Guédelon walls

Guédelon – A 13th Century Castle in the 21st Century

Castles are fun! 

Just like lots of little girls, I loved imagining I was a princess with a castle.  While I often dreamed up my own castles, I had the distinct benefit of having seen both real castles and castle ruins during my childhood visits to Ireland.  So it was easy for me to imagine what my castle would look like.  And while I certainly enjoyed the ‘pretty dress and tiara’ part of princesshood, a shortage of knights in shining armor was no deterrent –  I could slay the dragons just as well, if needed.  Racing across imaginary ramparts and tearing up and down circular staircases was no problem. 

So for me, a trip to Guédelon was really fun! 

Guédelon castle

Guédelon tower

In Burgundy, a castle nearly hidden in the forest

 Tucked in the French countryside between the villages of Saint-Sauveur-en-Puisaye and Saint-Amand-en-Puisaye, Guédelon is about a 2-hour drive south from Paris.

Guédelon carpentry

Castle and tower from the carpentry shop

Started in 1996, the idea was to build a 21st century medieval castle using only 13th century construction techniques.  The site was selected for its abundance of stone, sand and lumber – there was no need to transport supplies.  For the mill, there is an available water supply.  No machines, power tools or gasoline engines are used by the 40 or so craftsmen who are involved in the construction.

Guédelon building

Building walls using blocks and mud mortar

It is nothing short of a marvel!  A small “town” has sprung up around the castle itself – not homes, but rather buildings for the craftsmen and stalls/sheds to care for the animals.  Draught horses pull the wagons, sheep provide wool to make linens and thread, ducks and geese meander about.

Guédelon horses

Horses and carts for moving goods

Guédelon sheep

Sheep raised for wool

There is a carpentry shop, stone-cutting, the mill and a kiln for making blocks/bricks/tiles.  Natural dyes provide the colors for paint and wool – and all of it is created onsite and by hand. 

Guédelon spinning

Wool spun to make cloth

Guédelon paints and dyes

Natural dyes made by hand

The project pays for itself by charging admission to the nearly 300,000 visitors, many of whom are school children, who come every year to see the progress.  There is a modern café which serves hot and cold food and a very nice gift shop.  They all contribute to the maintenance of the project which is expected to be completed by about 2030. 

Cuédelon chapel

Painted walls inside the finished chapel

Work and Learn

Groups can schedule a “hands-on” opportunity to carve sandstone or to speak with craftsmen as they work. There are no set demonstration times for the various skills used in the construction of the castle, but rather visitors can watch and ask questions as the craftsmen go about their regular work.  Individuals who want to help with the project can take courses and spend 3-7 days working on the site.  There is an apprentice program for young people and even courses for professional training in heritage skills. 

Guédelon basket weaver

A weaver making a colorful basket

Guédelon stairway

Completed chapel tower

While there, I heard a group of visitors commenting on how much had been completed since their last visit.  I think it would be great fun to return to see the progress. 

Tourist Spot and Much More

But Guédelon is much more than simply a tourist attraction.  The work done there provides important historical, archeological and sociological insight.  The attention to detail for the windows, stairs, and arches demands serious research and intense architectural scrutiny.  The knowledge gained helps architects in both archeological excavation and building renovation/restoration. It’s an on-going history lesson! 

Guédelon castle keep

Interior of the Castle

Guédelon is open daily at 10 am from March until November.  If you’re looking for something unusual and fascinating I highly recommend a visit.  Especially if you love history and architecture.  Or maybe you just want to race across the ramparts and prepare to slay that rapidly approaching dragon…

For more information, visit the Guédelon website:   http://www.guedelon.fr/en/

Childhood Memories of a Disappearing Ireland

These are reflections that I wrote two years ago.  In 10 days, I’m off to Ireland again with a group and so this seems a good time to finish this post.  This will be a special trip as there are many friends included in the group.  I’m really looking forward to sharing this place that is so special to me.

