When I was a little girl, my mother used to drive me to the « Sons et lumière » of Château du Lude, a fairy tale castle in the Sarthe, between le Mans and Tours. We always stopped at Malicorne, a faïence manufacture where we watched artists paint tea cups and plates by hand. At the time, Pia d’Orléans Bragance, Comtesse de Nicolaÿ, had to deal alone with a huge castle after the premature death of her husband. The villagers offered to help her create a historical show and that was what Le Lude was known for.
Today, things have evolved, and Louis-Jean de Nicolaÿ their eldest son, is a senator. He and his wife Barbara d’Ursel, born in Belgium at Chateau de Hex, are a dynamic couple and they revived the castle with maestria.
An archeologist by training and a garden lover, Barbara has developped many activities at Le Lude. She restored the park with Augustin d’Ursel and created twenty four years ago « La Fête des Jardiniers » in June every year, using her experience in her family’s garden. It is a plant show with a Prize called after Pierre Joseph Redouté for best garden books.
She is the author of a book on the history of the castle, its various owners over ten centuries, with architecture plans, cooking recipes and decoration tips. It is not a coffee table book, but an informative work, full of historical details with beautifully written texts, photographs and a real testimony of what French castle life can still be today.
« L’Esprit de Château » is a collaboration between Barbara and her cousin Christiane de Nicolaÿ–Mazery (herself author of many castle books) with photographer Eric Sander. Every detail is perfect thanks to Suzanne Tise-Isoré the editor at Flammarion. The endpapers are decorated with flowers, every double page is thoroughly laid out. A large drawing in ink and lavis done in 1911 opens the book with an introduction by Stéphane Bern on the paradoxes of living a castle life today. This large team of professionals has done marvels.
Started in the Middle ages as a fortified castle, Le Lude was a defense against the Normans just north of the Loire Valley and then against the Ducs de Bretagne coming from the west. It was owned by the Ducs d’Anjou, captured by the Earl of Warwick, rescued by Jeanne d’Arc’s armies and bought by Jehan de Daillon in the Renaissance. The Daillon had strong influences on the decoration and had some rooms painted after Petrarch’s « Triumphs » which can still be seen today.
In the XVIII th century Le Lude belonged to the Rohan, « kings » of Brittany, and was bought in 1751 by Joseph Duvelaër, a Dutch corsair from St Malo who had spent some time in Canton while trading with China and married a Chinese lady. Thus many Chinese influences in the park and in the house. He was made Comte du Lude by Louis the XV th.
Each owner made architectural transformations until the end of the 19 th century when Marquis de Talhouët, who was famous for his balls (with 1 500 guests in 1836) and entertainements, modernised the interiors. Later the architect Louis Parent was used to decorate the house and Edouard André worked in the park. His son will become senator and minister of Emperor Napoleon III. There are Empire rooms as well as Renaissance salons.
Today the castle is the home of the Nicolaÿ family and can be visited every day in the Summer. It is the perfect halt while travelling south from Paris to Bordeaux (as Mary, the Queen mother found out in 1984) or around the Loire Valley.
As a privately owned castle it has retained its « Spirit » as the book is called (« L’esprit de château ») and is proof, that with a lot of hard work from their owners, castles can survive. (65€, at Jardins en Arts, 19 rue Racine or at Galignani, 224 rue de Rivoli)
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