Château de Veauce


Most travelers in France are familiar with the châteaux at Chenonceau and Chambord, but the Château de Veauce? Not likely. So Carole and I didn’t have high expectations when in July ’05 we spied Veauce on the IGN 1:100,000 map we were using to explore the Allier area north of Clermont-Ferrand and west of the auto route that snakes north toward Paris.

We had circled some likely small villages for way stops, noting the symbols for churches, castles, historic buildings, fortifications and other places of interest and plotting a route on secondary roads that would take us by them. After all, using this strategy on our daily meanderings over the first several weeks had led us to marvelous finds and rich experiences as we explored the Auvergne countryside.

As we slowed down at the sign for Veauce and entered the tiny village with its houses scattered along the road, we spied a beautifully proportioned Romanesque church built of golden stone, and we stopped for some picture taking. But we had come primarily to see the château and found the entrance to it about a hundred yards away — a small building with a crenellated roof line and split by an open gate behind which a path led into the darkness of a heavily forested area.

Parking the car by the gate, we wound our way along the path until we spied an opening in the trees and stepped out into the sunlight to face the walls of a huge castle rising steeply above us. The vast slope of stone was topped with impressive towers and turrets and punctured with loopholes. Behind it all rose a château with mullioned windows plus banners flying from the roof.

Continuing along the path, we circled around the castle and found a small hand-drawn sign announcing “Tours.” We strode through an opening in the walls into a large courtyard. Several minutes passed as we turned, gaping in all directions, noting the variety of styles with which the building seemed to have been constructed. The five towers were clearly of different eras, and the oldest had partially collapsed onto a roof, exposing the oak beams of the building below and leaving gaping holes where the upper story had been.

A casually dressed man in his 30s approached from a doorway and addressed us in a British accent: “Are you interested in a tour?”

We paid him our €6 each and were handed some typed pages describing the history and architecture of the castle. He then excused himself, saying he would find someone to show us around.

Settling on some steps in the shade to study the handout, we learned that the original part of the castle was built under Charlemagne around 808, when he formed the kingdom of Aquitaine. Over the years, it passed to Benedictine monks and then to a barony created by the Bourbonnais king Louis II in 1400. It remained in the hands of several famous Bourbonnais families before reverting back to the Crown. By the mid-1800s it had fallen into disrepair, and the Baron of Veauce undertook a significant restoration. In 2002 it was acquired by a Mrs. Elisabeth Mincer of England.

After all that impressive pedigree, the last bit of information, “Mrs. Elisabeth Mincer,” seemed to account for the presence of our English greeter and the remaining cast of characters we were to meet who ran the place.

As we waited for our guide, a small group of French tourists arrived, paid their fee and were assigned to be led by a gaunt old man wearing a white linen suit and a white Panama hat, both of which had that yellowish patina of age. He moved stiffly, addressing his group in a loud monotone, pronouncing his words very slowly in a French that was clearly foreign to him. Even with my limited French, I could recognize his words as a direct translation of what was in our handout.

Our own guide finally showed up, an English woman in her early 40s who introduced herself as the chef, adding that she had also been trained as an architect. (Was this Mrs. Mincer herself?)

She reviewed the history and architecture of the castle, pointing out the 11th-century tower, the 12th-century keep, the 13th-century clock and the stables that could hold 20 horses, plus medieval, Gothic and Renaissance architectural details and the 350-year-old Cedar of Lebanon tree. She also made note of the tower which had collapsed only a week before.

We followed her inside to see some of the castle’s 100-plus rooms. There were long hallways with armor and weapons, corridors with Louis XIV furniture, galleries with paintings and sculpture and stained glass. And there was the castle’s “ghost,” Lucie.

Legend has it that in the 17th century, the baron at the time, Guy of Daillon, fell in love with this pretty young servant. When he was away in the wars, however, his jealous wife threw Lucie into the castle’s dungeon, where she died of cold and hunger. We were shown the dungeon and told, with great seriousness, that Lucie returns at times to haunt the castle and has been “seen” by thousands of visitors. She is depicted, always with red hair, in paintings that line a wall.

Then we were shown the “theme” rooms. And here’s where Fawlty Towers really kicked in. In addition to offering four chambres d’hôtes (that we never saw) for overnight guests, the castle has six rooms for special dinners, celebrations or meetings, each decorated in a different style.

Imagine the incongruity — and shock — of being led down a corridor displaying medieval arms and through a door into a salon decorated in a Japanese style, with Japanese umbrellas and hibachis and vases and prints. Then on to a room out of Mexico, then into a room with a Moroccan theme, the cushions and tajine dishes all ready for dinner (“It can also serve as Indian”), then to another that looks like a Thai restaurant (“adapts to Chinese”), then finding yourself in a Venetian setting with images of gondolas and candy-striped poles on the wall! Finally, we entered their pride and joy, the Moulin Rouge room, with a small stage for a nightclub show.

Our guide explained that she is the cook for all of these cuisines, except for the Japanese dinners.

Certainly, the Brits have a creative approach to paying the bills to bring this historic building* back from its decay, but we couldn’t help but think of Charlemagne turning over in his grave at the invasion. And we couldn’t help wondering whether Lucie would find the jazzy additions of the new inhabitants too haunting to compete with.

ROY FIDLER
San Rafael, CA

*Contact Mrs. Elisabeth Mincer, Château de Veauce, 03450 Veauce, France; tel. 04 70 58 53 27 or visit www.passionchateaux.com.