Wednesday, 29 April 2015

Keeping a chateau in the family

In the 14th century Jean de Bonneville was chamberlain to the king and then it all began. The current Chateau de Bonneville in Normandy near Broglie is mostly 17th century, on a limestone base, built in brick, with a slate Mansard roof (added under Louis XIV). The property has stayed in the family but mostly transferred via the distal side. It's rare in that it has never, ever been sold.

It's more famous for being the home of writer Jean de La Varende (1887-1959). He was indeed a relative who had been born in Normandy but rarely saw the chateau during his childhood. Still, he had a great nostalia for it and took up his abode in 1919.

This writer was also a passionate boat modeller, and artist and that's very evident when you make a little tour of parts of the property. It's still owned within the family and the current owners live there so it's a private residence where they've created a small museum to the writer (created in 2000).

The owners gave us a personal tour and commentary which was pleasant and informative. It must be quite something to live amongst the portraits of one's ancestors each day, sitting on their furniture and weeding their garden. There's a working farm containing cows and what's left of the box hedging decor.

There are a lot of  'collectables' in the rooms we viewed, including ceramics. A staircase had been removed to make the dining room larger. Fireplaces still work, thank goodness as the weather was very cold the day we came to view. Out of respect to the owners I kept my interior photos to only the museum and did not photograph their private living space.

The current owner is Princesse C.-E. de Broglie, born L. Mallard de La Varende. She is married to a Broglie. Their dog has total run of the place, including the furniture so don't be surprised if he jumps around on everything you're looking at.

It was a shame the weather was so inclement as I'd have liked to have wandered around the grounds. There's a little lake and an orangerie.

Right at the end we were given the opportunity to buy some of La Varende's writings. Each book priced at 5€. Not expensive but rather old and musty in reality as they seemed to be stored in an old cellar collecting dust. I imagine it's quite expensive to pay the upkeep of the property so no wonder the owners are doing tours and selling books. You can find this private chateau next to  (300m from) the church Notre-Dame du Chamblac. It's off the usual tourist routes so most visitors would be French.

Monday, 20 April 2015

When French locals get their tourism wrong.

I was in a bus filled with retired folks, fellow members of the Association Patrimoine d'Epernon et alentours heading through damp countryside into Normandy. We are all interested in history and culture but I was the only non-French person on the trip; the annual bus trip for members of this heritage group who usually only meet each other once a year on a trip, unless they are on the organising committee.

The trip took a couple of hours to get to our first stop; slightly longer than it should have because our bus driver got lost. I wondered why he didn't use GPS. We sat patiently in the bus, on the side of a quiet country road just waking up to Spring. Temperatures were chilly but I'd come prepared with gloves, scarf, warm coat and a flask of hot chocolate. JC scoffed at that but I was determined not to get 'caught out' with nothing to drink or warm me up.

Back on track we discovered ourselves trundling slowly along a very narrow trail with the trees so close they scratched the sides of the bus. There was an unkempt air to the place. The road opened up to a grassy space and there was the old mill, the Moulin de Prey at Broglie.

JC and I looked at it and ourselves, thinking  hmm, let's hope it's better than it looks. It wasn't. France does tourist visits really well, usually, but I was about to experience a visit designed for locals by folks of an amateurish and lackadaisical  persuasion.

We split into two groups and queued a long time for the one toilet. The first thing I saw in the mill was a lot of old cheese packages stuck on a board. This mill may have started its life grinding grain but there was no evidence of that. Instead, it seems the mill had been used for many other industries. It had processed many brands of cheese and also been a jam factory.

We saw the pots where the jam was heated. Workers wore special aprons to protect them from nasty burns from hot jam spitting out. The pots had handles for tipping them.

We also saw ancient autoclaves used for sterilising jars and other things but over everything was a reek of decay and dust, dust, dust. There was no professional signage. I wasn't expecting anything in English but this place charges money for entry and a small guided tour so I thought there might have been a better standard of presentation. Clearly everything just sits there from year to year hoping you'll be impressed. No, it's amateurish and filthy.

It calls itself an ecomuseum but anglophones beware, there's nothing ecological about it. Apparently this means it's a mishmash of different things. I just couldn't see why the French would add eco to something that had nothing to do with ecology or economics. There was a facsimile of an old schoolroom but the plastic dolls and general rundown-attic ambiance didn't really fire my interest.

Upstairs we were told we were in for a treat; viewing hundreds of bugs and butterflies impaled and displayed on boards. Someone's hobby. Photos were forbidden but I've no idea why. In an alcove was a collection of stuff from pharmacies gone by. Rundown, dusty, no signage. It looked like a forgotten garage sale. In the final adjoining room we could look at lots of boring, rusty and dusty tools once used in carpentry or other similar trades. After looking at 50 hammers or chisels it all gets a bit ho-hum. JC wasn't impressed either and he's a  handyman DIYer.

For light relief I looked out the window. The stream leading to the mill was so polluted you couldn't see the water. It gave the impression you could walk on it. Brown, swirly streaky stationary water. Feeling a bit irritated and frustrated by the state of things I asked why the stream was polluted. I was told, nonchalantly, it was because of runoff from houses' sewage up steam. But why is it allowed? Why doesn't the Mairie do something about this? It's bad for the animals and insects, I said.

He just shrugged and said, yeah it wasn't good. I added that it didn't make for a good image of the mill, but my observations fell on deaf ears. A very unsatisfying and scarcely interesting visit.

After lunch in a neighbouring restaurant we climbed back on the bus where I desperately opened my flask for some warming liquid calories. I'm all for encouraging local tourism and pride in heritage but it should be of  a standard that respects the visitor. This one doesn't and is not worth the time and money. It may not be very profitable and suffering from lack of money (i don't know) but I think it would be better to have less stuff in a better condition than the musty magpie effect it currently has.

If you want to read more about this property and see pictures of poor beasties stabbed on boards go to