A couple of years ago we had an autumn break in the Loire valley, France. It is a wonderful time of year to visit the region. Grand chateaux lie nestled among golden autumn leaves, while restaurant menus buzz with the season’s finest produce.
One of the most beautiful and enchanting visits was to the Chateau de Chaumont, home to an annual arts and garden festival. This is a record of our visit in 2013.
On a sun-filled Halloween morning we arrived at Cheateau de Chaumont to find a garden filled with pumpkins and gourds. Skewered and spiked into the ground, strung and swinging from the trees, it was a glorious ghoulish celebration.
Strolling through the garden, we took the meandering path up the hill. Around a corner the chateau, a huddle of chunky towers framed by ancient cedar trees, came into view. Beyond it, the sky floated above the valley below for miles. A perfect azure sky.
Crossing a drawbridge we entered the chateau, a mix of art gallery and historical rooms. Halloween was a perfect day to visit Chaumont.
The visit begins with the historical rooms which document the castle’s story. The rooms are sumptuously decorated with period furniture and extravagant, seasonal displays of vegetables and flowers. At one time Chaumont became a pawn in the battle between a powerful Queen,Catherine de Medici, and her husband’s mistress, Diane de Poitiers. It is a dramatic tale of love, betrayal and power.
Leaving the last of these rooms, we found ourselves at the castle’s grand spiral staircase. Climbing to the attic, the mood changed completely. Entombed in these rooms were the ghostly imprints of the people who, over the years, have called the castle home. Paint and faded wallpaper peeled from the walls, the air was chill and only an occasional shaft of sunlight penetrated the grey-gloom of bare and empty spaces.
Originally, these were the servants’ rooms. At some point in time, they had became storage space for a variety of furnishings, all of which remained covered in a carpet of powder grey dust.
The attic was also the start of the art exhibition. Stained glass panels fashioned from photographs, some modern, some period, by French Armenian artist Serkis Zabunyan were placed in front of the windows catching the little light that came through.
In some rooms it added another dimension, but most of the space was fascinating without the need for anything extra. With so few visitors, we were often the only ones in a room which made the whole experience eerie and melancholy. At times all we could hear was the sound of squeaking, creaking boards as we walked through the deserted rooms.
The opportunity to see the rooms as they must have looked when the chateau was taken over by the local authority was fascinating. It was a huge contrast from the relentless furnished rooms that are usually found in stately homes and castles. They have their place, for sure, but this was a unique experience. It was intimate and hauntingly beautiful.
From these rooms, we descended to the next floor where the rooms have been turned into a more traditional gallery space. Invoking the concept of a forest, art installations by English artist David Nash, and French artist, Eva Jopin, filled the rooms. It was an interesting use of material and space.
The grounds, stable buildings and barns are all used to house a variety of sculptures and installations. They certainly add to the visitor experience and are a clever way of combining modern life with history. One favourite was “Baron in the Trees”, by Francois Mechain, a series of ladders hanging from a tree; an invitation to look at the world from a different perspective.
The stables at Chaumont are the best preserved in France, and in their glory days were the most luxurious. The Tack Room houses a complete set of saddles and harnesses by Hermes.
The rest of the stables are a gallery for more installations. The inflatable works by Klaus Pinter were particularly spectacular. “Chrysalide” in the training ring was a wonderful architectural form seeming to float in a giant hoop. It was a clever use of space and perspective because the view was restricted to one angle.
“Golden Magnolias” was a giant transparent ball covered in copper flowers. It reminded me of the giant rolling ball in the Indiana Jones movie. This one was safely secured and had a delicate beauty.
The combination of art and history is masterfully and sympathetically executed giving visitors plenty to enjoy and consider. I did not like all the art, but I enjoyed seeing the different interpretations by artists from around the world.
The highlight of the visit was the opportunity to see the empty, dilapidated rooms of the chateau. It was fascinating to see how much care and work is needed to bring a room back to life, but more than that, it was the wistful echoes of time that were so captivating.
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