Category Archives: Historic Homes

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!

Chateau de Fontainebleau, Favorite Digs of Napoleon Bonaparte

Of the many facades of Fontainebleau, the grand double stairway where the defeated Emperor Napoleon Bonaparte said goodby to his loyal troops is the most famous.

But on my visit a few months ago, a temporary fence stood maddeningly in the exact spot I’d need for a good photo with the French national flag flying above it. Maybe someone was tired of tourists taking selfies there.

Inside and out, renovation at Fontainebleau goes on constantly. It’s impossible to see everything on one visit.

Invariably, parts of the chateau are closed. It’s not particularly visitor-friendly, either. English is used very sparingly inside. There’s an audio guide at the ticket window, but on one visit a request for one was met with a Gallic shrug. All the used audio guides were piled up at the exit and there seemed to be no plan to haul them to the entrance. So I had to wing it with my marginal French to read placards. (I generally figure that I can read about one word out of three. I’m way worse at understanding spoken French). Still, I’d go to Fontainebleau any time.

In early spring, people lounge around Diana’s fountain. (When it’s turned on, her hunting hounds pee big arching streams into the basin).

Napoleon 1er, painting by Anne-Louis Girodet and Jean-Baptiste Mauzaise, 1812

For me, the most interesting part of the huge chateau is the wing devoted to Napoleon, his family, and his exploits. It’s hard to get good photos of the portraits without glare in the long family gallery, but the effect is very grand.

Napoleon placed his nearest and dearest on thrones all over Europe.

Pauline, duchesse de Guastalla et princesse Borghese, Marie-Guillemine Benoiste, 1808

They all had a fine time while it lasted. I think Napoleon’s sister Pauline had the best time of all.

Pauline Bonaparte as Venus Victorious, photo by Architas, Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 4.0 International

Pauline married a Borghese and as a princess, was sculpted by Antonio Canova between 1805-1808. When asked if she was uncomfortable posing nude, she replied that it was fine: there was a stove in the studio. Also, it was reportedly her idea to pose nude; she liked being talked about. (The exquisite statue is in the Villa Borghese in Rome, where tourists are not allowed to take photos).

Madame Mere de l’Empereur et Roi, Francois Gerard, after 1805

Here’s Napoleon’s mother. What mom could be more proud of her boy?

Napoleon knew how to dress for an occasion. This was one of his many dressing-up outfits.

He liked his help to look sharp, too. This was a coat worn by one of his household staff.

But by all accounts, Napoleon was happiest on military campaign, in his campaign gear.

Of course, the great man was not about to rough it while conquering Europe. He traveled with several wagons full of what he needed for the style to which he was accustomed. His personal tent had a comfy folding canopied bed and a separate work area.

Even on campaign, Napoleon had everything he needed to look good at all times.

Empress Josephine in Coronation Robes, Francois Gerard, 1804

Napoleon attributed a lot of his good fortune to his first wife, Josephine Beauharnais. Sadly, she could not produce the desired heir, so he reluctantly divorced her.

Napoleon himself announced that he was “looking for a belly.” He replaced Josephine with the Habsburg Princess Marie-Louise in 1810. (I think this portrait was painted by Gerard).

King of Rome, painted by Francois Gerard, wearing the ribbon of the Legion of Honor

Cradle of the King of Rome (one of several)

Marie-Louise did produce a male baby, duly named the King of Rome, but his life was short and sad. Things were going downhill for the Emperor.

In his heyday, Napoleon received visitors in his Fontainebleau throne room. His throne featured his emblem, the honeybee. He chose it for its virtues of being constantly at work, constantly producing (honey), diligence, and orderliness.

But military defeats ended it all. On April 13, 1814, Napoleon signed the Treaty of Fontainebleau at this very table. Then he was off to exile on the island of Elba.

The rest of Fontainebleau is a strenuous trek through previous centuries of French history.

Above, that’s Francois I, his fire-breathing salamander, and a nice Diana the hunter that he commissioned.

The grandeur is actually a bit much to take in. And a lot of rooms are either closed or full of scaffolding.

I can see why even the royals of the past needed a little breathing room, as in the spacious balcony where they attended Mass in a chateau chapel. I read somewhere that the congregation of nobles below them were seated facing the royal balcony, their backs to the altar. It seems their job was to watch their betters watch the Mass.

