Moving in closer, I photographed some of the details: the balconies edged with stone railings that ran in a long line across the facade, and the carved stonework over the massive main entry doors set at the end of a narrow stone bridge leading over the dry grassy moat. Then I crossed that same bridge myself and went in.
I’d been warned by Denise that the château was now a museum, but in my mind I’d pictured something much like Hampton Court—rooms made to look as they’d looked in the past, with paneled beds and tapestries and those great portraits in which all the faces looked so much the same that to tell them apart was a challenge. But this wasn’t anything like that. The château had been entirely repurposed as a museum of archaeology, the old rooms all refitted with exhibits showing finds from Paleolithic times through the Bronze and Iron Ages, and the Romans to the early Modern era. They were probably important finds, but honestly I paid them no attention. I was more absorbed in searching out the little plaques explaining what the rooms had been originally, and in finding features that appeared to have survived unchanged, most notably the stairwells with their stone steps and their intricately vaulted stone-and-redbrick walls and ceilings, and the leaded windows looking out towards the central courtyard.
I liked courtyards—the sense of seclusion, of echoing quiet and peace—and this one, when I managed to make my way out to it, wrapped me in all the sensations I loved. The château itself wasn’t square; it was more an elongated pentagon, meaning the courtyard had five high enclosing sides shutting it off from the commonplace world. Four of these had beautiful cloister-like repeating arches with more arches above them, four stories of glittering windows surrounded by pale stone and edged in red brick, with round towers to mark the interior stairwells set into each corner. The fifth side of the courtyard, most lovely of all, was the wall of a chapel, with windows more beautiful than all the others, tall windows of restful green glass that soared heavenward inside their frames of stone tracery.
I had the whole courtyard alone to myself, and I could have explored any part of it, but I was drawn to that chapel, which inside was even more impressive—long and filled with quiet light from those tall narrow windows, and designed so that the vaulted ceiling’s weight was borne entirely by the walls so there were no supporting columns needed here to spoil the perfect open beauty of the nave. A huge rose window filled the western wall, but at some point it had been covered over from the outside and its glass had been removed to show the stone of what I guessed to be the wall of some addition to the castle, though the sunburst wheel of intricate stone tracery remained. And best of all, at least for me, where once the altar would have been there stood a glassed-in case that housed a model of the château, built in miniature.
I had a thing for models. Not only was it easier for me to understand things when they were presented to me in their concrete form and not the abstract, but the mathematical precision and exactness used to build to scale were pleasant to my eye. This model was a fascinating thing. Raised up to table height, it was so detailed and extensive that I had to walk the whole way round to view the full expanse of the château as it would have appeared at the end of the seventeenth century, not long before Mary Dundas was born.
I hadn’t realized it was so large. I’d thought this massive pentagon of rooms that I’d just toured through would have been the greatest part of it, but in the model I could see the pentagon—the “old château”—was nothing but a small bit at the western end, eclipsed by what the label on the model’s case described as the Château-Neuf or the “new château” that spread right to the Seine. The model showed its grand palatial walls, with tower-like pavilions marking out the corners, and the perfect mirrored symmetry of all the steps and terraces that led down to the river. Clearly there was more for me to see outside.
I took a careful set of photos of the model, checked the time, and seeing I had twenty-seven minutes left before I had to meet Denise, I left the quiet refuge of the chapel and the courtyard and went out again, across the little bridge that spanned the moat, and round the corner through the tall black iron gates into the grounds.
I should have been more fond of French formal gardens. They were, after all, about order and symmetry—man taming nature by shaping it to his unyielding design—but I didn’t like wide-open spaces with nothing around me to serve as a shield, so to stand in a garden like this made me feel unprotected and far too exposed. I preferred English gardens—the overgrown corners with tree branches hanging however they pleased, and the tucked-away benches with hedges and warm brick walls guarding my back.
There was nowhere to hide here. What hedges there were barely came to my knees and the broad expanse of gravel I was standing on was too broad and too open for my comfort. Even the facade of the old château, stately and large as it was, stood too many steps distant to offer me shelter.
This side of it was longer, more imposing than the side that faced the street, as though the castle was more conscious of its need to make a statement here. It stood above the geometric landscape with a silent sort of majesty that almost made me feel a little sorry for it, wasting all that effort to look regal when the only person noticing was me.
In fact, if I were pressed to put a name to how the château looked to me from here, I would have settled on the word forlorn.
The wind, as if to underline the thought, blew in a colder gust that chilled my ears and made me hunch deeper in my scarf. I walked the long way down to where the wide path met an iron railing at the top of the steep bank that dropped to meet the river. And all that way, from where the old château’s walls ended to the point where both the railing and the path were tied together by a building of red brick and old white stone that looked like one of the pavilions, there was nothing else remaining of the grandly sprawling “new château” depicted in the model in the chapel. It was as if a child’s hand had swept a castle built of blocks aside without a care, replacing everything with houses and apartments set in rows behind a high obscuring hedge.