Leaving the large metropolis of Paris, travelers will notice the historic castles and well-maintained monuments that sprinkle the Vexin countryside. Providing picturesque panoramas that include acres of rutabaga fields, and an occasional church to christen the vast backdrop of former battlegrounds, each village tells a tale of French antiquity. About an hour away from the frenzy of urban life, this region became my home and writing refuge in the midst of a mild winter.
One March morning, I scheduled a visit to the looming landmark that was my neighbor, Château de La Roche-Guyon. I met my tour guide, Martial, at the front gate, which weaves the family crest in wrought iron, leading to a striking courtyard. We stood under a brisk blue sky that was fresh with the frigid air of early spring, breathing in the stark sunshine that teased of warmer weather ahead.
Martial opened his tour with the story of Rollo, the infamous Viking who laid siege to this region of France. Motioning to the large wall of white rock that wrapped around us at the entrance, Martial began, “The first lord decided to build the castle inside of the cliff because they had to overlook the river Seine in order to watch for potential attacks, and this kept it hidden. Nearly two centuries ago, a group of Vikings settled on the other side of this hill, in the place which today we call Normandy. This little group was led by a massive and strong man called Rollo.”
With this short snippet of history, shivers went down my spine! It was as if Martial knew that I had spent many months of my pandemic quarantine binge-watching the Vikings television series every Saturday night. Feebly attempting to use my elementary French, I smiled and sputtered “Je connais Rollo!”
“You know him personally?” Martial winked and laughed, prompting me to wonder if I had used the correct translation of the word “know.” Questioning my use of the French verb connaître, I continued to listen to Martial share ancient sagas that now had me hanging on his every word. Knowing I was walking along the same riverbed that Rollo and other Vikings had stepped foot on centuries before, cemented my eagerness to learn more about this part of France.
It is along this part of the winding Seine river that wraps through the Vexin valley, which situates La Roche-Guyon, home to the magnificent château. Aptly named one of France’s most beautiful villages, La Roche-Guyon is about an hour northwest of Paris, and lures visitors with its lush views of both the Vexin Regional National Forest and famous river, with the château nestled into its center.
The village that I called home for most of winter lives up to the title awarding its natural beauty. When I first arrived, I was stunned speechless as I gazed out of the window of my taxi as it wound its way over the hill and down the small road. My driver motioned towards the Seine as the sun set behind La Roche-Guyon while filtered rays fell on the water just as the light left us in the embrace of an evening glow.
In one instant, I could understand why artists had flocked to this region of France. “This is a photographer’s dream,” I wrote on a postcard to a friend who owned an art gallery back home in California. Having mentored me as I began to dabble in painting a few years prior, I knew she would understand the importance of this luminous light that my smartphone rarely seemed to capture.
Initially capturing my attention with the story of Rollo’s conquests, Martial continued to tell the tale of French history that took place all around this castle throughout the centuries. “Rollo’s army secured their place nearby and eventually signed a treaty with the French king at the time, Charles III. The Treaty of Saint-Clair-sur-Epte ensured that the Vikings would not attack the French kingdom any longer, and granted the Norse leader the land between the river Epte and the sea.”
With this geographical insight marked by Martial’s lesson, I finally understood the etymology of the region’s name, and the significance of the river Epte that divided the Vexin Normand and Vexin Français territories. Having hiked along the Vexin forest paths that ended at various clearings near the Route des Crêtes, this brief history lesson opened my view of the boundary behind my village. Pointing to the crest that cradles the château, Martial noted that the Viking territory would eventually extend west beyond the Seine to form the Duchy of Normandy, citing its unique position. “Basically, La Roche-Guyon became a strategic place to keep an eye on the other side of the hill.”
