On Saturday, you read about my quick ‘night-time stop’ in Montreuil-Bellay, on the way home from Angers.
I’ve been driving past that castle since I began teaching in Angers back in September, 2017 and just a few weeks after that, in October 2017, I stopped in for a visit on my way home.
Here are a few pictures from that day…
The most impressive way to arrive at the castle is coming from the north-west, on the rue des Douves (road of the Moats).
The road curves steadily and gracefully up to the right. On your left, absolutely normal, everyday, French village homes – typically stone covered in stucco. On your left, the dry moats of the castle. A wall stretches between you and the moats, but generations-old trees provide discreet cover and cooling shade, all while offering glimpses of the Collegiate church that lies within the walls of the hilltop fortress.
Before we go any further though… let me give you a bird’s eye view so as to help you situate yourself as I’m describing the various parts of the castle. (The Thouet River runs along the top of the graphic)
La Collégiale de Notre-Dame
Many places close for lunch here in France and don’t re-open until between 1:00 and 2:00 p.m., so I wasn’t surprised to find myself having to kill some time before being able to take the tour. Fortunately, the church wasn’t closed and I was able to go in and take a peek around.
As you can see in the picture, the early afternoon sun was casting a warm glow on the wood paneling on the north side of the sanctuary. It made for an even nicer spot to sit and talk to the Lord for a few minutes. I forget what we talked about specifically, but having the place to myself means that it was a momentary haven of peace & quiet.
When I was done, I just wandered for a bit… looking at this or that detail, and was surprised to find a lovely pink bouquet brightening up the laver set off to one side of the adjacent chapel.
Heading back outside, it was about time to head into the castle. You can see here that, while the church is located inside the walled fortress structure, there is a space between it and a secondary wall, separating it from the inner sanctum, as it were, of the castle itself. After all… parishoners couldn’t be free to enter the castle itself.
I returned to the street via that pont that stretches over the dry moat and stood in front of the “barbican”.
The two towers that you see just to the right of the French royal flag is the inner entrance to the castle. Before coming to that, however, you had to pass through the fortified outer entrance, ‘the barbican’.
Here you get a good sense, too, of what a dry moat looks like. For as long as I remember, the notion of a moat was a familiar one… but it was always filled with water. Dry moats offered the protection of distance & separation, just as traditional moats do, but they were often used for keeping livestock or offering workplaces for other necessary if unglamorous tasks.
Though the gates had opened and I was able to get in, it wasn’t quite time for the guided tour, so I headed to the left, for a quick stroll through the gardens.
Here you can see that I’m now on the other side of the church – looking at it from within the confines of the castle-fortress, through an enclosed stairway leading from ground level, up to the walkabout atop the fortified walls. It is the simplest of garden structures, yet, draped with climbing roses, hanging on to the last remaining leaves before cool autumn nights strip the canes completely, this short stairwell perfectly framed the church.
The gardens were muted in their enthusiasm as it was October when I visited, still, the clipped box balls & low hedges provided structure that was still highlighted with a few colourful, cold-tolerant flowering plants – you can see the hints of pink here.
To the right of the church, you can see the historical residence, perched atop the hill between the entrance and the Thouet River, below.
The castle-fortress and church are surrounded by 13 towers which, today, are in various states of repair.
You see here what they would’ve looked like originally and what remains of one of the towers overlooking the Thouet.
We don’t get a lot of the vivid reds & oranges that grace autumn hillsides back in eastern North America, but the Virginia Creeper is one of the few plants to offer up what to me, is a traditional colour of fall. Just a little taste of home, like this, is always a treat… it just feels more like an honest-to-goodness autumn.
Kitchen & Servants’ Quarters
As I made my way back to the courtyard, Patricia, our guide, rang a small hand-held bell to let all of us wanderers know that it was time for the tour to begin. Our first stop was the historical kitchen of Montreuil-Bellay.
You’ll note that there aren’t many photos of the interior of the castle. This is for 2 reasons: (1) The kitchen, for example was quite dimly lit, so getting a good photo without lots of people was difficult. (2) The castle itself is still a private home, with lots of personal effects of the family, so we were asked to not take photos in those living areas. Fair enough.
Here you can see an abundance of copper cookware in the kitchen. This is not unusual in castle kitchens here… lovely displays of copper are pretty standard. Many of these pieces were original, and had actually been in use in this castle way back when.
Above that you see the cone-topped towers that frame the living quarters for servants. They typically consisted of a small bedroom with a wash-basin and, in the case of the resident priest whose room was upstairs, a small sitting room adjacent.
Coming out of the kitchen area, and standing beside those living quarters, we look directly across the courtyard to see the majestic tower of the historical residence.
The Guards’ Walk
Before going any further into the castle itself, we were given a few moments to discover the guards’ walk. It was essentially on the top of the wall, at the roof-level of the servants’ quarters.
I just showed you the tower of the historical residence, above. You can see from this first photo, that the guard’s walk is a good two and a half stories up (the four windows in the tower – photo from the previous section).
This photo also gives you a glimpse down at the barbican, the fortified outer entrance. It’s the low, fortified tower, with a walled passageway leading into the main structure.
The Wine Cellar
From the courtyard between the servants’ quarters and the historical residence, Patricia walked us down into the bowels of the castle.
Carved deep within the foundations of the fortress, in the stone precipice overlooking the Thouet, are tall, vaulted rooms which housed the original wooden winepress (still present) and left room for a healthy number of wooden barrels that would’ve contained wine from the castle’s own vineyard.
The Château Montreuil-Bellay label produces award-winning wines from the Cabernet Franc, Chenin and Chardonnay grape varieties, on 16 hectares of land within immediate vacinity of the fortress. They fall under the Saumur region wines.
From the wine cellar we visited the inside of the historical residence.
As I mentioned above, I couldn’t take photos, because it’s a private residence, filled with personal items, however this photo of the dining room comes from the castle’s website, and gives you a sense of the interior.
Not bad for a cozy dinner-party of eight! 🙂
The top picture shows you the formal entrance to that part of the castle, the historical residence. We didn’t use that door though, instead, we came out at the bottom of the tall tower which, in fact, houses a circular staircase. Of note, is the fact that the staircase houses a life-size replica of a horse – yes, it was big enough that you could walk a horse up.
The bottom photo shows the family crest set in what ressembles a star of David (I have no idea if there’s any relation or if the shape is purely coincidental). This crest adorns the inner entrance between the barbican and the interior of the castle. You can see that it’s far less ornate and fortified. This was taken as I ended my tour and exited the castle.
One of Many
Montreuil-Bellay is one of a myriad of castles that can be found all over France. It harkens back to a time that really pre-dates the modern nation-state as we know it and recalls a time when the national territory was controlled and administered by local nobility. Many of those noble families still exist today and the current occupants of Montreuil-Bellay are descendants of one such family.
This is just one of the castles that makes up that landscape that rolls by on my weekly drives…. and I love that about France.
For more info… see the Castle’s website.
Want to read about another nearby castle? I also visited the Château de Brissac, affectionately known as the “giant of the Loire Valley” for its 7 stories in height.