I can see why Napoleon’s Roman-inspired Empire style was a breath of fresh air in his time. Above, that’s a daybed and working desk in Napoleon’s private study.

Fontainebleau is one of the best places to wander through French history, coming face to face with the personalities that shaped it. The town is fun and lively, too. I’d go back anytime!

Chateau Gaillard in Amboise: A Smiling Monk and Oranges from Italy

There’s a new chateau in town, complementing the touristic big guns of Chateau d’Amboise and Leonardo da Vinci’s last home, Clos Luce. (It’s not to be confused with the medieval Chateau Gaillard in Normandy, which was the stronghold of Richard the Lionheart).

It’s a smallish chateau. But it’s an interesting stop because it’s possible to imagine actually living there.

Gaillard is a respite from the main tourist track. The gardens are a work in progress, but they’re peaceful and green. And there are already oranges.

Dom Pacello da Mercogliano was a Benedictine monk with a genius for making things grow. He was also something of a hydraulic engineer; growing things always need water.

King Charles VIII brought Dom Pacello from Italy to Amboise in the late 1400s and installed him in this house a short hike from the king’s grand riverbank chateau. Pacello’s mission was to design beautiful gardens like the ones Charles remembered from Italy. Charles especially wanted oranges, which had never been grown in France.

An important part of Dom Pacello’s work was to figure out how to get water from the Loire all the way up to the chateau gardens high above the river. I gather that was no mean feat, and didn’t work out so well.

After Charles’ untimely death, the monk continued to work for his successor, Louis XII. It appears that Dom Pacello lived in France for the rest of his long life, dying at age 87 in 1534.

Once again after centuries of neglect, the estate has oranges in a lot of varieties. Charles would be pleased.

A family (whose name I don’t know) bought the property a few years ago. They’ve been working hard on restoring it and making it a tourist attraction. Other visitors report they’ve met the family and found them charming. I thought the admission price, comparable to major sights in the Loire Valley, was a little steep. But there are a lot of very positive Tripadvisor reviews. Quite a few visitors felt it was money well spent for the tranquility. People really appreciate a place for kids to run around and adults to relax.

There’s a colorful brochure in English, and apparently one English tour a day. We were in a bit of a rush and probably should have allowed more time to let the place grow on us. I did not see even a French tour going on, but there was a colorful little film (in French) running in a pretty garden shed.

It’s especially interesting to see how the mansion was built directly up against and even had rooms tunneled into the sheer rock wall behind it.

The local stone is tufa, and there are a lot of more humble “cave houses” in town.

About nine rooms of the house are open to visitors. The rooms are pretty and atmospheric. It appears that the family actually lives in the house.

They serve orange juice and orange cake on a pleasant terrace.

The website for the chateau is at

http://www.chateau-gaillard-amboise.fr/pacello-de-mercoliano-eng.html

Leonardo and Francois I at Clos Luce

In 1516, King Francois I imported his very own personal resident genius from Italy to his home in Amboise. He installed Leonardo da Vinci in a fine mansion just down the road, Clos Luce. It was close enough to the royal chateau to be connected by a short tunnel.

Leonardo was nearing the end of his life, but he still had plenty of ideas and plenty of energy. He lived and worked for three years at Clos Luce.

The house has lovingly recreated Leonardo’s workspaces.

It’s easy to think of the equally energetic Francois I escaping his royal duties for nice chats in Leonardo’s man-cave.

Francois’s long-suffering wife, Queen Claude, often visited Clos Luce to pray in the tiny chapel. Francois was reportedly kind to her, but he was away much of the time, building and fighting and spending time with his mistresses. Claude married at age 15 and dutifully went through constant pregnancies until she died at age 24.

Queen Claude of France, Public Domain

I’d like to think that Leonardo was a friend to Claude as well as Francois.

Today, visitors see the rooms where Leonardo lived and died.

The basement and grounds contain models of Leonardo’s inventions. Ball bearings? Check. A bicycle? Check.

He brought a few of his favorite paintings to Amboise, including the Mona Lisa.

The gift shop is well stocked with the famous lady’s visage.

