What intrigues me almost as much as the chateaux we’ve been visiting, is what we usually haven’t seen.
The rooms that are all done up for the tourists, dressed up, you could say, are lovely: period furniture; beamed, painted ceilings; ornate tapestries; and so on. There are signs explaining who lived there, along with interesting factoids about how they lived. This is all fascinating.
But when I traveled in Europe as a young woman, what I often did in historical buildings like a chateau, or at least tried to do, was to see the rooms that weren’t on the signposted tourist route. I would hang back, trailing behind the group, until I could separate from the group entirely. I would still follow them at a distance, but would take detours whenever I had the chance: I’d peek into rooms that were blocked off, try all the closed doors, follow the winding stairway further up, that sort of thing.
And sometimes I’d succeed: a door would be unlocked, or, turning a corner, I’d find a room wide open. I never actually walked into these forbidden rooms; I would just look at them from the doorway. Usually they were works in progress: they’d have the bare bones of the historical room, like a huge fireplace or painted ceiling. But they’d be littered with work equipment: ladders and other tools, with sheets covering furniture and statues. There would often be anachronistic touches, like a boom box sitting in the middle of all the equipment scattered about.
I thought about this yesterday, when we visited Chateau Chaumont, one of the famous chateaux on the Loire. It had the usual self-guiding route, signposted with arrows leading to each prescribed step of the tour. But it had additional rooms open temporarily for an art exposition by Sarkis.
Sarkis had installed a single stained-glass window in front of the existing window in each of many rooms on the top floor of the chateau. I didn’t really look at the artwork much because I found this chance to see unfinished rooms far more interesting.
Judging by the state of repair of these rooms, this part of the chateau is not normally open to visitors. The rooms were all either empty or being used as storage, and fit the look of a much later century than the public rooms of the chateau.
It must have been servants’ quarters, judging by the size of the rooms. The walls were not the original ones; the rooms in the chateau’s earlier incarnations must have been considerably larger. I could see this when I noticed that one of the narrow hallways had one of those huge stone fireplaces characteristic of medieval and renaissance halls. The wall just a meter from it must have been added later.
Most of the rooms were completely empty and bare, with plain earthenware tile or creaky, unfinished wood for flooring. Many had a plain marble-looking fireplace, but that was all.
Some of the smaller rooms were being used for storage: light fixtures, furniture, medieval armor, china. We couldn’t go into the rooms, but each was closed with only the bottom half of a door, so we could have a good look around. All of that stuff stored there made me wonder how much more antique bric-a-brac there must be in all of these hundreds of chateaux scattered throughout this part of France.
And although this was sanctioned snooping, I felt the same thrill as back then, sneaking off the tour: seeing the forbidden spaces. It’s like viewing wild animals on safari instead of in a zoo: I was seeing the chateau’s natural environment, in a way. Its natural environment is less photogenic, less aesthetically pleasing, but feels like it’s more real.