Saturday, March 6, 2010

The Castle is ours! (Pontivy Redux Redux)

We woke to Oliver's head cold being much better (thank you, Mucomyst - how's that for a medication name?) and the knowledge that the castle at Pontivy was open! It had been our first castle siege, two full months ago, and we were very excited to know we'd be getting inside the castle today. But first: le marché. Our Cheeses of the Week (our companions) are, starting with the big wedge of bleu-ed cheese to the left, a Bleu de Gex part of which I plan on using in a cream sauce for pasta with mushrooms (it's going to be a good week!); continuing clockwise, we have a Pont l'Évêque, very delicate considering the stinky rind (this was Iris's cheese of choice at the market today); and finally, a Tomme de Savoie - I just had to have it: I remember eating lots of this cheese as a kid (Savoie is so close to Switzerland), and sure enough, it smelled like the mountain air itself, the way it always had.

Iris was my faithful companion throughout the endeavor. The fromagier, or Monsieur Fromage as Iris calls him, is so nice to her - every week, there's a little slice for her to nibble on from him. We've landed on some good cheeses just by her saying "Qu'est-ce c'est que ça?"

She helped me out with the meats as well. This is the stand we regularly go to, the stand of "the cute butcher" - he is incredibly dear, and cute and friendly and (no joke), there is always a huge line of women at his counter. Iris loves his lasagna (made with bechamel sauce instead of ricotta!), so we have occasion to return. :-)

But enough about the intrigues of the city - to the ramparts! Iris was so excited to see the door of the castle open that she literally ran inside. She was right: the castle has housed some pretty fascinating history - none of which is commemorated in the castle itself, but rather in the text of the brochure which one can pick up at the entrance (all of which makes me think of Mac's post about commemoration and/vs. memory). Rescued from its ruinous state in 1955, it was ready to be opened to the public in 1972. Before then, it had served as a base to beat back Royalist insurgents (18th century), a Breton museum (19th century), and as housing for Polish troops and Breton separatists in WWII (Mac tells me both groups collaborated with the Nazis - some complex history there). The Rohan family (and remember, monsieur Rohan of Josselin is a senator!) stills own the castle, although it's on a 99-year lease to the city of Pontivy. I had never stopped to think about this before: all ecclesiastical property went to the State after the French Revolution, but what of all the feudal property? It doesn't seem as though the government took possession at all (much later, of course, castles sought to be taken over by the Monuments Historiques Commission - a guarantee of good care and publicity) - were there just too many castles? or were the possessions of the aristocracy too minor (compared to those of the Church and the Crown?). Hmmm. In any case, seeing the castle of the Dukes of Rohan in Pontivy made me realize how difficult it has been for these castles to survive the ages. Not all of them are grand, practically none of them have any furniture. World enough and time, I would ask "What are they now?"

Several castles have become settings for contemporary art, and we were completely blown away by the piece that was in the southwest tower by one Koki Watanabe entitled Possession Ovale (1999/2006). It was so beautiful: water was sliding down those wires suspending the transluscent balls which were filled with leaves or flowers, so the sound was terrific in that echoing chamber, and the little light that was there lit up only those magical orbs. Iris was completely mesmerized. She came up with an entire narrative as to which one was the king's and the duke's and the peasant's orb - of which we did not disabuse her.

There were lots of other pleasures: two great fireplaces (rescued from the Château of Coët-Candec near Vannes which has fallen into ruin) entirely encased in fantastic heraldry (note the bear/boar/fox with snarling tongue)...

A west gallery filled with religious statuary from the 16th and 17th centuries, including this Saint Margaret and her dragon (poor thing seems to have eaten the saint's dress!)...

...and this Saint Louis - really rather unusual if it's the 13th century royal saint (France's only sainted king!) - the ermine collar would signify royalty but why here in Brittany? Were there actually Bretons in the 16th/17th centuries who revered the King of France (which had just taken over the duchy of Brittany after many years of resistance)? Could be (I have read that trade and business boomed for Brittany after it was joined to France in 1532)...

The ceiling of a room in the southwest tower also gave us pause - that is original 15th-century woodwork - wow! Medieval secular woodwork ceilings are, I don't need to tell you, rarities indeed. This one was just magnificent, literally bursting over the room (I'm intrigued by that second layer above the visible one...).

Saint Meriadec (from whom the viscounts of Rohan claimed to be descended, and who was himself believed to be descended from Conan, the first King of Brittany (whose son, also named Conan, is famous for being defeated in the Bayeux Tapestry) has a statue that gives out onto the courtyard. If Iris looks a little pensive there atop the staircase, it's because she was puzzled by the lack of grandeur of the castle. "Where are the minstrels?" she asked (no kidding!) - when, indeed, do children develop that sense of history? when does that great divide between past and present start to form? and what accompanies it? nostalgia? a frisson at the sufferings of history? In any case, it was precisely the "humble" (I mean, it is pretty huge) nature of the castle that made it so interesting - or so I tried to argue to Iris who was somewhat mollified.

You have to imagine this courtyard filled with animals and stands and squires and perhaps even a small wooden house or two. This was not a pleasure castle or a hunting lodge - this was a château fort: a defensive structure, used in the never-ending, indeed seasonal, warfare of the medieval aristocracy. Seasonal: very often in Labors of the Months iconography, the image for May is of a knight saddling up for battle, early summer being the ideal time to wage war and try to gain more territory (and power and wealth and influence).

These are the Rohan territories in the 15th century - this map gives you a really good sense of how difficult it was to consolidate your possessions. I just think of how hard-won (how battle-won) most of those territories were. Others, of course, were won through advantageous marriages (another kind of siege, this time for the fairer sex). There's a French phrase: "c'était des durs" - these were hardy ones. Indeed!

Iris decided to focus on the love and peace angle of it all. She accepted the gritty realism of the Rohan castle, reserving her romantic ideas of castles for another day.

Oliver got right to the business of being a super spy in a complex siege scheme (which was actually resolved very quickly when a cookie was offered).

Eleanor presented us with this huge flower and another inscrutable facial expression.

We then walked around town a bit and were inexorably pulled into the fantastic toy store in the old city of Pontivy - both girls got little Playmobile figurines, and Oliver asked for a bag of marbles. Apparently the other kids at school play marbles during recess, so this may be his way into that scene! :-) We kept walking and were stopped dead in our tracks by the shop window of Le Comptoir Irlandais - Oliver has been talking about Saint Patrick's day a lot, as I've mentioned and there... in the window... were dozens and dozens of leprechauns.

So the last image of the day is Oliver as a Fortune Teller, assimilating his entire day: the crown for the Castle of the Dukes of Rohan; the leprechaun for his Saint Patrick's Day obsession; and the marbles as his fortune telling beads from having just seen La Princesse et la Grenouille which we thought was great (we made it back from Pontivy for the screening in Josselin with 2 minutes to spare!). Quelle journée!

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