Usse: A Sleeping Beauty of a Chateau

Reading history, I often wonder why anybody in their right mind really wanted to be King or Queen. Shakespeare had it right in “Henry IV, Part 2: “Uneasy lies the head that wears the crown.” And that’s just for a monarch who kept his head, though Henry died unexpectedly not too long after his glorious victory at Agincourt. If I were lucky enough to be born an aristocrat in olden times, I’d hang back in the weeds and be a good servant of the crown. But they could keep the crown itself.

A succession of the aristocratic owners of Château d’Usse were good servants of the crown with no apparent ambitions to climb higher than safe levels. Their reward was a very nice life in their fairy-tale chateau perched on the bank of the River Indre. When they tired of their fine formal gardens designed by Le Nôtre, they could saddle up their horses and nip out their back door to hunt in the vast Forest of Chinon.

The various families enjoyed their aristocratic lives, racking up nice awards. This one is for the Ordre de Saint Esprit. The badge would look great on a sash for a formal occasion.

The older parts of the chateau have impressive carvings, like this armored Archangel Michael with his sword and scale of justice, all geared up for Judgment Day.

Various aristocrats owned Usse, starting with a defensive wooden fort in the 11th century. Today’s chateau took shape starting in the 1400s. The present owner, Casimir de Blacas d’ Aulps the 7th Duke of Blacas, still lives at Usse.

I visited Chateau d’Usse right after my escape from Fontevraud. (See previous post. Even on a sunny spring day, Fontevraud feels haunted to me, and not by friendly neighborhood-kid Halloween ghosts).

I admit I took a step backward when I walked into the entry hall. Figures from the Jane Austen era hovering on the spiral stairway! Elizabeth Bennet, is that you?

Not to worry! They were just mannequins decked out in family outfits from various eras, like these Victorian ladies.

The grand staircase, leading to the King’s Chamber, had spiffy Edwardian guests.

People from the Titanic era hung out in the King’s Chamber, looking elegant and relaxed.

Every chateau worth its salt kept a grand room ready in case the King decided to stop by. A copy of Rigaud’s portrait of Henry XIV graces the King’s Chamber, but I don’t think he ever actually visited. However, Emperor Haile Selassie the First stayed here in 1970.

Legend has it that Usse was the inspiration for Charles Perrault’s “Sleeping Beauty.” In a creaky tower, there’s a lovingly presented series of rooms showing life-sized episodes of the story. If I owned a mannequin company, I’d have Usse at the top of my list of sales calls.

Here’s the wicked stepmother.

Here’s the prince. Works for me!

And here’s the awakening.

The same tower stairway leads to the attics. Surprise! Wealthy aristocrats had tons of extra stuff to store, like some of us. But they had huge elegant attics. Those of us who love dusty old things are lucky that Marie Kondo didn’t come along with “The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up” until 2011.

Outside in the grounds, the formal gardens overlook the River Indre.

There’s an exquisite Renaissance chapel, finished in 1612.

Chateau d’Usse is pretty much off the beaten tourist path, and that’s its charm. Over the centuries, a lot of people lived out happy lives there, mostly underneath the turbulent currents of French history. I’d be up for that.

My Artsy Pandemic Year

My last trip was way back in December. It seems like yesterday, and also like it was years ago. I happily rode trains around Europe: Amsterdam, The Hague, Düsseldorf, Cologne and Haarlem, greedily looking at every piece of art along the way. No more of that for awhile. So in pandemic isolation, I’m making my own art. I’ve always been an occasional Sunday painter. Now pretty much every day is Sunday, so I’m working on becoming a better Sunday painter. Springtime in the Rockies of Colorado, fruit trees were in glorious blossom and skies were blue. I got out my brushes and tubes, aiming for a small painting a day. Pretty soon, Colorado Columbine were in bloom. Aspen leafed out and we took a lot of long sunny walks.

I filled my deck with flowers, managed to keep them alive, and set up my easel.

Late in the summer, a pretty little visitor stood outside my door early one morning. I think she would have come inside if I’d invited her. One of my cats demanded a portrait too. I’m waiting for a bear to raid the crabapple tree outside my window. Its leaves are just now starting to turn, and local bears are stuffing themselves again. This one spent most of a day a couple of years ago having at the crabapples. I realize how lucky I am to spend this pandemic year in a beautiful place creating whatever modest homemade art I can. I don’t take anything for granted. But I’ll be very happy if and when the day comes that I can wander again on planes, trains and automobiles, looking at art much better than mine.

