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.



Chris Sheely said...

I love reading your stories. And I would love to visit this beautiful place!

Kathie K said...

Wonderful story. I can just imagine how the creation of the chateau proceeded. And I have to remark on the surprise of seeing something unexpected before you as you did as I have experienced this as well in France.