As Martial and I climbed higher and higher to the top of this ridge which overlooks the line that divides the Île de France and Normandy regions, his European history lesson continued. “About one hundred and fifty years after this treaty, William the Conqueror, a descendant of Rollo, led his Norman-French army to fight King Harold in the famous Battle of Hastings.” Detailing more conquests of the past, my guide retraced William’s warpath and his subsequent title of king of England, which was finally bestowed at his Christmas Day coronation in 1066.
Listening to these ancient tales, I realized this was a region of “firsts”: Rollo, the first Norman king of France, and William, the first English king of Norman origin both made their mark in the post-Carolingian annals of French history books.
Martial, whose name is derived from Mars, the Roman god of war and agriculture, led me down the winding tunnels inside the immense cliff of the château. Describing the archaeological qualities of the flint stone that had been used in the walls’ foundation, Martial provided some background on how the German troops had used the château as a base during World War II. Established in early 1944 as a military headquarters by German commander Erwin Rommel, Château de La Roche-Guyon continued to be at the center of warring nations.
I began to believe that Martial was living up to his namesake with his expert knowledge of a history filled with wars, invasions, and conquests. Weaving our way through the dark, damp halls of the bunker, he recounted the tragic tale of 1944 that left parts of the château in ruins, yet another French landmark leveled by the brutality of bombs and bullets.
Turning our attention to the immense and immaculately manicured gardens that lay just across the way from our view of the main courtyard, Martial shared more about this beautiful element of the property that was the legacy of Louise Elisabeth Nicole de La Rochefoucauld, Duchess of Enville. The Duchess, who succeeded Alexandre de la Rochefoucauld and continued the family tradition influenced by knowledge of farming methods and charitable ventures, designed the château’s gardens and commissioned artwork that included paintings, tapestries, and sculptures.
This impressive fruit and vegetable garden, which is now completely organic, was awarded the prestigious “Jardin Remarquable” label by the French Ministry of Culture in 2011. The Duchess’ perennial project, initially completed in 1697 and revised under her guidance, is now an expansive garden that is the second largest vegetable garden in the Île-de-France region after the vegetable garden at Versailles. The gardens, flourishing with endless varieties of pear and apple trees, have gone through some recent changes; a restoration in 2004 to return it to the layout design from 1741, and the AB organic agriculture certification in 2013. These contemporary changes have enabled the team at Château de La Roche-Guyon to host community events related to biodiversity, sustainable farming, and modern agricultural methods.
Continuing with the theme of agriculture, Martial and I climbed our first set of stairs to the château’s pigeonnier. Home to over 1,000 cubby holes that house pigeons and their excrement, the pigeonnier provides fertilizer to much of the region surrounding Château de La Roche-Guyon. Explaining that each hole in the dovecote could fertilize the surface area of an entire soccer field, Martial pointed to the expanse of fields that bordered the castle grounds below. “Agriculture for the aristocracy was very important because a fortune was built with it.”
Agreeing with his statement about the economic importance of agriculture for ancient aristocracies, as well as modern governments, I followed Martial up a second flight of narrow stairs. Climbing higher, I asked him how he engaged his history students and the challenges of teaching in today’s classroom. A school subject swirling in a long list of dates, names, and locations, history is what Martial knows best, and what he tries to bring to life using modern methods like computer research, while integrating timeless techniques like spirited debate and discussions.
Having been a teacher myself, I empathized with the changing landscape of education and how learning has changed for better or for worse. Lamenting over the excessive use of technology, we agreed that sometimes old-fashioned research with books was a lost art. Reminiscing over the archaic Dewey Decimal system that guided much of my schoolwork as a child, I asked Martial about how his history lessons have evolved with technology and the ease of the ubiquitous search button. Acknowledging that the time savings is a double-edged sword, he divulged some of his hopes for the future of education. Echoing his sentiment about the sanctity of learning, I shared, “We save time, but we also lose knowledge. That process of understanding, integrating, and synthesizing information is disappearing.”