Lawrence of Arabia, Incognito in Dorset

National Trust guidebook, detail of Augustus John’s portrait of Lawrence, 1919, now in the Tate Britain museum.

Given the chance, I always make a beeline for the home-turned-museum of any writer, whether I like the writer or not. Why? Because writers hardly ever made much money (most of them still don’t, truth be told) and lived quite ordinary lives. But a few became famous enough that their admirers somehow preserved their homes. My theory is that wandering around the home of a writer is one of the few ways to see how ordinary people lived back in the day.

Clouds Hill in the rural reaches of Dorset was once the home of a very non-ordinary man, T. E. Lawrence, better known as Lawrence of Arabia. I had a vague memory of him from the 1962 movie starring Peter O’Toole. I saw the movie on a high-school date in downtown Minneapolis. But what I really remember is Peter’s electric presence on the screen. And those piercing blue eyes! My date was probably a very nice boy, but I couldn’t tell you a single thing about him.

How did a world-famous war hero end up as a humble Private on an Army base, with special permission to escape during his free time to this tiny cottage?Why had he enlisted under assumed names as an airplane mechanic and later in the Tank Corps? Why did he want to disappear? What was the big deal about him in the first place?

The questions intrigued me enough to download and read Michael Korda’s biography while I was still traveling. I have to admit just skimming quite a bit of the intricate military and political detail. What I wanted was to understand the man, but he was so eccentric and so private that I think nobody ever really understood him. I think he liked it that way.

The following summary of Lawrence’s life is vastly over-simplified, but it at least begins to explain how he became what, with all due respect, I’d call a very strange dude. Korda’s book, the National Trust guidebook, and displays at the cottage are my sources.

Thomas Edward Lawrence was born an outsider in Victorian Wales in 1888. His father, Sir Thomas Chapman, had left an unhappy marriage, four daughters and prosperous estates in Ireland and run off with the family governess, Sarah Junner. She was herself an illegitimate child whose father was unknown to her. They called themselves “Mr. and Mrs. Lawrence” although they were never free to marry because Lady Chapman would not agree to a divorce. They had a small but steady income from investments, and raised their five sons together.

T. E. Lawrence had a fraught relationship with his parents. They tried to keep secret the fact that they were “living in sin.” His mother in particular underwent a radical religious conversion which she tried to impose on the family. She beat her most strong-willed son, sedated him, had him painfully circumcised at age 9, and by his account, tried in every way to get him to behave like her idea of a perfect child. (Good luck with that). He was glad to escape to Oxford, where he won First Class Honors in modern history in 1910. He went off to Syria to work on excavations run by the British Museum. Then World War I broke out.

The war found Lawrence serving as a Colonel in British Military Intelligence in Cairo. At the time, the Turkish Ottoman Empire ruled most of what we now call the Mideast. In 1916, the Arab Revolt began. Lawrence encouraged the uprising and quickly became one of its leaders, becoming adept at guerrilla warfare. He had a fine time of it, racing around the desert in Arab robes, blowing up railway lines, and earning the trust and friendship of Arab leaders like Prince Faisal. Finally, in 1918, Lawrence helped the rebels capture Damascus and the power of the Ottoman Empire was broken.

Lawrence had agreed to do all this because he believed passionately in Arab self-determination. But far above his pay grade, politicians had secretly planned all along to divide the Mideast into French and British sectors. He had been used.

Lawrence went back to England and wrote about his war experiences in his book “Seven Pillars of Wisdom.” But his fame dogged him. And it seems he suffered from what we would now call post traumatic distress syndrome–no surprise, since during the war he had been captured, tortured and raped. He needed a safe haven and anonymity. Friends helped him become a humble enlisted man, although his real identity was never much of a secret.

Lawrence was not rich, but he had enough money to gradually turn his cottage into a fine man-cave. He had a special reading chair built. He was a small man, only 5 feet 5 inches (Peter O’Toole was well over 6 feet). During the twelve years Lawrence occupied the cottage, he had a large library which was actually his most valuable possession, sold after his death.

