When I returned from a family trip to France in August 2014, I was bursting with stories and descriptions of the people and places I had seen. I wrote of my grandparents’ home in Chaumont and our day trips to nearby towns and cities. I shared photos of the catacombs in Paris and waxed poetic about the life-altering experience that was Notre Dame de Paris.
But I left one interesting spot out of my initial roundup, simply because I didn’t have many photos to share: the Château de Gudmont, located just a few miles from our base in Chaumont, France.
We arrived in Gudmont-Villiers late on Monday morning, parked at a nearby church per the website’s directions, and strolled up a small hill to the château. The gates were closed and locked during listed business hours, so we rang a small buzzer and waited, taking the opportunity for a group photo in front of the gates.
A white-haired man in an apron came shuffling around the corner and up the sidewalk to meet us at the front gate. Surely this was the gardener, dispatched to let us inside the gate and introduce us to the tour operator. He spoke no English, and after speaking in French to my parents, both of whom are fluent, my mom turned around with a grin and introduced us to the Count and owner of the Château de Gudmont.
I wish I had a photo of this charming man. You have to understand that the word “count,” at least in my mind, conjures up images of the Count of Monte Cristo, done up in luxurious velvet, fine silk, and gold embroidered details. I certainly wasn’t expecting an white-haired man in plainclothes, and I took a liking to him and his everyday lifestyle immediately. He explained that he had just been cooking lunch, and let us onto the chateau grounds, disappearing for a moment to remove his apron and pause his kitchen activities. It seemed we were the first visitors he’d had in days.
We took a few photos of the charming building exterior, covered in many places with lush grapevines, and finally went inside to begin our tour. I took a couple of photos of beautiful vaulted ceilings and charming little doors, at which point the Count requested (in French) that we refrain from taking photos of the building’s interior. Business wasn’t going as well as hoped, and he’d had some trouble with people identifying precious items from photos and later stealing them from his home. He spoke in French for the duration of the tour, so many of the details I’m sharing now are based on my mother’s English translations.
According to the Château’s website, the castle was originally built in the sixteenth century, and later decorated with impressive frescoes from students of the Fontainebleu School. The Count explained these frescoes in great detail, and pointed out images representing the four seasons as well as the seven Christian Virtues (counterparts to the Seven Deadly Sins, including chastity, humility and patience).
During Germany’s occupation of France during World War II, the chateau was captured and used as a housing base for Nazi soldiers, who had a complete disregard for the art and structure of the castle. He pointed out holes in the walls from where the German soldiers had anchored their bunks. This is where the brief tour normally would have ended, but when my mom mentioned that we live in the United States, the old man immediately expressed his love for the American people, saying he feels immense gratitude for the part our country played in ending World War II. He was a child during the war, and said he would always remember the generosity of the American people.
Eager to have us under his roof, he invited us to see some of the private quarters of his home. Once again, he reminded us not to take any photos, and not to take anything…not that we would have! We saw sitting rooms, paintings and busts of his ancestors, and even a piece depicting his late wife. I do wish I could have taken photos, as many of the rooms had that opulent and distinctly European vibe, dulled over centuries of wear. They really were beautiful, although it was a little heartbreaking to see spots with water damage from the badly-leaking roof. He took us out to explore the castle grounds, showing off a beautiful backyard garden, and took us inside the property’s private cathedral. This is where his wife’s ashes reside, and where his own ashes will be mingled after his death.
Since the château is classified as a historical landmark, the Count and his family are forced to pay high property taxes. Compared to popular French cities such as Paris, Cannes and Marseille, there just isn’t a big market for tourism in a small town such as Joinville. There is an ongoing effort to restore the castle and grounds, but money is so tight, even necessities such as roof repair have fallen by the wayside. The château recently started offering property tours to aid in repair and restoration efforts, but being in a relatively small French town, it seems the tours are not raising enough funds to cover even the most basic repairs.
It was sad to see the historic property and its owner standing on their last legs, and though my reach is relatively short, I wanted to help spread the word about this charming little castle. It’s no Versailles, but it is an authentic piece of French history that deserves some love. It’s well off the beaten tourist path, and we had the whole place to ourselves for the day. If you’re looking for something that’s not in the guidebooks, I recommend taking the time to visit this beautiful old castle and its charming owner. I already know I’ll be back to explore Joinville, just a few miles north of the Gudmont-Villiers, in the spring, and I may need to pop in to see how the castle is doing.
For visitor’s information and a more detailed history, check out the château’s official website. According to their website, which lists 2013 pricing, it costs just 4€ to visit the château, and also offers a group rate of 3€ per person in a group of ten or more.