“STOP!” I howled from the passenger seat of the car as it sped past the padlocked gates in the darkness of the old town square. “You have to go back– I saw something!” We’d left Paris that evening for the long weekend and stopped for dinner in the little commune of Fontenay-Trésigny, thirty minutes from the city. As the car slowly rolled backwards, the wrought iron gates overtaken by vines appeared before us in the dead of night. A soiled white banner hung across the bars, flapping in the wind, with the words, “Save our Château“. Some things we happen upon by chance, but this almost felt like something I was supposed to find. Follow me into the ruins of this fairytale French Chateau…
Resolving to return at first light in the morning, I immediately began searching for the preservationists who had hung the banner outside of the Château. I found a Facebook page and wasted no time in sending a message to the administrator. God I love the internet at times like these, I thought to myself. I had a response from Antonin Grenier by breakfast the next day, who agreed to meet us in front of the gates at noon.
To our surprise, “Mr. Grenier” turned out to be a 17 year-old local kid, who became devoted to the Château du Duc d’Epernon ever since his father had taken him there as a child for picnics in the gardens. “It was still in decent condition back then,” said the shy but determined young man as he stared through the iron bars at the ruins of the 17th century castle peeking through the overgrowth.
“So how did you come to be the guardian angel of this castle?” I asked him.
“Me? I was just born in this town and my father and I couldn’t bear to see our chateau like this. No one else really seemed to be doing anything about it or care much about its preservation. So I started this Facebook group to find people who would care.”
The Facebook group as of this moment has just over 900 members. Sadly, their call has thus far gone unanswered.
Classed as a historic monument since 1963, Fontenay’s château was sold in relatively good condition in 2007, but has since fallen into ruin and is today at serious risk. The property “developers” and current owners who bought the property ten years ago with the intention of converting it into apartments, are now bankrupt, their company in liquidation.
By law, an owner of a French historic monument must maintain the building in good condition and if they fail to do so, the state-backed national heritage association (Monuments Historiques) has the power to order restoration works at the expense of the owner. If that fails, the Monuments Historiques also has the power to kick the owner out and take charge of the property’s protection. As of this moment, Monuments Historiques has done nothing to intervene or to prevent the rapid decline of the chateau lying at the heart of a medieval town just 27 miles from Paris.
Before the current owner went bankrupt, the developers began work to renovate the roof, removing its tiles and placing a temporary plastic sheeting in their place. It was at this point however, that the company went into liquidation, leaving the chateau covered by a flimsy plastic replacement roof that was never meant to be a longterm solution, and was no match for the elements.
Small trees now sprout from the tower and rainfall has ravaged the interiors, damaging the beams holding up the walls. Almost every window is open, their glass panes shattered across the floors. Frescoes have been torn from the walls by pillagers and the charred remains of squatters’ make-shift campfires have been left on the marble floors. The park, recorded in the pre-inventory of France’s remarkable gardens, is now wild and overgrown; its bridges swallowed by brambles, its footpaths carpeted in nettles.
This was once a cherished getaway of the King of France, frequently visited by Charles IX of France and Catherine de’ Medici, lived in by lords and dukes and counts throughout generations. In the early 19th century, the Marquise of Montague inherited the chateau and built a school for girls on the property.
When will it be too late? Antonin has been keeping a close eye on the château’s decline. He fears the worst is imminent. The mayor of Fontenay-Trésigny entertains Antonin’s efforts to save the château but is skeptical of its future. Just before I met with Antonin, town officials had demanded he remove his banner from the gates in time for the medieval festival that takes place next month. The mayor says it’s not good for the Fontenay’s image.
He claims to allegedly visit with at least two potential investors a month, but says they’re all scared away by the hefty renovation estimates, thought to be anywhere between 8 and 10 million euros. In the meantime, the historic treasure lying at the heart of their town is slipping away. Its situation is urgent. How much time does it have before those beams give way or a mysterious fire engulfs centuries of history?
I know you, my audience, have come together like a true internet army of noisemakers in the past when it comes to saving endangered monuments. And if you’ve been wondering while reading this article, how the situation can be helped, it’s very simple. Make a lot of noise. Let’s see how much of a difference we can make just by sharing this article that you happened to stumble upon today about a forgotten castle in France that spoke to your heart.
If you think you can help, if you know someone who might know someone who can help, or if you’d just like to sign the petition to end the sacking of the Chateau du Duc D’Epernon, please, make your way to the Facebook page dedicated to it rescue. For further enquiries, Antonin and his father will help direct you to the appropriate party.