainwater down to two cistern pools at the entrance to the courtyard. Not a drop of water was wasted in this dry region. Water was imperative for livestock, cleaning, and in particular for washing out the barrels used in wine production. There was a separate well for human consumption. The chateaux themselves had modern conveniences, big light filled rooms, well-drawing fireplaces, sweeping staircases that showed off prosperity and power, and mansard roofs that showed their sophisticated Parisian taste.

Stone walls were built to hide green houses and experiments on vines from the other local vineyards. Everyone was looking for an advantage in the best grape for the best wine. 

Household tidbits:

During the tumultuos times of the French Revolution, the wealthy chateuax were subject to the republican rage of the local pesantry. The locals were told to go out and destroy all symbols of Royalty. This included anything that displayed a fleur de lys or a family’s coat of arms. Pigeonniers (Where they kept the pigeons) were targetted as displays of royal-like wealth. The villagers marched out and began their destruction. They managed to pull off and smash the coat of arms that was above the front door. There wasn’t a pigeonnier and the only flour de lys were on the weathervanes* way too high for any local lad. Finally, the owner screwed up the courage to confront the angry mob and offered them a visit to his wine cellar for a drink or two of wine. The locals were a frugal bunch and not used to destroying things so they were easily distracted and gladly accepted the wine and then headed back home. The coat of arms was never replaced because no one has any idea what might have been up there - that blank space is left as evidence of the passing of history.

Several times the house was passed on to the female side of the family. One male owner gambled away the house. It was his sister who said “This is not possible.We are an old family and can’t loose this heritage.” She bought the propriety back from the lawyers and the lineage continued on her side.

In the 1800’s with the wine business booming there was money to modernize the too big, too drafty chateau. Increased wealth allowed for a change in taste and comforts. The already out of date decorative tile was covered up, drafty rooms were covered in dark wood to cozy them up. Fireplaces disappeared behind wooden panels and modern heating was put in.

The current owner’s grandfather died from drinking poisoned well water. He left behind a widow and two children. She did two good things: she raised the children well and she did nothing to the house. When the current owner was born in 1961 there was no water at the house. Water was brought in in 1962.

This reminded him to tell us another story - this house was literally on the road of demarcation between German occupied France and Free France. The Germans commandeered the house - for one day. They were disgusted that the house had no water and no electricity. 

Another of the chateau was bought back after it was taken over by the French government during the French Revolution - the Royalist family had to flee to Germany and when they returned they were made to buy back their property. Many years later the current owner’s grandfather was an engineer and had the great idea to add some wings to the house, a little family chapel and English style gardens. New fangled ideas that changed the character of the house.The current owner slowly replacing windows for an authentic look. 

In the little chapel one old ancestor was laid out for burial, when her grieving son arrived she sat bolt upright scaring the both of them. She had the family promise that the next time she died they would slice an ankle to see if she twitched and she was not to be buried for eight days. She died at 100, fourteen years after her “first death.”

These grand homes would have been full of laughter, intrigue, heartache and love.

Then disaster struck. The phylloxera blight wiped out all the vines. Pretty much over night everything was lost. There was a scramble to convert to other agriculture. The problem is that the local soil was very good for wine production, but the things that made it good for growing grapes made it a poor source of nutrients in wheat or other crops. The nutritional value of our local wheat is 13% less than other regions. Today’s land prices bear this out: a hectare of land here is about 4000 euros. In Brittany you get 15,000 euros. And a hectare in Belgium goes for 50,000 euros. 

All the vinyard machinery was sold off. The barrels, presses, lifts - anything that could be sold in order to pay for new types of equipment. The government offered very little aid to this area. Eventually even the interiors of the houses were sold off. Entire paneled rooms, iron forged stair railings, shutters, garden balustrades, anything that could be pulled off and sold. The idea of selling off your home’s decorations used to make me angry, but now I have better insight into the dire straights these farms found themselves in.

The two chateaux in Bourdeilles were not open to the public. But based on the history of the grapevines their fates would have been similar. There are several other properties in the region that I am just now hearing whispers of. I’ll have to try to visit them on next year’s adventure.

 *A bit more on the weather vanes, called pirouettes is French. They are three meters tall and “carved” out of one metal rod peeled like a banana and the details cut into the tips. When the roof was redone ten years ago the roofer exclaimed he’d never seen such fine metal work - a thing of the past.

Sunday, September 25, 2022

Once upon a time, a long time ago, the Romans marched through France. Crossing our southwestern region they found plenty of places with sparkling spring water, locals that were not resistant to being invaded, and lots of salt deposits. Feeling that Rome was overcrowded they started to colonize these new regions - the provinces. The Romans introduced a more sophisticated life style to the local Gauls. They introduced luxuries such as steam baths, cheese making, and grape vines (!).

The Romans were eventually driven out by the Saracens, but many of the good things in life that had bee introduced lingered in the fields and farms of the region.

Jump forward to the 1700’s and this region is sprinkled with the fruits of the days of the Roman occupation. There are large swaths of cultivated land with elegant homes that rival those of Bordeaux and Champagne. Even Bourdeilles has two thriving vineyards.

Here is the story of the rise and fall of these grand properties.

