We have two more extracts from Colin Duncan Taylor’s book Lauragais. This penultimate extract is ‘At home in the château‘.
It is two o’clock in the morning and we are celebrating Claude’s seventieth birthday. We are in Le Salon des Ancêtres where portraits of his wife’s family hang on the walls. The air is filled with disco music from – appropriately enough – the seventies, and the parquet creaks under dozens of pairs of dancing feet. I keep half an eye on the dangerously gyrating limbs, but mostly my attention strays to an enormous mirror on the wall, not out of narcissism, but because I keep thinking of the portrait of Hitler that once hung in its place and watched over the men of the eleventh panzer division while they ate their meals in this room. In the mirror I see a forest of raised arms, and momentarily I imagine they are raised in Nazi salutes. Of course I know they are semaphoring the letters Y-M-C-A.
For a moment these celebrations strike me as anachronistic and incongruous, but they also remind me that history in this part of the world is not locked away inside a glass cabinet in the bowels of a dead museum. It is alive through the people and their homes, and my hostess Marie-Christine is the seventeenth generation of the same family to reside in the Château de Garrevaques. Her grandchildren are running around somewhere too.
The music fades and the dancers lower their weary arms. Their respite is brief, and one ever-popular, eternally-irritating song is followed by another tune from the days of glitterballs and feverish Saturday nights. I escape through giant French windows onto the terrace for some air and a look at the grounds. A few hours ago we stood here in the evening sunlight and drank champagne. Now I lean on the balustrade with a glass of red, and from behind me, light spills out through the open doors across the terrace, down the steps and into the park, far enough to reveal the ancient oak tree planted at a time when Columbus was still learning to sail.
Beyond the giant oak, the park is filled with long shadows from an even longer past. The Château de Garrevaques has had a troubled history: first established by Jourdain de Roquefort’s descendants as a defensive home in dangerous times; besieged during the Wars of Religion; destroyed during the Revolution; rebuilt in the nineteenth century with the comforts of central heating and running water; requisitioned during the second world war; and finally, steered towards tourism at the end of the twentieth century.
I am partying in a place that epitomises the history of the Lauragais.
I turn away from the park and look up at one of the towers. Above its dark slate roof the sky is luminescent with stars, and I offer up a prayer of thanks to Jules the gardener.
Many years ago, I caught my first glimpse of the Château de Garrevaques towards the end of a long bike ride on a hot dusty day. I crossed a bridge over the Sor and something caught my eye through the trees. I propped my bicycle against a wall and peered through wrought iron gates. Although my view was partly obscured by bushes, I could see pink bricks, dark grey roof tiles, and tall windows flanked by bright white shutters. By repeatedly adjusting my position, I managed to piece these fragments together into the shape of an elegantly symmetrical façade. The central body of the château was flanked by two octagonal towers each crowned by a pointed roof, and a decorative outline of creamy stucco marked the intersection between slate and brick. Balustraded ramps led up from the foot of each tower to meet on a wide central terrace in front of three lofty pairs of French windows. Below the terrace, three glazed arches each the size of a double garage door illuminated what I guessed would be the kitchens and store rooms in the sous-sol or basement.
The park was peaceful and there was no sign of human activity. I gave free rein to my imagination, and I populated the terrace with distinguished guests gathered for a birthday party or a wedding. Of course they were drinking champagne, and when the moon came up, the countess or her daughter would play Debussy on the piano.
Riding a road bike on a hot day is fine as long as you keep moving, but without the artificial wind of my forward motion my body began to glow like a furnace. My jersey clung to my flesh and I remembered that men in sweaty cycle clothing acquire an odour which others may find unpleasant. This château was no place for me. I belonged with the unwashed rabble outside the gates of Versailles.
When I first moved to the Lauragais, my conversational French was a work in progress and I was still attuning my ear to the accent of the south-west, but when I met an old lady at a picnic, I was competent enough to understand a good half of what she told me. Ours was a rambling conversation to which I contributed little apart from my ears. I listened carefully in between mouthfuls – hers as well as my own – and it gradually dawned on me that Madame Marguerite-Andrée Barande lived in a château which had been in her family for more than four centuries. It was in a village called Garrevaques.
‘Garrevaques?’ I repeated, and I remembered how I had spied on her home through the bushes like a hot and bothered Peeping Tom. Madame Barande ignored my interruption and I tried to keep up.
The original Château de Garrevaques built by the Roquefort family was a true castle, and its towers, defensive walls and ditches were designed to protect its owners and the population of the village in times of conflict. During the Wars of Religion the lord of the château was Catholic, and his castle’s defences were tested to breaking point. The Protestant attack of 1580 left it in ruins, and eighteen months later it was ransacked by brigands. When the Wars of Religion finally drew to a close, one of Madame Barande’s ancestors became its lord.
Madame Barande talked on and on, and paused occasionally to take mouthfuls of a foil-wrapped sandwich which looked surprisingly English. I lost the thread of her story long before we had reached the twenty-first century and the end of our lunch.
This picnic was part of a visit organised by a cultural association I had recently joined. Madame Barande had been a member for decades, and a few months later she invited us to tea. I immediately added my name to the list because I hoped her story would make more sense on a second hearing, and since the picnic I had read somewhere that the Germans tried to blow her up in 1944.
I arrived at Garrevaques on a grey November afternoon, this time by car, and I parked under the plane trees. Their branches were silent and bare, but I was buzzing with excitement. Today I had permission to cross the dried up moat and walk across the park to Madame Barande’s front door and step right inside.
A few minutes later our group was seated in a semicircle around our hostess. She presided regally over the assembly from a red and gold brocaded chair in the centre of a room which she told us was called Le Salon Rouge. She repeated her account of the early history of the château, and I half-listened and allowed my eyes to roam. Bookshelves rose to the ceiling, filled with leather-bound tomes; the piano in the corner was fitted with brass candlesticks to light the pianist’s passage across the keys; either side of the French windows, gold curtains with a red motif shone in the bright light of a crystal chandelier whose candles had long since been replaced by electric light bulbs.
Eventually, Madame Barande paused. ‘Now we come to the story of my own life and what happened when the château was occupied by the Germans in the second world war. But first, I must tell you about our gardener, Jules Gasc.’
Why? I wondered. I wanted Madame Barande to tell us about the Germans.
‘Jules had fought in the Great War and he had been injured in the head by a shell splinter. He was our gardener and he drove my father’s car, the first motor car in the village. His wife Sidonie was our cook, and Jules saved the château.’
Note to readers: in his book, Colin interweaves the story of Madame Barande with a detailed account of the activities of the 800-strong Corps Franc de la Montagne Noire and its commandant, Roger Mompezat.
Next week is the final extract, and then you can find out how to win a signed copy of his book.
You can buy Colin’s book in print or ebook format from the main online retailers worldwide. It is also on sale in numerous bookshops, tourist offices and museums in Carcassonne, Toulouse and the Lauragais. Visit his website for a full listing of sales outlets.