Contribute something productive you reprobate!!

The leading English language magazine. Now covering Poitou-Charentes, Dordogne, Vendée and Haute-Vienne too!

Living magazine distribution map

Château de La Rochefoucauld

Château de La Rochefoucauld

To the northeast of Angoulême in the Charente lies the village of La Rochefoucauld, dominated by the ancient château of the same name. It is here that the La Rochefoucauld family – one of the five oldest noble families of France – has its seat, and where Sonia Matossian, the mother of the current Duke of La Rochefoucauld, lives...

feb-11-ch-rochefoucauld0002

 

It began with a wooden camp on a rock. Today, Château de La Rochefoucauld, known locally as the ‘Pearl of the Angoumois’, is a grand, elegant castle surrounded by a town that grew up around it.

The story goes back over 1000 years to 980, when Foucauld, the younger brother of the viscount of Limoges, built the camp above the River Tardoire and named it Foucauld’s Rock. The castle grew with each century, starting with Foucauld’s son, who built the square keep in the courtyard, which was surrounded by a wall. The two entrance towers were built in the mid-14th century. And in 1453, Jean de La Rochefoucauld celebrated the end of the Hundred Years war by building three towers. Later, in 1520, Anne de la Rochefoucauld built the galleries and staircase in a renaissance style inspired by the Leonardo Da Vinci drawings given to her by the king of France. A fire in the 18th century meant that in 1760 the 12th-century wing was replaced. "It is the only representation of seven centuries of architecture – that’s what makes it fabulous," says Sonia Matossian, whose eldest son is the Duke of La Rochefoucauld.

Before the revolution, when some of the members of the noble family were killed and others fled to America, 150 castles in the Poitou-Charentes belonged to the La Rochefoucauld family, and around ten still belong to them now. "La Rochefoucauld is where everything began," explains Sonia. Yet despite belonging to the family since it began, until recently, the castle had been not lived in for hundreds of years. "The family went to live in the castle in Verteuil near Ruffec. It was there for show, to impress. When Louis 14th built Versailles, the aristocracy went to live there."

feb-11-ch-rochefoucauld0006Twenty years ago the former duchess, who had previously lived with her husband in Paris and the Champagne region, decided to move into the castle and restore it to its former glory. It was a huge task, but one from which Sonia did not shy away. The rooms were reopened, the furniture arranged and the Leonardo de Vinci gallery cleaned. "The council wanted to take it over and we didn’t want that," she explains. "It is part of my children’s heritage, and also I retired at 59 and it gave me a purpose. When I first lived here, I had no electricity or heating – I lived without heating for seven years, and slept on a mattress. But I have no regrets; I am not somebody who looks back. I love the place." Sonia lives in a couple of the 29 rooms overlooking the courtyard with her two dogs, Arthur and Belle. The walls are crowded with family photographs. "My children come back regularly and my grandchildren are always here, as it is a great place for parties," she says.

The other 27 rooms of the grand castle, including seven drawing rooms, are open to the public. Visitors can see the kitchen, keep, guardrooms, salons and libraries. The castle features a spiral staircase, ornate detailing on the windows and ceilings, and impressive archways. There was a lot of work to be done to restore the grand building to how it once was. "I had to do everything and open to the public very quickly," Sonia says. "The architect worked with me to keep it true to how it was before, as it is a historical monument." As the castle had been empty for years, furniture and paintings that had been kept in other castles were moved back to La Rochefoucauld. Most of the paintings represent members of the family and date back to the 17th, 18th and 19th centuries, all belonging to the family collection.

Today, visitors can have a guided tour with one of the five staff at the castle, who are all part of the 'Amis du Château' association that looks after La Rochefoucauld. Sonia does the tours on a Sunday. "They mostly want to dress up!" Sonia says of the visitors. "We have more than 200 costumes, copies of clothes from the 16th and 17th centuries, for kids and adults. They can walk around the castle, in some cases carrying spears." Half of the visitors are French and the other half are English-speaking. The guide is translated into fourteen languages.

feb-11-ch-rochefoucauld0005

The castle also becomes a stunning backdrop for marriages and other big events such as birthdays and receptions. "It’s the only place in the Poitou-Charentes where you can get married in a castle," Sonia says. "And the castle is magical."

While the restoration work has been slowly done over the past two decades, the next project for the castle is to work on the donjon, part of which fell down during the last century. Ming Pei, a famous Chinese-American architect, told Sonia: "France gave me a present in giving me the Louvre; I would like to return the gift with the donjon at La Rochefoucauld." For now, the 21st-century donjon, which would cost five million Euros to create, depends on patronage. For Sonia, it would mean that the castle reflects eight centuries of creation.

feb-11-ch-rochefoucauld0003

Today, La Rochefoucauld family, whose coat of arms is ‘C’est mon plaisir’ (It’s my pleasure), is one of the five oldest noble families in France, and around 200 people bear the name. The lineage includes social reformers, writers and cardinals: François de La Rochefoucauld, who was the great chaplain of France at the head of the king’s council under the reign of Louis 13th; François 6th, who turned his hand to writing, becoming the author of the famous Maximes in 1664; and La Rochefoucauld d’Anville, a member of the Academy of Science and a close friend of Franklin. King François 1st, the godson of François de La Rochefoucauld, changed what was a barony into a county. And later there was François-Alexandre de La Rochefoucauld-Liancourt, who was at the origin of l'Ecole des Arts et Métiers and the co-founder of the Caisse d'Epargne bank.

As for who will take it on after her, Sonia Matossian believes the 44th generation will be keen to carry on the line. "What they do with it is up to them," she adds. "But it’s been my pleasure."

 

Château de La Rochfoucauld, 16110 La Rochefoucauld. +33 (0)5 45 62 07 42,

www.chateau-la-rochefoucauld.com

The château is open from 1st April to 2nd January, every day except Tuesday, from 10am-7pm. Out of season, it is only open on Sundays and bank holidays from 2pm onwards. Check the website for current entry prices.

 

WORDS: Rebecca Lawn

PHOTOS: Office de Tourisme du Pays d’Angoulême

Originally published in Living Poitou-Charentes magazine Feb 2011