Roughly between 1700 and 1709 the northern regions of France were locked in a mini ice-age. A third of the population of Paris starved to death. Folks that could escape to the south did - on foot. They arrived in these southern parts hungry and desperate. On one hand they had nothing. But in a way they also had everything. They were architects, stone masons, glass blowers, ditch diggers, harness makers, lots of things that were very useful to a prospering farming community.

In the early 18th century the Dordogne was rich in farms, but lacking in sophistication. Rich farmers were still living in homes with conveniences, or lack of them, from the 16th and 17th centuries. The hungry, talented Northerners lined up at their doors and offered whatever skill they could share in exchange for food and a roof. Bartering was not uncommon as this was before the time of salaries. With the farming business booming the local barons took advantage of this talented labor to construct modern homes that would show off their stature. In these hinter lands, great mansions sprung up in styles that were better known in Paris or the Loire Valley. 

These glory days were short lived.

In 1827 the first railway line opened in France. Then a second line was completed in 1832. Both of these lines were well to the east of the vineyards around Bourdeilles and the Dordogne, who were still shipping their wine by oxen carts. Also south eastern wines were preferred for their higher alcohol content. Local wines that had been receiving gold medals quickly fell out of popularity.

And yet things could and did get worse. 

Around 1850 Victorian botanist introduced American grape vines to Europe. These vines were infected with phylloxera - a mildew carried by a tiny louse insect. No problem in the New World as their vines were resistant, but the Old World vines were almost instantly decimated. Some estimates hold that as much as 80% of all European vineyards were destroyed. Our local area was entirely wiped out. Infected plantations were pulled up and burned in an effort to keep the devastation from spreading. These efforts were futile. The large swaths of vineyards turned to barren, rolling countryside.

Eventually two major solutions emerged: grafting cuttings onto resistant rootstock and hybridization - both solutions based on using American rootstock.

The government doled out monies to replant Bordeaux, St Emillion, Bergerac, just up to about 50 kilometers from Bourdeilles. Then the monies ran out. There would be no subsidies for these eastern edges of the Bordeaux region.

Farmers were forced to completely switch their crops. The rolling fields were turned over to corn, wheat, and sunflowers.

The grand houses would quickly loose their luster, but that is the story for next week.

Sunday, September 18, 2022

Where Have You Been?

 Lately everyone I bump into asks, “ Where have you been?” 

To be honest I’ve been asking myself the same question.

There has been plenty going on: traveling to the States, gardening, biking, chauffeuring, helping out a little family. I’ve been keeping busy, but not with the same engagement that keeps me connected to life in our small village.

Re-engaging got a little push the other day when I was asked to help with making sandwiches for the village “vide de grenier” -  literally a day to empty one’s attic. This the French version of a yard sale, but here the entire village is out in the same place on the same day. It’s a very social event. Instead of selling junk from our attic, I was going to help the festival committee that provides coffee, sandwiches and drinks, including beer and, of course, wine.

At 8:30 I was still poking around in my pajamas. I wasn’t too enthusiastic about heading out. Lately a certain cloud of apathy has set in and I just wanted to stay put in my bubble. But, I had said I’d help and I know they are always short-handed. I threw on a happy shirt, laced up comfortable shoes and pointed my feet up the hill. 

The morning sky was beautiful and expansive. The sun glowed around the medieval buildings and the river sparkled under the arched bridge. I was slipping into my French village.

You would have thought nothing was going on in the village. It was so quiet. But as I rounded the churchyard onto the promenade the world was bustling. The food stand was already set up and the gang I was going to work with was already bickering about how to arrange the work tables. I said good morning and stood back to watch how things organize themselves.

Bickering being the building blocks of French volunteer work, things finally started to fall in place. I was assigned to slice open the baguette halves. Work came to a screeching halt when one of the boss ladies noticed that some halves were much longer than others. (Not my fault. I was only slicing them open!) They worried that the difference in size was going to cause trouble later on. We had to stop and sort the long from the short.  And then later sell them all at the same price anyway! I quietly listened and did as I was told. What a joy to realize that unlike years ago I now understood right away what is going on and what is being said. I could feel  the pride rising in my bones.

There were new types of sandwiches this year. Gone the traditional sausages or a tough slab of beef. But, because these new fangled sandwiches were not familiar to the committee, there was a lot of discussion about how to layer the ingredients. As a sandwich-eating American I take slathering things on a sandwich for granted - not so my very food particular French friends. It was good to laugh at ourselves as we tried to keep the lettuce and tomatoes stuffed in the sandwich. I kept forgetting that humus is pronounced oomus and had to translate the word to make any sense of what was being said. What a silly word to have trouble with. Throwing myself back into the gang was having a good effect on my spirits.

As things got rolling along I was able to add a few little comments, ask some general questions and answer some uncharacteristically personal questions ( the French feel it is impolite to ask personal questions - this makes it mighty hard to have a conversation - and remain polite)

There was talk of children starting back to school, how the school cafeteria was doing. We talked about how vegetarian meals are being or not being accepted by the students. They explained to me that no student ever brings lunch from home. Even on field trip days the cafeteria has to produce bag lunches for everyone. It’s amazing to hear some of the four course menus the children are offered. Today was the first time I heard that there is a rotation of 10 types of cheeses to cultivate the children's pallets. And on and on we went with womanly gossip about husbands and grand children and aging.

By 2:00 all the sandwiches were sold. The bar was going to stay open but I was worn out. I headed back down the hill feeling tired, but happily mindful how I love making the effort to be a part of this small village.