While I was in France last month, we went into Paris and to Disneyland but we spent most of the time either in the pool or reading in the caravan. That particularly part of north east France is… well, there’s nothing there. It’s flat and empty and the sort of place you drive through to get to somewhere more interesting.
However, twenty minutes or so from the campsite is a castle. Its name is Pierrefonds and you may recognise it from BBC Merlin, which used it as Camelot.
What’s interesting about Pierrefonds is that it’s not real, not really. It was real once, it had a defensive purpose and in the twelfth century, it was one of the most imposing and toughest castles of the time. But that came at a price – in the seventeenth century it was destroyed so that its power could never be used again Louis XIII and it lay in ruins for two centuries – until Napoleon III came along. He ordered it restored so he could use it as a backdrop for parties and receptions, basically. The job of restoration was given to Eugène Viollet-le-Duc, the architect who restored Notre Dame de Paris to its current state of magnificence.
Viollet-le-Duc decided not to rebuild Pierrefonds as it had originally been. His plan was to rebuild it as an absolutely perfect example of a medieval castle, using as many of the materials and techniques of the time as possible. The result is a spectacular castle that looks far more modern and high-tech than my idea of “medieval” – however, the money ran out, Viollet-le-Duc died and in the end, the castle was never quite finished.
We parked down in the free car park in the village – I will never get over the parking in France, the fact that you don’t have to pay to leave your car at the station, at the castle car park etc – and walked up to the castle. From where we were there were two ways in, the long slow uphill hike up the route the horses would once have taken or a short sharp trip up the stairs on the opposite side. We opted for the stairs. The castle, naturally, is on a hill, raised up above the village and the valley – this is what made it a great defensive castle back in the days when it was one. We came out in a small car park, open only to the staff and presumably to people who can’t physically walk up the hill. We had our bags inspected at the gatehouse – that is, we opened them at the request of the gatekeeper who didn’t even look in their direction before nodding and passing us in.
Across the rickety drawbridge – my Dear Sister is not fond of walking over wobbly things especially if you can see the empty moat below between some of the planks. Into the courtyard we went and were herded towards the shop to buy our entrance tickets. Now we were free to wander at will.
It’s all very pretty! Viollet-le-Duc had a weird and fiddly taste in decorations – columns around a balcony topped with miniature castles, crocodiles just randomly on walls and chimerous creatures all over the place, gargoyles and just placed on walls for fun. There are turrets and towers and ornate rose windows and the whole thing is clean off-white stone and it just looks good. This is an A* Reconstruction project, dropped down to a B because so much of the inside is unfinished.
We went inside. We had a leaflet to guide us and we investigated. The first bit, a particularly unfinished corner, was an exhibition on Viollet-le-Duc which didn’t interest us nearly as much as the giant fireplaces with chimneys leading dizzyingly to the skies above – yes, this is unusual. Often they’re blocked off and if they’re not, they tend to twist and turn. It’s rare to be able to see so far up a chimney. The next part, up towards what I think is Uther’s throne room in Merlin and simply into smallish rooms in real life, is basically storage. They built and restored so much stuff and there just wasn’t room to stick it all on the castle so these rooms are filled with the unused stuff so you can at least look at it. I was particularly taken with the chapel, when we popped out the end of this exhibition. The chapel is the height of the building and we were on the upstairs floor. The stained glass is spectacular, the height of the room is spectacular and just below our height was a row of shields – left blank, not yet decorated and probably not ever to be.
Now was the actual castle tour. We went into the donjon. This was where the state rooms were – the reception room, with incredible porcupine wallpaper in bright colours, the study, the main bedroom and the Worthies Room, the grand hall, a huge hall decorated with a large frieze of the Nine Worthies. This was the sort of room that must once have hosted banquets and balls and noise and music and I can never resist singing in that kind of setting. I don’t know any medieval music so I did the best I could with my small Baroque repertoire, relic of a couple of years in Early Music Group at school. La Cornetta and Pastime With Good Company seemed appropriate for that kind of hall and I whistled them into the empty echoing room.
Beyond the Worthies Room was the tower, a walk over the defensive mechanisms above the drawbridge and through various corridors until we reached the cellars. Those were creepy. It was dark and smelled of petrichor and weird music and voices drifted up from there. I reminded my Dear Sister that this was the medieval equivalent of the fridge, this was the cold place where the drinks were kept, this wasn’t a crypt or a dungeon and we went down.
There was an exhibition there, which once lived at the Louvre and has now been moved out of town – funeral casts of various important figures, none of whom I recognised. Room after dark room of sculptures, some of them lying with their hands folded, some of them propped up on their elbows looking bored and all of them lit by… not quite a disco ball but a coloured reflective plate that caused blobs of bright light to appear on the walls and there was a tape down there that muttered and whispered. It struck me as all being quite Instagram-friendly.
The last place of interest was the mercenaries hall, another large hall, but plainer than the Worthies Room, with a few more leftover bits of masonry on display. At the very end was a scale model of the castle, showing exactly where we were – on the ground floor but two thirds of the way up from where the castle actually starts.
We hung around a little longer, enjoying the courtyard and the towers and then we took the long slow route down, following a party of schoolchildren, back down into the village. We agreed that it was a very satisfying castle, especially for the price of €8 per person. We would have spent longer in the village but we’d emerged during the long lunch break and absolutely nothing was open. So we went back to the campsite for lunch of more baguette and then spent the afternoon on a pedalo on the campsite lake before, I’m sure, going back to the pool.