On the northern shore of Sicily are still to be seen the magnificent remains of a castle, which formerly belonged to the noble house of Mazzini. It stands in the centre of a small bay, and upon a gentle acclivity, which, on one side, slopes towards the sea, and on the other rises into an eminence crowned by dark woods.The situation is admirably beautiful and picturesque, and the ruins have an air of ancient grandeur, which, contrasted with the present solitude of the scene, impresses the traveller with awe and curiosity.(Ann Radcliffe – A Sicilian Romance 1792)
The Diplomat and I were off on a family holiday to France. Having decided to go for airbnb.com homes in order to maximize personal space one of the places we spent ten days at was a forgotten château just outside Neuillé-Pont-Pierre (about 10km NNW of Tours) known as “La Gagnerie”. Whilst not quite as grand as the Mazzini castle of Radcliffe’s opening description it grabbed at us with all the romance of that novel. We were housed in an old, renovated hunting lodge. Next door was a crumbling 18th century chateau, ostensibly the newest building of the lot amongst a medieval cave, two lakes, thousands of acres of forest, stables, barns and old stone dog kennels. Throw in an affable caretaker by the name of Alain, an ivy clad gite humming with bees, orchards bursting with fruit, horses who liked to munch Isla’s proffered carrots and a night sky that glittered with all the stars of the Universe’s splendid creation and you’ve ticked every box you care to name.
Want to go see the Loire? Stay at this place. You won’t beat it.
A little history: turns out the place was bought by the current family in the 20s. Of South American heritage the place was abandoned to the Nazis during WWII (there’s a story of drunken revelry that meant a soldier toppled off the first storey stone balcony to his death….didn’t see a ghost though). Inevitably that sojourn ruined the place and it was left in an abandoned state for thirty five years until the mid-80s when roof repairs were made….and then stopped. The result is your own ruined chateau to cautiously poke about in. So I did…
…strands of grey, aging webs hang like grimy chains across the gap between door and wall. Outside beckons the lit safety of a pale stone path, green grass. In here, I am captive in a tenebrous twilight of broken ghosts and faded walls.
I have circumnavigated this closed chateau once; pulling anxiously, carefully, even a little fearfully at the tall, closed shutters across every ground floor window. They all yield grudgingly an inch or two, no more; puffing a small cloud of stale air and dust at me in reproach that I dare intrude in this house now consigned to memories and spiders. Eventually I find the main doors, a rusty yet firm crowbar some three feet long wedged half-heartedly across them, the hinges bound tightly with half-dead tangled ivy. I try to move it aside with as little noise as possible, not wanting to announce to the shadows that I am bringing light to their resentful solace. As I pull on the grey wooden slat bound with three rusted bands of iron it yields reluctantly, a deep groan echoes inside the house, a noise chased into stillness in the rooms beyond.
I step over the threshold.
Inside my eyes are slowly adjusting to this half-light. I am in a dusty hallway. A grimy mirror hangs over a vast stone fireplace. Two doors to my right and left into rooms, a windowed gallery in front of me. The centre of the room has a clutter of objects shrouded in hard grey tarpaulin. Underfoot my shoes crunch uncomfortably on a carpet of black something. Is it dirt? My imagination is crushing dead corpses of beetles, snapping the husks of ancient spider legs…one might be alive to touch me.
The ceiling is stripped bare. Now there are silvery beams above me, crumbling plaster that is faintly reddish. The walls are similar attired. Some have plaster clinging to them, or torn strips of wallpaper, most are rude stone easily two feet thick in places. The floor is endless strips of planking, two inches wide, about a metre long. Doors, baths, tables, beds, chests….everything lies where it was hastily pushed.
I advance through the ground floor, holding my breath, treading carefully, stepping lightly. Every interior door is open, bar one locked on the first floor…why? Who lives there? The story of “The Secret Garden” leaks poisonous childish nightmares into my eyes. I pause. In one corner is an old child’s cot; the lace is dirty, there is no mattress. Spindly white legs disappear into a crack in the floor boards.
Ahead I see a mirror. Its surface is old, it has a silver back. A heavy mahogany frame is decorating it. Light enters it, a faded echo gloomily stares back. I have just watched the film “Oculus” and my imagination can easily see the evil specters within, haunting the grime, gazing accusingly at me.
I follow the dark maze of corridors, find a bathroom. It is littered with cracked porcelain. Basins and bath are full of brick dust and rubbish. The toilets are dissembled, broken, lying askew on the floor. An ornate piece of stonework is collapses against a wooden chair. The blue and white tiled floor is barely discernible.
A staircase curves upwards. Any carpet is long rotted, the boards are bare, yet firm. No creaking. A plain handrail follows the left-hand wall. Upstairs I can either venture into a room, or turn to another smaller staircase that ascends into pitch black, or move into a lit long corridor with broken floor planking. I choose the latter; it would take a hardy soul to climb the second stairs with its mesh of spider webs and furtive darkness. The corridor has a wide balcony running alongside it.
This is where the soldier plunged to his drunken doom. I can see the stone balustrade. Easy to topple over. His ghost marches up and down, endlessly guarding…nothing. Back inside a door beckons at the end of the corridor. To the right are two more doors. Inside these rooms are remarkably clear save rude iron beds, empty fireplaces, maybe a chair. Old radiators, once white or cream, each with seven iron columns are attached to the walls in every room. No heat emanates from them now.
Ahead of me is another staircase. This one looks the strongest but leads into a darkness of an attic.
Dare I ascend?
Hesitantly, slowly, carefully. One step at a time.
I have my camera phone and I flick it on to give me some light. My head breaks the plane of the attic floor.
I exhale, slowly.
Something rushes at me, startles me, makes my heart lurch.
A bat. It must be a bat. James Herbert’s novel ‘The Magic Cottage’ floods my memories. I can feel my heart thudding. I look around. It is almost too dim to see so I snap off a few hasty photos, the flash stealing the secrets of this macabre place for me to look at; beat a hasty retreat down the stairs.
In one last room is a chest. I so want to open it, explore it; yet I cannot. This chateau must keep its secrets so I retrace my steps, duck through the doors, blink in the daylight of a Loire summer, inhale the sweet scent of lavender, gulp in fresh air.
A magic château indeed…
Is this what diplomacy is all about?