 Ireland is where my roots are.  It is where I feel the most at home, surrounded by familiar voices and memories that extend back to my early childhood.  I sit here alone, outside the back door at Ballyculhane, the house where my mother was born, in brilliant sunshine – shocking really, as the normally unsettled weather has been replaced by weeks of glorious sun and warmth – basking in fond childhood memories.  As I look around this yard where my mother’s family has been farming for 7 generations,  I am swept into a different time – one when there was a henhouse full of chickens and eggs that needed to be collected daily; one where you learned quickly that the Bull’s Paddock was a place to be avoided at all costs;  one where 4 enormous, salmon-coloured pigs were kept in at night and let out every morning.  I watched in wonder as they trotted, with no guidance whatsoever, into their field to begin their daily enterprise of poking and digging in the ground for whatever delicacies lay buried under the soft soil.  I always wanted to try riding one out – they were as big as a small pony!

Ballyculhane pump

The pump, long rusted now, stands as a monument to a different era, but once it produced all the water needed for the kitchen, house and yard, pumped by hands small and large until it rewarded the exertion with a cool, crystal-clear stream of water.

Just outside the back door there was a walled flower garden, called “Aunt Cis’s Garden” for the maiden aunt who planted and lovingly tended it until her untimely death.  As a child I played hide and seek among the blooming giant hydrangeas, roses and fuchsia.  Paths meandered throughout the garden which wasn’t large, but to my tiny four-year-old feet, it seemed a glorious playground affording hours of fun.  There were stone walls to climb, stiles to cross, streams to ford, fruit to pick – an endless array of activity from morning until night. 

Ballyculhane

Ballyculhane

Inside, the thatch cottage was tiny by American standards but was a fine house for its day.  It had 6 rooms and at one point housed nearly 15 people.  The fireplace was large and served for both heat and cooking.  The stone floor in the kitchen area doubled as a dance floor when the large table and benches were pushed back.  On one wall stood a huge “press” – a massive (at least to my childish eyes) piece of furniture that held dishes, glasses, cutlery, tableware and myriad unseen treasures. 

I can still see my grandfather whom I unfortunately barely knew, sitting at the table eating his breakfast, served up to him by my grandmother before he went out to milk the cows.  They were the only old people I had ever known and I was very wary of them.  It is sad to me now that my most vivid memories of them fluctuated between awe and fear. 

Milking the cows was an experience.  Not the modern day mechanical wonder of a sanitized milking parlor overseen by government or European Union health boards, but rather a bucket and a stool, milking each beast by hand.  It took 15 minutes to milk a cow and there were 4 people to milk 50 cows.  Twice a day.  Every day. The milk was then placed in large milk cans and taken a mile or so in a pony and cart to the local creamery where it was deposited and processed.  Each day there was a bucket or two kept back for the use in the house.  Neither pasteurized nor homoginized, just fresh, pure milk.  And the butter was made from the cream. 

Irish Creamery

We kids never missed the trip to the creamery, because it was up at “The Line”, where the shops were.  That meant that after the milk had been delivered there might be an ice cream or a bag of sweets to be had.  So as the pony and cart left the yard it was our job to close the gate.  Then we ran up behind the cart, hopped on and sat, laughing, giggling and dangling our feet off the back as the pony ambled on.

During the summer, Ballyculhane was a beehive of activity.  Hay was saved while there was sun.  The weather, which is always a topic of conversation, became a major event.  There were tractors with blades attached to cut the hay, but after field drying, the men saved it by hand into reeks – dome-shaped mounds the height of two men.  This was long, tedious work and often undertaken in fields far away from the house.  So it became the job of the children (and often the visitors) to take tea to the men in the fields in the evening. 

reek

Tea was made in the house and put into thermoses or large pots or kettles.  Sugar and milk were added as well.  Freshly-made white or brown bread, smeared with rich butter and jam was packed in baskets and the children were commissioned to take it all down to whichever field the men were working.  Mostly we walked, although the odd time, if the field was a distance, we went in the car.  But the process was the same. 

As the “yankee cousin, home for holidays”, this was never a chore for me, but rather an adventure.

Calves

Today there are more than 100 cows.  There are calves and there is machinery to do the work that it took men and women so long to do by hand.  Although saving hay is still a major event for farmers, tractors and bailers and big machinery complete it now.  The pigs and chickens are long gone and their former homes remain as shadows of the past.   

But still the sturdy and elegant thatch house stands as it has for over 400 years, overlooking Ballyculhane with its castle ruins nearly unidentifiable under a blanket of deep green moss and ivy. 

Ballyculhane Castle

 The people change, the way of life changes, but the land endures adding each generations’ memories to its history. 