Leonardo da Vinci by Francesco Melzi, Public Domain

Although the house and grounds are usually full of tourists and school groups, it’s not too hard to imagine that Leonardo just popped over to the chateau to see his good buddy Francois. Leonardo and Francois: a fine bromance.

On to lunch, with dessert, of course.

In honor of my visit to Leonardo’s home, here’s a first for me: a video. I can’t resist. My favorite place in Amboise, Patisserie Bigot, has a unique toilet.

The seat is perfectly round. Every time it flushes, the seat does a complete self-cleaning rotation.

If I were traveling with little kids, I would never get them away from this fascinating toilet. Maybe Leonardo invented it!

Virginia Woolf and A Room of Her Own at Monk’s House

Virginia Woolf was born on January 25, 1882. She was a central figure of the intellectual and artistic Bloomsbury Group, whose influence is still felt.  Virginia herself was an avant-garde novelist who changed the shape of the English novel with works such as Mrs. Dalloway, Orlando, The Waves, and To the Lighthouse.

Monk’s House is now a National Trust property. When I visited, I was thrilled to walk in the footsteps of Virginia and Leonard Woolf.

Virginia had suffered bouts of debilitating depression for much of her life, but she had always recovered. Between illnesses, she was a fun-loving friend and a wonderful conversationalist.  But she needed a certain amount of “alone” time in order to create.

In her country garden, she spent long hours composing her ground-breaking novels and thoughtful essays in her writing shed. It is furnished just as she left it.  It looks as though she just stepped out for a stroll through her flowers.

One of Virginia’s most famous works is the long essay “A  Room of One’s Own,” in which she examined the need for women to have solitary time and space in order to create. She knew all too well that most women had no writing shed or other personal space. Maybe her need for creative time and space is what prompted a friend, Lady Ottoline Morrell, to describe Virginia as “this strange, lovely, furtive creature.”

Inside the house, I could imagine long and lively discussions at the dining table, with the likes of Roger Fry, Lytton Strachey, John Maynard Keynes, T.S. Eliot, and H.M. Forster, not to mention Virginia’s sister the painter Vanessa Bell.

Her bedroom was originally added to the house as a writing studio.

But Virginia liked the airy room so much she decided to sleep there.  I would too.

Naturally, there are books everywhere in the house.

The drawing room is cosy, set up for long evenings of reading and conversation.

Are these his-and-hers chairs?  I can imagine Virginia in one and Leonard in the other.

On March 28, 1941, Virginia wrote a loving letter to her husband, Leonard Woolf, and walked out of her beloved country home for the last time. She made her way to the nearby River Ouse.  On its banks, she filled her pockets with stones, waded in, and drowned.  Her body was recovered almost 3 weeks later. She was 59 years old. 

After her death, Leonard had Virginia’s ashes buried in their beloved garden. A bust of Virginia stands nearby.  Her admirers leave stones beneath it.

Later, Leonard’s own ashes and bust took their places near hers. In her final letter, Virginia sadly explained that she could not bear another episode of what she called her “madness.” Possibly she suffered from what we would now call bipolar syndrome. At any rate, she described hearing “voices.” The last line of her final letter read, “I don’t think two people could have been happier than we have been.”

The photo  at the top of this post is from the article cited below, “Virginia Woolf: The Woman Who Remade the Novel,” by Jonathan deBurca Butler. The photo, of Virginia in 1902, is by George C. Beresford. The article is an excellent summary of Virginia’s life, her sad death, and her continuing influence on modern literature.

http://www.independent.ie/life/virginia-woolf-the-woman-who-remade-the-novel-34572892.html

Monk’s House is wonderfully maintained by the National Trust. Charleston Farmhouse, where Virginia’s sister Vanessa Bell lived, is nearby.  I would highly recommend a visit to both.

Engagement photo of Virginia Stephen and Leonard Woolf, 1912, unknown photographer, Public Domain

Join me next time for more explorations in the art and history of Europe and the British Isles!

 

 

Chateau d’Amboise

What if your job was to guard a strategic section of the important River Loire? And this was in medieval times when rival nobles considered themselves mini-monarchs with a duty to become maxi-monarchs by grabbing the lands and strongholds of their neighbors?

