If there’s been one dominant theme for the kids during our stay in France, it has been castles. With a 700 year old fortified tower outside the bedroom window, this was probably inevitable.
Back in October I was the parent helper on Conrad’s monthly class trip to the local library (particularly memorable because his teacher decided that I should perform ‘heads, shoulders, knees and toes’ in English for the enthusiastic six year olds…!). Anyway, Conrad picked out a big book about medieval castles, and the full-on obsession began.
That afternoon Conrad set about building a ‘castle’ with the living room furniture. He summoned us excitedly to see the final result, proudly declaring: “I built it EXACTLY like the one on the front of the book!”
I took this photo for comparison…if you use a hearty dose of imagination you can see the drawbridge and a couple of ‘towers’. (The Lego is all over the floor because the tub was essential for the design.)
Next we made a small castle from a cardboard box and a Starbucks cup Michael brought back from Paris (we’re thrifty- we reuse those paper coffee cups…;>) At first it was populated with paper knights stuck to lollipop sticks, and then with Playmobil knights the children got as freebies with the “Quick Burger” version of the Happy Meal.
Obviously the kids needed a second castle to launch attacks at the first, so Michael got involved and built one from food tins and boxes.
Since then we’ve visited a string of fantastic real castles in the Champagne region.
- Ferté-Milon. The castle was begun in the late 14th century, but came to an abrupt halt fifteen years later when the owner, the King’s brother, was assassinated on the orders of his cousin (seems like a lot of this kind of stuff went on…) Much of what was left was destroyed during the French religious wars, and now all that remains is the façade. The main arch was built to a massive, awe-inspiring scale. From the castle’s position on a hill, there’s a magnificent view down to the Ourcq canal, with a large slow-turning waterwheel and an unassuming iron bridge built by Gustave Eiffel, about twenty years before he set to work on the Eiffel Tower. (There’s a great-looking bistro beside the castle ruins, but we didn’t go there because we have four little kids…sigh…)
- Fere-en-Tardenois. We drove the 40 minutes to this castle on a last minute whim. There are no gates, and you can simply wander over to look across a deep, paved moat to the ruined towers on the central mound.
A superb “gallery bridge” of five high arches was added in the 16th century, and we strolled over it feeling that extra sense of adventure you get exploring a near-deserted place. The castle’s last owner donated the ruins to the local authorities when he died just 20 years ago. So far the site is largely undeveloped, but the adjacent stables have been turned into a luxury hotel. (We vowed that some years from now we’d return for a romantic stay…of course we’d probably end up just missing these crazy days with the kids…)
- Provins: A medieval walled town, famous enough as a trading center in the Middle Ages that it had its own currency, the ‘Provins penny’, recognized throughout Europe. Caesar’s Tower is kind of like a castle, but the real draw for us was the “Legends of the Knights” show out by the town ramparts. It was cheesy, and fantastic. Horseback stunts, sinister wolf knights, and a love interest for the crusader-poet knight, Count Thibaud IV of Champagne. The kids loved it.
Horseback stunts, sinister wolf knights, and a love interest for the crusader-poet knight, Count Thibaud IV of Champagne. The kids loved it.
- Pierrefonds: A castle was first built here in the 14th century, but was destroyed inside a couple of centuries. In the 19th century it was completely rebuilt as an idealized medieval castle, which makes it a sort of awesome fake. The first sight of the fairytale towers through the autumn leaves was magical. There’s an imposing drawbridge, and a courtyard lined with intricate stone carvings. Inside the rooms were mostly bare, but that didn’t matter because next we went to….
- Chateau Vaux-le-Vicomte: It’s hard to imagine a more exquisite French chateau. The original manor was bought in the 17th century by a young parliamentarian, who hired an architect, a painter and a landscape gardener to create one of the most beautiful homes in France. The poor man was promptly arrested on orders of the envious king, and sentenced to life imprisonment.
Vaux-le-Vicomte changed hands several times, and was bought 140 years ago by a wealthy businessman who’d made his fortune refining sugar. He restored the chateau and grounds to their full glory, and his ancestors now run it as a tourist attraction. Every room was filled with beautiful furniture, catalogued on excellent display boards, and we’d timed our visit for the first weekend of the famous Christmas decorations.
The rooms were filled with magical scenes and trees decked with ornaments. The theme appeared to be candy in all its forms. In fact the whole chateau smelled faintly of sugar. It was enchanting.
I have no idea whether the childrens’ love for castles will last beyond the impending end to our France stay, but I’m definitely hoping that it will!