He slept in his quarters on the military base, but lounged and listened to music in his cottage while he read and wrote. Besides his own writing, he worked on translations which brought in a little income.

He entertained friends and eventually built a sort of pantry with a bunk bed for visitors. He built a fine bathroom and figured out how to fill his tub with hot water, although the cottage never had proper running water. The cottage never had a kitchen. Lawrence made do with food from the Army mess and nearby cafes.

Another luxury was a series of expensive motorcycles which no mere enlisted man could afford.

Sadly, Lawrence crashed his last beloved Brough Superior on May 13, 1935 and died six days later without regaining consciousness.

There’s a lot to think about in Lawrence’s story, There’s the constant tension between high-level politics and the military people who try to carry out orders which might not have been truthfully explained to them. There are the lifelong physical and psychic wounds of warfare. There are the demands and pitfalls of fame. Lawrence’s strict Victorian upbringing looks in hindsight like it seriously damaged him, but it was probably not so unusual for the time. In his brief 46 years, Lawrence lived a full life, if not a happy one.

The 1962 movie is still well worth watching. In it, Peter O’Toole’s blue eyes are as piercing as ever.

Quarantine in Paradise, 2020

When I travel in Europe, I love to regale city dwellers that I meet with pictures of the wildlife outside my windows in my Rocky Mountain home. I always start with the yearling bear who tried to open my door and get in a few years ago.

No, you can’t come in!

He and his mother and brother were awake and hungry after a long winter of hibernation.

They found some ant traps outside (the green gizmo on the ground). I was worried that I’d carelessly poisoned them. A wildlife officer set my mind at ease. She said that if a bear ate about a hundred ant traps, s/he might feel a little bit peckish.

Springtime in the Rockies

I live on a ridge in a house perched above my smallish town. Seeing wildlife is always a thrill. Neighbors call each other about sightings, but we miss a lot of them as life goes on for the animals who were here first.

I live on the edge of a protected wildlife area. Moose are some of my favorite visitors, winter and summer. They drop by often to feast on my trees and shrubs.

My strictly-indoor cats like them, too.

This lady moose hung around for several days this spring. She was especially pretty and gentle. I’m still hoping she might return with a calf.

I am not so fond of mountain lions. I can tell if they stroll alongside the house in the middle of the night because my cats go wild. In winter, they leave tracks. Their long tails drag in the snow.

They’re big, they leave big tracks, and they pretty much eat what they want. That would include my cats, or (shudder) possibly me. I don’t go strolling around alone at night. But they are not known to stalk humans in these parts, at least so far.

Mountain lions are magnificent animals, but I don’t particularly want to see the one that’s been hanging out in my neighborhood lately.

I love foxes, though.

I hope they always feel welcome in our tall grass which we never mow.

My last trip to Europe was in December, before the pandemic grounded me and everybody else. The ski mountain shut down on March 15 and the town went on lockdown. The normally-bustling spring break season was a bust. I’ve never seen the town so empty. Everything closed, and locals hunkered down. Our hospital has only 42 beds, so we could not afford an outbreak. Our assisted living/nursing home had several cases of the coronavirus and several cherished elderly residents died. But compared to other places, we’ve been lucky.

During the Great Quarantine, most of us stuck close to home and waved at each other on frequent walks in our neighborhoods. We amused ourselves as best we could. One of my neighbors encouraged Silly Walks. Where’s John Cleese?

We’ll get some snowy days. In fact, last summer I arrived back in town after a trip in a blinding blizzard that dropped two feet of snow on June 25. But right now, the snow is mostly melted. Rivers and streams are rushing.

In the past couple of weeks, the valley has turned green and all the fruit trees have burst into blossom. Shops and restaurants are beginning to open. Most of the locals cheerfully wear the still-mandatory masks in the grocery store. The health-care and grocery-store workers, and fire and police personnel, are our friends and neighbors. We are deeply grateful to them.

I’d love to get on a plane and wake up in Paris or London or Vienna or Copenhagen. Or anywhere, really. But for now, I’m acutely aware of how fortunate I am to ride out the pandemic in a peaceful mountain town, my idea of Paradise.

Social Distancing 101 in Eyam, the Plague Village

In the year 1666, the residents of a little out-of the way village in Derbyshire, England became reluctant heroes of the Plague Year. Eyam (pronounced “Eem”) had between 350 and 800 residents in 1665. Between September and December of that year, 42 residents died of the bubonic plague that was devastating England. By the end of the fourteen months of plague, at least 260 villagers had died.

