This story has got quite long roots, so I shall start at the beginning…
As a 16 year old artist, I did a project on a local church for my exam. It was the church where I’d been christened and also, coincidentally, designed by the guy who did the Palace of Westminster – Charles Barry. It awoke in me a love of neo-Gothic architecture which awakened a love of original Gothic architecture and then architecture in general.
Then, as a 17 year old French student, I stayed for three weeks on exchange with a girl in Le Mans. Her mother did a very wonderful thing. She took us on day trips through the Loire valley and I got to feast on the very best of chateaux, from Blois and Chenonceau to Chambord, Azay-Le-Rideau and Amboise. When I got back, I seriously considered doing architecture for my degree and only chickened out because of the maths of it. I’d had enough of Pythagoras by that point.
Roll forward another 17 years and my sister and I came to visit my dad in the Charente. We hired a little Renault Twingo and tried to get to see a little more than my dad’s house and Géant Casino. I looked at a few tourist brochures and decided La Rochefoucauld might be nice.
Of course, I fell in love with the chateau.
It’s not big. It’s not grand. It’s not sublime. It wouldn’t be in a top ten of chateaux to visit if you were coming to France to see chateaux, but it is – quite rightly – the pearl of the Angoumois. And yesterday, I went inside for the first time!
The castle sits on a rock looking over the Tardoire and I’ve seen many a tourist stopped on one of the roads on the way into town, gawping and straining – not quite believing what they are seeing.
If you’ve been to Chenonceau or Chambord, you can see this is in the same style. Turrets, shiny grey roofs. It also has lots of other things in common outside. Of course, coming in over the bridge at the bottom of the river, I felt more like Terry Jones in Monty Python and the Holy Grail, talking about finding a nice bit of muck. I’m peasant-stock, not princess-stock, I think.
I had always thought the castle was a square with a courtyard in the middle, but it isn’t. It’s a kind of U shape. The open end looks out over the Tardoire and the fields; the sides look down over the town. There are two storeys of gallery walk ways around the inside, and yesterday in the heat, they were gloriously cool. The open end must face north west, because it cannot get very much sun at all. Still, with the rolling countryside and the elevated position, it is about the best spot I’d seen for an infinity pool. If I were a princess here, I’d install a pool and kick out the visitors.
The rooms are tastefully restored, if a little bare compared to those of bigger castles. In a funny way, it seems more like you could live in them. All I thought as I was wandering around was how cold it must be in the winter, and how hard to heat. I could see wood burners in every room, or huge open fireplaces, and I just thought that they probably wouldn’t even put a dent in the temperature even if they were going full pelt. See, even princesses’ lives have disadvantages.
There is a huge chapel that forms part of the building – bigger than my village church. The stained glass is gorgeous and stare-worthy. The church in La Rochefoucauld also has a rose window of stained glass – but this chapel seems light and airy in comparison. Religion is obviously less awe-inspiring and less oppressive to the rich.
I loved the fire in the kitchen – it’s definitely my kind of fireplace. It seems funny to see it empty and clean, and I couldn’t help imagining it full of bustling scullery-maids and cooks and boys to stoke the fire. I wonder if this castle ever had such life? All castles seem so austere and empty that it’s hard to imagine them filled with life – a whole sub-strata of hired help to support the landed gentry.
I, of course, loved the library. I’m led to believe the current chatelaine of the castle is rather protective of her books, and there she was, cornered in the library. I love the displays of old books, but they always make me think of Gatsby’s library, none of them ever read or enjoyed. If I lived here, this library would be filled with well-thumbed, tatty copies of books and I’d be just as ferocious about guarding them. Books are my treasure and I can that La Chatelaine thinks the same. Still, I’d love to spend a winter’s evening by the fire in the reading room…
I’d be a very bookish princess.
The castle not only has its own chapel, but its own cave. Hardly surprising when you think that cave systems run throughout this whole region. Quite oddly, there was a mermaid bathing in a tub in one of them. It seemed quite strange and out of keeping. Still, who’s to say that if I didn’t have my very own cave, I’d keep a life-sized mermaid doll in there?
The La Rochefoucauld castle is very, very lovely and I was glad I’d spent my 2€ to come in and gawk at the inside. I guess peasants back in the day didn’t have much opportunity to come inside and gawk and spent most of their time on the outside looking in, just as I have these last three years.
Still, next time I pass, I shall think of the draughty rooms and be glad of my little sitting room that’s so easy to heat. It must be autumn, as all I can think about is being warm!
La Rochefoucauld is approximately 20 minutes north west of Angouleme by car, off the N141 on the way from Angouleme to Limoges. The castle is open regularly and tours are usually 10€ for adults. You can also hire the castle for weddings and events.