Never underestimate the power of the imagination says Gillian Thornton as she enjoys the medieval fantasy that is Château de Pierrefonds.
Walking steadily up through the grounds of Château de Pierrefonds, I half expect to see Cinderella come running down the path towards me. Or maybe Rapunzel letting her hair down from one of the gleaming white towers. Even a fire-breathing dragon wouldn’t surprise me, though I’d certainly hope he was friendly. Because here at the Château de Pierrefonds, anything seems possible.
History of Pierrefonds
The small town of Pierrefonds nestles in the far south of the Hauts de France region in the department of Oise. There has been a fortress on the hill here since the 11th century, but in 1393, Louis of Orléans, younger brother of Charles VI was created Count of Valois. And, in a stirring story of family power play, Louis promptly ordered the construction of three new castles, including a rebuild at Pierrefonds.
Using state of the art medieval design and technology, The Count commissioned an impenetrable fortress, designed to repel his cousin Jean sans Peur, Duke of Burgundy, as they fought for the French crown. But in 1407, Louis’s takeover plans came crashing down when he was assassinated by the devious Duke.
The Count’s lavishly decorated castle remained empty until the early 17th century when enemies of Louis XIII took refuge behind its seemingly impenetrable walls. Bad decision. Artillery weapons had moved on and Pierrefonds was no longer impenetrable. Captured by the king’s troops, it was subsequently dismantled, a threat to royal supremacy no more.
What to see at Pierrefonds
So how am I now able to walk beneath magnificent round towers with ornate medieval turrets, through an impressive gateway, and into an ornate inner courtyard to the foot of a magnificent staircase? For that, we have to thank not kings, but emperors.
Fast forward to the 19th century and the age of Romanticism when artists arrived to paint the ruined walls at Pierrefonds and writers dreamed amongst its old stones. In 1811, Napoleon I bought the crumbling castle, but it was his nephew, Napoleon III, who was to breathe new life into Pierrefonds.
The Emperor already owned a grand imperial palace across the forest at Compiegne where he held lavish receptions designed to impress, but he wanted a private residence too where his close family could stay. The ruins at Pierrefonds – barely ten miles from Compiègne – offered enormous possibilities in the right hands.
Enter Eugène Viollet-le-Duc, the must-have architect of the age, who was passionate about the medieval period and had travelled widely in Italy and France with his friend Prosper Mérimée, then inspector of historic monuments. Mérimée entrusted his travel companion with the restoration of important religious and civic buildings including the Cathedral of Notre-Dame in Paris, Mont Saint-Michel in Normandy, and the walled city of Carcassonne. Pierrefonds was to be his last, and arguably most imaginative project.
Viollet-le-Duc began work at Pierrefonds in 1857, but to modern standards, his idea of restoration is somewhat controversial. ‘Restoring a building is not maintaining, repairing or redoing it,’ he declared. ‘It’s restoring it to a complete state that may never have existed at a given time.’ In the process, he wasn’t beyond removing original features.
So rather than an authentic medieval rebuild, the Château de Pierrefonds we see today is Viollet-le-Duc’s idea of how he felt a castle from the Middle Ages should look. Fanciful it may be, but his work had a hugely positive influence on public interest in historic monuments, and his illustrated books on architecture would be used by generations of architects to come.
So as I walk up through the park on a sunny summer day beneath eight soaring white towers, I’m not surprised to see a carved figure adorning each one. Not medieval knights though, but famous warrior kings from across the centuries including David and Joshua, Caesar, Alexander the Great, and King Arthur.
Step into the inner courtyard and the style changes again. I’m no architect but I do know a Renaissance window when I see one, although I’ve never seen rooftops embellished with stone cats before, a nod to Viollet-le-Duc’s own cat who kept him company while he worked. If you have young ones with you, download the children’s activity booklet and complete the puzzles with Théobald the cat as your guide.
Whichever way I turn, I spot another eye-catching feature. Three giant stone salamanders with gaping mouths embellish blank walls, whilst an equestrian statue of Louis I of Orléans stands by the grand staircase that leads to the main entrance. Inside there are more surprises. The castle’s permanent exhibition presents decorative pieces from the Monduit workshops, famous for their sheet metal work, which features here at Pierrefonds. And on the chapel gate, Viollet-le-Duc is depicted in pilgrim’s clothing, accompanied by Louis of Orléans and his wife Valentine Visconti of Milan.
In medieval times, the castle keep would have contained the apartments of the ruling family, the last retreat in the event of a siege. At Pierrefonds, you can expect lavish decoration around the walls ranging from carved animals and plants to symbols of the Empire. And as the last word in 19th century home comforts, you’ll even find flushing toilets.
The castle cellars date back to the 14th century but the vaults were rebuilt in the 19th century and it is here that I find Le Bal des Gisants, one of the most unexpected exhibits at Pierrefonds. A gisant is a recumbent statue usually found on tombs and this collection of replicas was commissioned by King Louis Philippe to pay tribute to an eclectic collection of figures who had brought glory to France across the centuries, including Louis d’Orléans, builder of Pierrefonds. Originally kept at Versailles, the gisants are now kept here, atmospherically displayed beneath moving coloured lights against a soundtrack of whispered poems
Viollet-le-Duc’s fanciful interpretation of the Middle Ages may not please visitors who come to Pierrefonds hoping for a true-life medieval experience, but I loved it. Not authentic for sure, but quirky, imaginative and beautiful in its own unique way. Pierrefonds was one of several European castles that inspired Walt Disney for classic tales such as Sleeping Beauty, Cinderella and Snow White, and it has been used as a film set for many movie directors since.
Last stop for visitors is the model castle, made in stone for the Exposition Universelle in Paris in 1878 and weighing 4500 kg. Created under the guidance of Lucjan Wyganowski, inspector of the castle works, it was designed to show the public the scale and importance of the reconstruction works. Nearly 150 years later, it still has the power to amaze.
Begun in 1857, Viollet-le-Duc’s fantasy castle took more than 20 years to complete and was unfinished at the time of his death in 1879. But the work was carried out according to the master’s plans by his son-in-law, artist Maurice Ouradou. Finally completed in 1884, this fairy tale castle never became an Imperial residence but opened to the public in 1867, a stunning museum of medieval architecture with just a few more contemporary extras!
Château de Pierrefonds is open daily, apart from 1 January, 1 May and 25 December. For opening hours, see www.chateau-pierrefonds.fr For information on local walking trails, heritage visits and remembrance sites, visit www.destination-pierrefonds.fr
By Gillian Thornton, one of the UK’s leading travel writers and a regular writer for The Good Life France Magazine and website.
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