The contagion subsided in the cold winter months. But it returned in force in warm spring weather. By the spring of 1666, many families were desperate to leave–nearby villages had nowhere near the same high rate of infection. Even in faraway London, the rate of infection was much lower.

But on June 24, 1666, two village rectors took a courageous stand that no doubt saved thousands of lives. William Mompesson, who was new to the area and not popular, gathered the villagers and after much debate, persuaded them to self-quarantine. He enlisted the help of the previous rector in his arguments. It was clear to everyone that isolation in the village very likely was a death sentence for most of the people. But somehow, for the good of those in nearby towns and villages, they agreed.

William Mompesson, photo from BBC article cited below

Mompesson promised to relieve their suffering as much as possible and to stay with them to the end. He preached to the parishioners in a clearing in the woods rather than risking close contact in the church. He did as he promised; he survived, but his young wife died after nursing villagers for many months.

The Earl of Devonshire from his grand family seat at Chatsworth promised to provide food and supplies if the villagers isolated themselves. Items were regularly left in a certain location and the donors never made contact with the villagers. Aristocratic Chatsworth, with its vast profitable lands and countless residents, was worlds away from the humble working-class village of Eyam. It still is. The Cavendish family, owners of Chatsworth since 1549, still owe a debt of gratitude to Eyam villagers.

Photo from BBC article cited below

By August of 1666, villagers were dying painful, gruesome deaths at the rate of five or six a day. A woman named Elizabeth Hancock lost her husband and six children over a period of eight days. She had no option but to drag their bodies outside and bury them herself. (Later, another villager survived the illness and took over the job of burying victims).

At the time, no one knew the cause of bubonic plague, or how exactly it was transmitted. There was no effective treatment, and the death rate was about 30 to 90%.

The plague had arrived in 1665 in Eyam in a bale of cloth which contained infected fleas from London. A young tailor’s assistant named George Viccars opened the bale and found the cloth damp, so he hung it in front of the fire to dry.

Photo from BBC article cited below

The heat of the fire activated the fleas. Incubation of plague once a person is exposed takes only a few days. George Viccars was dead within the week, the first plague death in Eyam.

Today, Eyam is a sleepy village whose main feature is its church and graveyard, plus stone cottages with plaques naming those who died.

The church features a Plague Window that tells the sad but inspiring story.

Three of the above photos are from the BBC article cited below. Unless otherwise noted, photos are mine.

I highly recommend a book about Eyam in the year of plague, “Year of Wonders,” by Geraldine Brooks.

As the world deals with a new and dangerous pathogen, the coronavirus, we will most likely see many similar stories. Some people will selfishly hoard food and supplies, but some will also act with quiet heroism. May we support our scientists and caregivers, and may we treat each other kindly.

http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-england-35064071

Here is a more recent article about Eyam:

https://www.washingtonpost.com/history/2020/03/02/bubonic-plague-coronavirus-quarantine-eyam-england/

Downton Abbey Locations: Irresistible for a Fan

I managed to get to Highclere Castle, the “real” Downton Abbey, on a day it was closed to the general public. Now, I have no claim to fame and I was not invited to take tea with the current Countess, but I was armed with a yearly pass from the Historic Houses Association of England. Reading the booklet’s fine print, I let out a very unladylike whoop–it was covered! Hopeless fan of British eye candy that I am, I was not about to miss my chance.

We arrived at the estate in sunny Hampshire on a day when a fleet of classy British sport cars were parked on the grounds. Lord Grantham and his faithful golden labrador were nowhere in sight.

Full disclosure: my husband had seen exactly half of one episode of the TV show, but we share a fascination with British country homes. It’s always fun to be on the inside looking out of those imposing windows.

Alas, no photos were allowed inside, but after a short time cooling our heels outside the famous front door, in we went. Is that door-knocker a wolf? He’s just a little intimidating, for sure. Inside, the house looks exactly as it does on TV and now in the movie. No photos are allowed, but I can’t blame the owners. Visitors moved through the lush rooms quietly, not rushed, murmuring about their favorite scenes.