There’s a lot more to Blarney than just the Stone…

IMG_5597For first-time visitors to Ireland, the ritual of kissing the Blarney Stone is as essential as downing that first pint of ‘real’ Guinness.  For some however, despite standing in the queue, climbing the circular stone steps that get ever steeper, narrower and more worn as you near the top and enjoying the spectacular views of the surrounding countryside, the actual act of kissing the stone proves to be daunting.  The ancient floors of the existing castle which was built in 1446 are gone and from the narrow walkway around the top, visitors wending their way to the famed stone have plenty of time to reflect on its 90’height.   Attaining eloquence is not for the faint of heart.  The kissing part requires the kisser to lie on his back, scoot out over the edge of a precipice and hang virtually upside down in order to reach the Stone of Scone – which was the original Martha and the Stonename of the stone.  There is man there to assist, of course and a photographer to record the event.  And there is truly no danger of falling…

I’ve kissed it three times – although my mother told me on more than one IMG_5564occasion that I had no need of the ‘gift of gab’ as I already had plenty.

After you’ve turned yourself upside down – literally- to complete the ritual, don’t be too quick to leave the castle grounds.  The allure of the shops at Blarney Woolen Mills might be strong, but walking through the grounds and gardens of Blarney Castle is a treat that should not be missed.  Just outside the castle keep, the stable yard contains a colourful array of carriages and caravans, picnic areas and a small café.  On the day we were recently there, there was a fox hound puppy show as well, presented by the Blarney Hunt Club.  The puppies were temporarily corralled inside in large box stalls and were happy to bark and howl a greeting to anyone who stopped by to snap a photo.

Caravans

IMG_5596jaunting carsOne should allow at least half a day to explore the more than 60 acres of the Castle gardens.  There are numerous paths and avenues linking a variety of gardens and waterways.  From the Stables, we wandered down to the mystical Rock Close which is on the site of an ancient druid settlement.  From the tranquil waterfalls to the magic witch’s stone, to the wishing steps you definitely feel presence of …something.

IMG_5587Tucked behind the battlements of the castle is one of the few Poison Gardens in the world.  Some of the plants here, like poison ivy, will be familiar to many people.  Others have names like Mandrake and Wolfsbane – recognizable if you have read the Harry Potter series.  Each plant has an explanation of its characteristics, toxicity and uses.  It is an educational and truly fascinating garden.

We continued down the shaded paths until we came upon the Blarney Manor House.  Built in 1874 in the Scottish Baronial style, today it is still the home of Sir Charles St John Colthurst, a member of the original family whose coat of arms bears the “colt” of the family name. Blarney Coat of Arms The house is open to the public for tours during the summer when Sir Charles takes up residence in a summer house nearby.  The tour lasts approximately half an hour and is definitely worth seeing.  It is a lovely home, splendidly decorated and elegantly maintained.  The views from the magnificent floor to ceiling windows in the drawing room are simply stunning.me Blarney Mansion

On beyond the Manor House the wildflower lined lanes continue past the Limekiln and the walled kitchen garden to the Fern Garden.  If there were ever a place to find fairies in Ireland, this was surely it.  Under the shady canopy of ancient trees, the Fern Garden poollimestone cliff overlooks a tranquil pool and more than 80 varieties of ferns.  There is no doubt in my mind that in this sheltered site, amid the ferns growing at the base of the ancient trees,  is the perfect site for fairies to thrive.  You need to keep your eyes open because I’m sure that if you look carefully, you’ll catch a glimpse of the little people peeking out from underneath the shadowy leaves.

Fern Garden

From this point you can take the shorter route back to the Castle or continue on the longer walk out towards the 21 acre lake.  For bird watchers or those who enjoy seeing wildlife in their natural habitat, this is a Lookout Tower and Tree Blarneywonderful walk:  jays call to one another and squirrels scamper about the trees; on the lake, otters frolic along the banks while stately resident swans glide gracefully on the water.  The path is quiet and peaceful and every season offers a completely different landscape.  IMG_5600

While the Stone may be the most famous item within the demesne walls, it is certainly not the only thing to capture the imagination.  Plan to spend an entire day here – you will be rewarded at every turn.  Blarney Castle and Grounds is open year round and a visit is included in both the Emerald Essence 2104 tour and the Irish Garden Tour 2014.    For more information:  www.blarneycastle.ie