Revealing a panoramic vista of the river below, the top platform of the château’s tower is La Roche-Guyon’s landmark often captured in photos by locals, as well as tourists from small cruise ships that dock in the quaint village. The village’s historical site, which as a result of a marriage between the Plessis-Liancourt and La Rochefoucauld families, has come under the domain of their noble lineage. Together with committed community members and the Val d’Oise department, the La Rochefoucauld family continues to create cultural opportunities for future generations. A testament to an enduring legacy of art, architecture, and literature, La Rochefoucauld descendants have made concerted efforts to conserve the heritage that is housed here at the château.
One recent project is the theatre restoration effort, a joint fundraising venture between the community, the Ministry of Culture, and Mission Bern. The theater, another contribution of the Duchess of Enville, was completed in 1768 and built into the rocky foundations of the castle, but has since suffered environmental damage and decay. This restoration project is dedicated to preserving the site’s underground stage and seating while safeguarding the property’s historical significance. The Château’s conservation efforts hope to refurbish and reinvigorate the theater, enlisting the skills of local masons, artisans, painters, and carpenters to eventually produce performances for future visitors.
Château de La Roche-Guyon is the perfect place for putting art of all types on display. In 2019, the château hosted the Oksébô biennale, which features artists in ceramics, textiles, photography, glass, mosaic, and sculpture. This dynamic showcase of the region’s artists, whose goal is the “innovation and transmission” of arts to the public, will continue its mission with another château exhibition planned for the fall of 2022. But one doesn’t have to wait for biennales to connect with the château. The cultural programming at Château de La Roche-Guyon indulges a plethora of artistic inclinations throughout the season. From masterclasses with renowned musicians to literary festivals whose featured authors focused on the timely theme of “borders”, the event calendar at the château continues to intrigue all audiences.
Offering a glimpse back in time, the château’s amalgamation of architectural elements feature medieval, Renaissance, Baroque, and classical styles that are set amongst the chalky troglodyte rocks, which take visitors on a figurative trip through different time periods. Reminding me of the time machine that greeted me prior to my visit into the bunker, Martial mentioned that Château de La Roche-Guyon would spotlight the work of Belgian comic book author, designer, and illustrator, Edgar P. Jacobs in an exhibit later this spring.
Considered a pioneer in the European comics world, known as bande dessinée in French, Edgar Pierre Jacobs and his exquisite use of color and intricate copy have landed his comic book series Blake et Mortimer on Le Monde’s 100 Books of the Century, or “Les cent livres du siècle”, a compilation of the best one hundred books of the 20th century. Le Piège diabolique, the 9th book in Jacobs’ seminal work Blake and Mortimer, partially takes place in La Roche-Guyon. Situating the château and its history as a pivotal part of the plot that sends its characters into the middle of a Medieval revolt, the Belgian author and his life will be the featured exhibit for visitors to the château until November 2022.
Continuing my tour through the vast hallways, Martial led me to the pavilion that will host the exhibit that includes a tribute to the 60th anniversary of Jacobs’ Le Piège diabolique. Published in 1960 and then banned by the French government in 1962, Jacobs’ book was eventually translated into English in 1989 as The Time Trap. His book connects readers to the fantastical idea of time travel with a twisted trip to the Middle Ages when Mortimer ventures out to La Roche-Guyon to uncover a time machine left behind by a character killed off by radiation exposure. While my short synopsis doesn’t necessarily need any spoiler alerts, Blake and Mortimer time travel to 5060 and discover the devastation left behind by a global nuclear war.
Just a few weeks before this informative visit, our world witnessed yet another war that continued to rage on as I stood overlooking the château’s courtyard that led to its striking façade. As Martial recounted the château’s reconstruction after the various invasions, I revealed to Martial that only weeks before I had been curious about the location of the bunker, desperately considering it a place of refuge in the event that the Ukraine situation escalated. Knowing nothing of how to prepare for a nuclear war, I responded to concerned friends back home that I would climb down into a bunker at the neighboring castle in a futile attempt to quell their fears, and my own.