The movie’s other stately home location is Harewood–pronounced “Harwood,” of course. I never get British pronunciations right until I’m either corrected or I hear them from somebody who knows better.

Harewood is in Yorkshire (where Downton Abbey is supposed to be) and it’s very grand indeed.

In the recent movie, set in 1927, it’s one of the homes of Princess Mary, daughter of King George V and Queen Mary. She is married to Viscount Henry Lascelles, later the Sixth Earl of Harewood. He had a reputation for being difficult, especially after possibly suffering from shellshock in World War I. Also, he was fifteen years older than the Princess. But I can’t find any evidence that she ever considered leaving him, as in the movie.

Princess Mary was beloved for her gentle nature and her service during the Great War, including her gift packages in 1914 to every single British and Indian soldier, nurse or anyone who had a part in the war effort. The packages included tobacco, a pipe, cigarettes and a lighter in a brass box with a picture of her face. Those who did not smoke received boxes with sweets and such instead.

Harewood as it stands today was built beginning in 1759. The money came directly from the slave trade. Henry Lascelles, an earlier ancestor of the current owners, went to Barbados at the age of twenty-one and made his family’s fortune by astute, and apparently ruthless, exploitation of interests the family already had in sugar, cotton, rum and tobacco production–and in running slave ships.

The year 2007 was the Bicentenary of the Abolition of the Slave Trade in the British Empire, which happened in 1807. The Lascelles family had already sponsored research into the original source of their wealth, something very few British families did. In the Bicentary year, they sponsored a whole range of talks, tours, lectures and theatrical performances on the subject of slavery. Many if not most of the stately homes I like so much share the same history, but very few acknowledge it.

My old guidebook from a visit in the 1990s does not mention the slave trade at all. To their credit, the current owners have produced a new guidebook that not only tells the sad story, but tells how to access the actual historical records online.

The original Henry Lascelles may not have enjoyed his ill-gotten gains all that much. In 1753, he killed himself by slashing his own throat. (I have to wonder if his death was really a suicide, but that’s the story in the house’s current guidebook, above). His son Edwin Lascelles immediately began planning a grand house on the property he inherited.

The slave-trade money certainly bought beauty and luxury.

Robert Adam was a young Scottish architect, recently returned from studies in Italy and on the way up the social ladder when Edwin Lascelles hired him. The hallmark of Adams’s style was elaborate symmetrical plaster ornamentation on every flat surface, and especially on every ceiling.

Capability Brown designed the extensive grounds and gardens.

And Thomas Chippendale furnished the entire house from top to bottom.

Chippendale’s hall chairs, designed especially for the grand entry hall, were never sat upon–they were purely decorative. No doubt anybody like me, who might have plopped down in one, was never left alone in this most intimidating room.

Today, Jacob Epstein’s monumental alabaster sculpture “Adam” dominates the grand hall. It was made in the late 1930s and arrived at Harewood only in 1961. One wonders what “Downton Abbey’s” Violet Crawley, the Dowager Countess of Grantham, would make of this Adam.

Anglophile that I am, I’ll always fall for the beauty and romance of a way of life that only existed for a very few people in a very brief period of time. But I’m happy to see the true cost of such beauty acknowledged as it is at Harewood.

Child Portraits in Paris

Detail from Portrait de Werner Miller, Ferdinand Hodler, 1899, Musee d’Orsay

I love portraits of children. After a recent trip to Paris, I have a new favorite collection of them. The one above is newly-acquired by the Musée d’Orsay. (They had to do extensive restoration–the paint still has obvious cracks). It’s by the influential Swiss painter Ferdinand Hodler, 1853-1918. He carefully observed reality, but believed that the artist should go beyond appearance to reveal the underlying structure and essence of the subject. Young Werner Miller looks to me like a stern old man in a child’s body. Or maybe he’s a child clenching his fists in an effort to escape from an old man’s stiff pose?

Detail from “L’Enfant a la Poupee,” Henri Rousseau, 1904-5, Musee de l’Orangerie

Henri Rousseau painted this girl with a doll around 1994-5. She’s a beautiful child, but she also looks strangely mature. She looks self-aware, dead serious, possibly thinking intently of her future. Is the doll on her lap her adult self, upright and a little rigid? Could be. Then again, maybe she’s going to grow up to be a heartbreaker. Maybe the doll is a man that her future self will tame. She remains an enigma, in the Musee de l’Orangerie in Paris.