You’d probably build yourself a sturdy fort high on the riverbank and post lookouts in both directions. This happened all over Europe, and it happened in Amboise, on the River Loire in France. The exact history is hazy, but by the 900s the powerful Angevin counts had a fortress at Amboise. From the top of their sheer stone walls they could see everything happening below them in the town and on the river. Over the next few centuries, the nobles began owing their allegiance to actual kings of France.

In 1431, Louis d’Amboise, Viscount of Thours, was convicted of plotting against King Louis XI and sentenced to death. But instead he languished in prison until 1434 when the new king, Charles VIII, pardoned him. That was the good news. The bad news was that the king confiscated the chateau and it became the permanent property of the Crown.

Charles VIII grew up at Amboise. As an adult, he decided to extensively rebuild his childhood home.

Possibly he should have paid more attention to the details. Or possibly he just should have watched where he was going. At the age of 27, he knocked his head against a low door lintel and died. He left his young widow, Anne of Brittany, with the ironclad obligation of marrying his cousin, who became King Louis XII. Anne was still Queen.

Louis XII, Workshop of Jean Perréal, 1514, Public Domain

All this had been carefully written into the marriage contract, in order to assure that wealthy Brittany remained part of France.

However, after all that careful planning, Louis XII died without a male heir. So his cousin Francois became King Francois I. The young King Francois was raised at Amboise and lived there as an adult. He brought Leonardo da Vinci from Italy to Amboise to live out his golden years.

Le Mort de Leonardo da Vinci, Francois-Guillaume Menageot, 1781

There’s a famous painting depicting Francois tenderly nursing the dying Leonardo, but actually Francois was not present at the time, in 1519. However, the King did install Leonardo in a very nice mansion, Clos Lucé, just up the street. There was a tunnel connecting the mansion and the chateau so the two men could visit each other. It’s just a guess, but I think Francois did most of the visiting, glad to get away from the pressures of his court.

And Leonardo was buried in the chapel on the chateau grounds.

In 1560, France was embroiled in the Wars of Religion. A Protestant conspiracy was discovered and dealt with harshly. Over a period of about a month, as many as 1200 people were executed and many were hung from the castle ramparts, where they remained for a long time. This was not pleasant for anyone, including the chateau residents. The royals and courtiers departed, and Amboise began to fall into decline. The stained glass panel above is a modern depiction of the grisly situation.

Today, the approach to the castle is from the lively town of Amboise nestled below the formidable castle walls. That’s the royal chapel on top, where Leonardo rests.

The architecture is still forbidding. Nobody would wander in without an invitation.

The townside tower has a ramp big enough for several horsemen to ascend together. The ancient stonework is meant to impress and intimidate.

The castle itself, much restored and added to over the years, looks inviting, at least on a sunny day.

For me, the royal Chapel of St. Hubert is the best part of the whole chateau complex. It deserves its own post.

Inside the castle itself, though, there’s a lot to admire. The main hall is impressive.

I especially loved the stone corbels at the bases of the arches. I think the castle walls really did have ears. This fellow seems like a reminder to be careful of the intrigues of court life.

Anybody’s secrets could be trumpeted far and wide.

Does this fellow want out?

Of course the pleasures of nature were close at hand in the royal hunting grounds.

Are those the thistles of Scotland? Mary Stuart, who later became Queen of Scots, lived here as a child, then returned as a very young bride after marrying the Dauphin Francis in 1558. (He died young and she returned to Scotland).

There’s Francois I, supported by his symbol the flame-breathing salamander.

I don’t think any of the furnishings or even the rooms are in their original state–the chateau is too old for that, and too many lives have been lived there. But the rooms have the flavor of various historical periods. Above are fine Renaissance pieces.

Then there are rooms with a more Napoleonic flavor–although after the Revolution the damage was so great that Napoleon ordered large parts of the chateau demolished.

In fact, the chateau is not very well explained. There are placards, some in English as well as French. But even the French information seems pretty cursory. I know, for instance, that residents included Nicholas Fouquet after his arrest for angering Louis XIV by building a lavish chateau at Vaux-le-Vicomte. Henri II and Catherine de Medici raised their family here. But I couldn’t find any information about any of these people. Possibly some rooms were closed, or I missed some rooms.

Amboise is not my very favorite chateau, but it’s well worth a wander. And the pretty town of Amboise is a fine base for the Loire Valley.

