Montrésor is the name of the village I’m visiting today. When I first heard the name I thought it meant ‘My Treasure’. It wasn’t on my original itinerary. I only learned about it at breakfast. The couple at the table next to me had been there the day before and were raving about it.
What it also seemed to have in its favour was a complete absence of gardens. There is only so much beauty you can take in at once and by this point I’d definitely OD’ed on gardens. And roses! I had no idea there were so many roses in the Loire Valley. I’d always thought Grasse, in southern Provence, was where the roses were.
But after only a few days in the Loire I’d used up most of a chip just on shots of roses. As if by taking all these photos I could somehow capture their ephemeral beauty. After having a few chats with myself over the futility of this, I finally made a resolution – no more photos of roses. Not a one.
Apparently close to 50% of Americans – and probably the same percentage of Canadians – make resolutions every year, most of them at New Year’s. And how many achieve their goal? Take a guess. Make it a wild one, because the rate is astoundingly low*. All sorts of psychologists and neuroscientists are studying the phenomenon. One of the explanations they propose has to do with the ‘false hope syndrome’. (As opposed to ‘true’ hopes?!) According to this theory, we set ourselves up for failure by setting unrealistic goals that are ‘out of alignment with our internal view of ourselves.’
To avoid falling into the ‘false hope’ trap we need a realignment. I did not find this a very attractive solution, having just forked over a bundle to have one done on my car. In any event, what we need to do is set small, attainable goals. Fine. How hard could it be to eliminate just one species from my viewfinder? There were hundreds, if not thousands of others to choose from. Oh. And the other thing we need to do to increase our odds of success? Exercise a little more willpower, which, according to the experts, is not a fixed asset, but is ‘malleable’. No more rationalizing; no more begging off with ‘my genes made me (not) do it’. (*8%)
I set off under a gorgeous, clear blue sky. There were lots of signs along the way, so without any of the usual ‘side trips’, I soon reached the village. As usual, when visiting historical villages and towns in France and Italy, the first order of business was to park the car. That is where the trouble began. Finding the parking lot was easy. And at this early hour there were lots of parking spots. The problem was, the entire lot had been planted with…
Encouragingly, one researcher offered this piece of advice when faced with imminent failure: instead of giving up altogether, try tweaking your goal. OK. Maybe I could take a few, just a few, more photos of the irresistible species. I willed myself away from the parking lot and set off for the castle.
As with most of the fortress castles built during the Middle Ages throughout France and Italy, during the Renaissance, Montrésor’s castle was transformed into a luxurious residence.
In the mid 1800’s the property was purchased by the Polish count, Xavier Branicki, a close friend and financial advisor to Napoleon III. Branicki restored the castle and gardens and then set about filling it with priceless works of art.
Fortunately, given how things were going with my resolution, Branicki focused his efforts on the interior. Although there were a few hot spots in the garden.
There are the usual roped off areas, but other than that, visitors are free to wander at will.
I’m always fascinated by the things one can and cannot do in other countries. Something we take for granted in Canada – like walking on the grass – is a serious transgression in both France and Italy. But nobody seems to be concerned about the damage from hordes of visitors clomping up this delicate spiral staircase – or – and here my North American roots come out – the potential for liability.
At the top of the spiral staircase is the Boudoir italien. I felt as if I had been transported back to Italy – to Florence even. The walls were covered with paintings – all by students of the great Italian masters – Fra Angelico, Botticelli, Bronzino, Verrocchio…
On the other side of the door was another take on the Turkish theme – one of Xavier’s cousins, the Countess Potocka, with her hair done up in a turban.
The Countess was clearly a great beauty – a mixed blessing in those days (and perhaps nowadays too). The Tsar, bewitched by her beauty, fell madly in love and had her poor husband locked up in a tower for four years.
There is a lot going on in the Grand Salon, but for me one of the most interesting objects was the piano. A memento of heady days in Paris when Poland’s great composer, Chopin, in love with Xavier’s sister-in-law had composed a waltz for her, perhaps on this very piano.
The other object of note is a saddle, just to the left of the piano. It’s hard to see – this was as close as I could get. The only reason I even noticed it among all the other furnishings was because of an entry in the binder visitors are loaned for the duration of their visit.
The last entry reads: Next to the piano, a saddle, encrusted with semi-precious stones, taken from the Turks at the battle of Vienna. It belonged to Kara Mustapha, grand vizier of the Sultan. It is green, the sacred colour of Islam. Only a descendant of the prophet Mahomet could sit on this saddle.
There was something unsettling about the presence in this elegant room in this peaceful little village of an object – obviously sacred – that had been plundered in war. I knew nothing of the Battle of Vienna, so I had a look on Google.
September 11 (!), 1683 was the second time in less than one hundred years that the leaders of the Ottoman Empire attempted to take control of Vienna. This time the gateway city was rescued by the King of Poland, who against enormous odds, had managed to cobble together an alliance of Christian troops. For an extensive and, I believe, well-researched account of the battle and forces involved, check out “gates of vienna.blogspot.ca” by Baron Bodissey. One of the most disturbing things I found in Bodissey’s post, especially in light of ongoing developments in the Middle East, was the fact that the successes of the earlier Muslims troops were largely due to their willingness to overcome regional differences and loyalties to present a united front against their Christian/Western enemies.
Time for a breath of fresh air and a walk around the old village. According to the map I had been given at the Office de Tourisme, which, to my surprise, was actually open, if I followed the alley below the castle I would discover the real meaning of Montrésor and how the village got that name.
I needed to follow signs for le lavoir (wash house).
Whenever I begin to wonder if perhaps progress is overrated – this tends to happen on days when I’ve seen more than a few people texting while driving, or heard of one more person who’s dropped their cell phone in the toilet – really! how does that happen?! or read yet another article about driver-less cars – are these people crazy! what happens if there is a ‘glitch’ in the motor? – anyway, any longings for a simpler era are quickly dispelled whenever I come across the reality of what life was really like then for the vast majority of people.
In the courtyard of the lavoir is an enormous lizard. A plaque on the wall tells the story of how the village got its name.
“One day King Gontran and his faithful squire were riding through a vast forest when, exhausted and thirsty, they stopped and rested at the base of a rocher (large rock). The young squire was soon fast asleep, dreaming of a young princess of Aquitaine who alas was too wealthy for him, when he suddenly woke up and saw a small lizard on Gontan’s face. “By Notre-Dame!”, exclaimed the king, “Who is pulling on my ear?” “This wretched creature”, replied the squire, holding up the lizard. “I’ll cut its throat, your Majesty.” “May St. George hold back your hand”, said the Prince. “Look! This creature, with its emerald eyes, is inviting us to follow it.” Whereupon the lizard disappeared through an opening in the rock. When it reappeared, it was shimmering in gold. The prince and his squire widened the opening and discovered a cave in which lay hidden a fabulous treasure. With this treasure, Gontran built a castle on top of the rocher, which, as happens in legends, had been transformed into a mountain, which evermore was known as ‘le mont au trésor (which, as you may already have guessed, does not mean ‘My Treasure’, as I had thought, but ‘Treasure Mountain’) – Montrésor! And this is also how the squire’s dream came true, for he became governor of the fortress and married his beautiful princess.”
I headed back to my car, a walk that, for such a tiny village, took me an awfully long time.