Detail from “La Petite Marcelle,” Berthe Morisot, 1895, Marmottan Museum

Berthe Morisot was one of the very few women Impressionists. She had a special rapport with children. I like that she didn’t seem to require them to play up to the viewer. (Of course, I know that the French tend to think people who smile are stupid. I try to remember that when walking along a Paris street, smiling my wide American-tourist smile at everybody I pass because I’m happy to be there). Berthe Morisot was married to Eugène Manet, brother of Édouard Manet. The Marmottan Museum on the outskirts of Paris has a large collection of her work.

Detail from “Julie Manet,” Pierre August Renoir, 1887, Marmottan Museum

Julie Manet, the daughter of Berthe Morisot and Eugène Manet, had her childhood portrait painted by Pierre Auguste Renoir, no less. Renoir had a particularly sunny outlook; he must have encouraged not only the child but also her cat to smile.

Julie Manet, unknown photographer, Public Domain

The Marmottan also displays a photo of Julie as a young woman. Sadly, both her parents died, leaving her an orphan at age 16. But she was cared for within her circle of artistic friends and relatives. Her uncle, Edouard Manet, also painted her, she became an artist herself, and she lived to the ripe old age of 87.

Detail from “Portrait de la fille de Jenny Le Guillou,” Eugène Delacroix, 1840, Louvre

Eugene Delacroix painted the daughter of his loyal servant and dear friend, Jenny Le Guillou, in 1840. Sadly, the child had died young. The portrait was posthumous. Jenny herself became increasingly important to the artist, fetching his paint from the shop and critiquing his work. She was with Delacroix when he died in 1863. It’s a lovely and sensitive portrait, and heartbreaking too.

Detail from “Deux Fillettes,” Vincent Van Gogh, 1890, Musee d’Orsay

Vincent Van Gogh painted these two little girls in 1890. I could look at this deceptively simple painting for hours. The child on the left is a serene beauty; the one on the right is not so pretty. In fact, she looks like an old woman, resigned but already grumpy about her lot in life. But there they are, sisters or maybe friends heading into their lives together.

All the children I know are going back to school in the next week. I wish them all happiness, plenty of new crayons, and childhoods long enough for them to grow into their best selves.

Egeskov Castle: A Danish Midsummer Night’s Dream

This year I am in pretty-far-north Minnesota for Midsummer’s Eve, but I have to say that Minnesotans don’t celebrate the Longest Day of the Year with much panache. So I’m hearkening back to my Scandinavian travels by remembering Egeskov Castle on the island of Funen in Denmark.

Egeskov was built in 1554 by one Frands Brockenhuus. I’m guessing it has stayed more or less within the same family; it’s still the home of the much-hyphenated Count Michael Ahlefeldt-Laurvig-Bille.

The Protestant Reformation brought civil unrest in addition to actual civil wars between various noble families in the 1500s. So they tended to fortify their castles. This one was built on oak pilings in the middle of a lake, at one time only accessible over a drawbridge.

The name “Egeskov” means “oak forest.” Legend has it that it took an entire forest to build it.

If I could read Danish, I’d know more about the military history of the castle’s families. Anyway, I think the armor on display looks impressive and I’m willing to believe it’s authentic. I do have to say, I’d be tripping on my own feet in the footgear, though.

There is plenty of military hardware on display too.

And like all European aristocrats, the family clearly enjoyed hunting in their private forests.

Want to imagine genteel aristocratic life in Victorian Denmark? Mannequins are happy to demonstrate how it’s done.

The beloved author Hans Christian Andersen was a regular visitor. He was born in the nearby town of Odense.

He used to amuse the ladies and children after dinner with paper cutouts, all accompanied by stories.

At some point, a friend of the family lavished years of work on a fantastic dollhouse, Titania’s Palace, which came complete with its own fairy mythology.

The British Princesses Elizabeth and Margaret visited as preteens.

I like the fine details of castles. Everywhere in the castle there’s exquisite wood carving and cheerful Scandinavian painting.

I love costume displays. Egeskov shows outfits that family members actually wore.

Head to toe, the Counts and Countesses of Egeskov were all set for any occasion.