Just walking the back streets is fun. It’s a real town, not a tourist trap. People live in pretty houses set in leafy yards.

In small houses that open onto the meandering main road, I admired one pretty doorway after another.

Some people live in ancient cave houses tunneled into the tufa stone bluffs, and a few of these cave homes are available to rent.

Right down the street from the chateau, Leonardo da Vinci’s last home is a big attraction. There’s also a new attraction called Château Gaillard–more on that in another post. Yet just down a narrow alley from these world-class attractions, I stopped to admire these feathery beauties just hanging out in their unfenced yard.

Amboise is a fine town where it’s still possible to get away from the tourist crush. Nobody here but us chickens!

Chawton, Jane Austen’s Great House

Happy Birthday, Jane Austen! Jane was born on December 16, 1775. She lived the last eight years of her too-short life in the famous cottage on the grounds of Chawton House, where she wrote and polished four of her six surviving novels. Jane’s clergyman father had died, leaving his family dependent on the kindness of relatives. But thanks to a quirk in the family’s fortunes, Jane’s brother was able to provide a home for his impoverished mother and his two spinster sisters, Jane and Cassandra.

The cottage is a pilgrimage site for Jane’s admirers (including me). But until 2015, we could not visit the “great house” where Jane and her family were grateful guests.

From the cottage in Chawton Village, Jane often walked up the country lane, past the village church, on her way to visit her brother.

Chawton House must have seemed imposing. How did all this come about?

Wonder of wonders, Jane’s brother Edward had won the 18th-century version of the lottery by being adopted out of the Austen family as a child. This was a great stroke of luck, but it made perfect sense to everyone concerned. As Jane would be the first to explain, people with any wealth to speak of really wanted a male heir to inherit their property and keep it in the family name. Edward fit the bill for the Knight family.

Above is Edward’s silk suit, which he wore as a very lucky adopted teenager, around 1782.

By adoption, Edward acquired the wealthy ancestors above, Jane and Thomas Knight, parents of his adoptive father Thomas. Thomas and his wife had no children of their own. So Edward Austen, son of a cleric of modest means, became Edward Knight and eventually inherited several grand homes and a lot of valuable property.

But nothing lasts forever. Over the years after Edward’s time, the house had various owners and proceeded to fall apart, as neglected houses do.

In 1992 the American businesswoman and philanthropist Sandra Lerner bought the lease and began pouring money into restoration.

In 2003, the house opened as a center for the study of early women’s writing. The house is still a study center and hosts exhibits.

Finally, in 2015, the house opened to tourists like me. (Weddings are also held there, no doubt tempting a lot of Jane-admiring brides).

Today, the house is charmingly old-fashioned, with a bewildering floor plan, creaky old floors, and cozy corners perfect for settling in with a good book.

It’s easy to imagine Jane, her mother and sisters at the dining table.

The house reminds me of my very favorite Jane Austen movie, the 1995 version of Persuasion starring Amanda Root and Ciaran Hinds.

The novel is set eight years after Anne Elliot has been persuaded by a well-meaning friend to break her engagement to the love of her life, Captain Frederick Wentworth, because he has no money or connections. Anne also refuses the proposal of a perfectly nice but uninspiring young squire who then marries her sister. Anne is destined to be a sad spinster.

But Captain Wentworth suddenly reappears as a now-rich man looking for a wife. Of course his pride has been hurt, so Anne is out of the question. Until this and this and this happens, and we’re off into the story. Much of the action takes place in a manor house very much like Chawton House, where Anne is often a guest, just as Jane was at Chawton. I think Anne Elliot has a lot in common with her creator, Jane Austen.

As in all of Jane Austen’s novels, there’s sharp satire of the British class system, the precarious financial position of most women, and the unavoidable importance of marrying wisely. There’s unbearable suspense hinging on the timely arrival of a secret love letter. There’s the tremulous joy of a long-awaited kiss. There’s true love at last for the intelligent woman who stubbornly waits for it, willing to be poor rather than suffer through a loveless marriage. It’s a fine, fine movie.

And Chawton House is a fine place to imagine Jane’s life as a spinster with a whole semi-secret life as a writer of genius.

https://chawtonhouse.org/