Martial seemed startled at my revelation; maybe a bit unnerving as we both admitted that it is not the type of situation either of us had anticipated in recent weeks, realizing that the possibility of nuclear disaster still loomed. I divulged that on my daily walks through the neighborhood and along the banks of the Seine, I had noticed the placards highlighting the World War II history in French, English, and German which made special mention of the bunker.
“I know it’s not the type of thing one really prepares for, but I was scared and in a moment of panic, it gave me a bit of hope”, I confided in my guide.
It turns out, much of Jacobs’ Le Piège diabolique and subsequent books in the acclaimed comic series prophesied the current state of the world: nuclear destruction, incurable diseases affecting the human race, and weather disasters. Digging deeper into recent analyses of Jacobs’ Blake and Mortimer series, I discovered a thorough list of the TV tropes that appear in his books. Besides the ominous ones I highlighted above, Jacobs’ more interesting predictions in The Time Trap were those of a video phone worn on the wrist (Apple watch anyone?), and mention of La Roche-Guyon replacing Paris as the metropolitan capital of France.
While some elements in Jacobs’ stories may have sounded far-fetched and highly improbable to previous generations, what is timeless is his artistic use of color in comics. Blending diverse materials like gouache, watercolor, pastel, and vibrant Ecoline inks, Jacobs produced a subdued yet sophisticated palette that was the perfect backdrop for his verbose text. With years of experience in illustration and drawing for other publications, Jacobs eventually made his mark in the Franco-Belgian comic book universe with Blake and Mortimer, a series that is still being translated for readers all over the world who want to escape through his storytelling.
Reading more about the life of Edgar P. Jacobs, I learned that we had a few things in common. We both went to see our first opera, Faust with our fathers, we were both voracious readers from an early age, and we both began to committedly pursue our artistic passions in our forties. Reflecting on the synchronicities of our lives, and how I came to learn about his illustrious career, I realized that the issues of censorship, war, and immigration, all of which affected Jacobs’ career trajectory and the reception of his work in France, are still at the forefront of international news today. As the team at Château de La Roche-Guyon prepares to honor his life and work many years after its publication, many nations are tackling these same issues in their societies, policies, and elections today.
Prophetic as his work was over a half-century ago, Jacobs’ legacy is still being recognized and reinterpreted for modern audiences. In 2004, both French and Belgian postage stamps commemorated the 100th anniversary of the author’s birthday with limited edition designs, while board game and video game adaptations have brought Jacobs’ creations to both comic collectors and pop-culture fans. More recently, the Centre Belge de la Bande Dessinée in Jacobs’ native Belgium devoted an entire exhibit to the enduring mark of the Blake et Mortimer series.
And of course, the highly anticipated MachinaXion exhibit here at Château de La Roche-Guyon will entice and entrap visitors in Jacobs’ words and images, woven together in a comprehensive retrospective. It will definitely be interesting to see how the château’s artistic team interprets his life and legacy on the walls of the iconic castle.
Wrapping up my visit, I gazed up at the green leaves that clung to the château and thought about everything I had learned in La Roche-Guyon. Just outside the walls of the castle’s library, I stepped into an exquisite garden at the edge of an enchanted forest that enveloped the château. Standing under a tree whose branches bestowed their own secrets, Martial ended our tour leaving me with the best souvenir of all – knowledge.
My tips for La Roche-Guyon:
– Enjoy a cup of tea or spiced coffee at Galerie T Room surrounded by curated ceramic art
– Allow time to stroll along the Seine and say hello to the swans
– Take in the beautiful art at Musée Novera Ahmed, a tribute to the pioneering sculptor from Bangladesh
– Bring a change of shoes to climb along the Route des Crêtes and marvel at the panoramic views of the Vexin valley
– Relax and recharge in the yoga garden hidden in the neighborhood alleyways