One family member somehow acquired a section of a gown being made for Marie Antoinette. Now the embroidered pieces look a little forlorn, grafted into a plain white gown. (The room has a rather gory display of a bloody guillotine, which I could do without).

Of course I can’t help thinking that if any of my ancestors found themselves anywhere near Egeskov, it would be as servants.

The family has done a great job of monetizing their Renaissance castle. I’m sure it draws crowds in the high season of summer, but attractions are spread out all over the grounds in various outbuildings. Any one of the collections would be a destination all on its own.

For example, the vast vehicle collection is really fun. How about a sleighride through the forest?

Yes, but I want the crocodile sleigh!

I think my favorite thing in the entire visit was a luxurious but homey camping truck, apparently custom-fitted in the 1950s. Now that’s my idea of camping. It’s my idea of Danish hygge, too. I want it!

Back in the castle, the attic houses a fantastic collection of antique toys.

The attic itself is pretty interesting–many more of those oak timbers.

And there’s a legend that if the life-sized doll lying in the middle of it all is ever moved, the entire castle will sink into the lake at Christmas.

But right now it’s midsummer. Someone is returning from the long day’s celebration to this cozy room in the castle.

Sweet dreams!

A postscript: on June 21, the first day of summer 2019, I drove cross country from Minnesota to the mountains of northwest Colorado, only to encounter several inches of treacherous slushy snow and blizzard conditions on the mountain passes. So I won’t be complaining about whether or not the Scandinavians of Minnesota celebrate Midsummer properly. Hey, it’s all good!

Heartbreak at Notre Dame in Paris

I’m shocked to see the images of Norte Dame burning today. I was just there in December, and I took it for granted that it would always be there whenever I was lucky enough to return to Paris. I would not dream of visiting Paris without going inside to be awed once again by the majesty of Notre Dame.

But it appears that a fire started under the spire and spread rapidly. When I visited, I could see scaffolding around the spire; I understand major repairs were going on. The image above is a picture of a TV picture.

Now the news is that the entire roof has collapsed.

It is just unthinkable that a place of such beauty and spirituality is on fire. After all, the Cathedral of Our Lady was built between 1160 and 1260, and has stood through all the centuries of tumultuous French history since then.

I always think of Gothic churches as sort of fireproof because they seem to be made of stone. But actually much of the structure is wood.

Who knows whether Notre Dame can be rebuilt, or even whether the fire can be put out before it’s reduced to a pile of rubble. We can only hope the cathedral has guardian angels watching over it.

Azay-le-Rideau: Island Dreaminess and Bats in the Belfry

Once upon a time a beautiful chateau rose up on an island in the middle of the River Indre…well, not really.

Actually the Chateau d’Azay-le-Rideau began as a 12th-century fortress built to protect the road between Chinon and Tours, where it had to cross the River Indre. The site saw a lot of violence over the next few centuries, including an episode in the Hundred Years’ War when 350 soldiers occupying it were executed and the existing building was burned to the ground.

Finally, in 1518, one Gilles Berthelot acquired the property and set about building himself a grand Renaissance chateau. Gilles was the Treasurer of King Francois I, and the King allowed him to cut timber from the nearby Forest of Chinon. A lot of trees were needed to build on the swampy ground. As in the city of Venice, timbers had to be driven vertically into the ground to keep the stone chateau from sinking.

Naturally, Gilles featured his King and Queen prominently in his facade. That’s the fire-breathing salamander of Francois I and the meek ermine of his Queen, Claude.

The central stairway is one of the main architectural features.

I’m a big fan of stone corbels, like this dog guarding his bone from another dog.

Other stone figures are more fantastical.

Sometimes it’s all just a bit much, though. Time for a nap?

The chateau fell into decline in the eighteenth century. All the furniture and art was sold off. Since it became the property of the French government, it’s been refurnished in grand fashion.

I especially liked a bedroom lined with handwoven rushes–very cozy on those chilly evenings.

I have no idea who this lady is, but she’s lovely.

So what’s under that steep oh-so-French roof?

The attic is where the King’s forest timbers really shine.

The roof is a real feat of engineering, sixteenth century style. The original workmen’s marks survive. Everything had to fit together perfectly. It still does.

The colony of about fifty protected bats must enjoy the airy spaces.

Down on the ground, the thing to do is to circle the chateau, admiring the Renaissance grandeur reflected in the water.

And to make plans to come back.