The Route of Beauty

“I travel a lot; I hate having my life disrupted by routine.” Caskie Stinnett

For some inexplicable reason I have always been fascinated by the curious relationship between Eleanor of Aquitaine and one of her five sons, Richard the Lionheart. So when the opportunity arose to write an article for France Today magazine on the Route of Richard, there was no better way I could think of to trace some of the footsteps of Eleanor, Queen of France and England, and her son, Richard, King of England and Duke of Aquitaine, than to tour this incredibly beautiful corner of the Limousin region where history and legend walk together.

There are 19 chateaux on the Route of Richard the Lionheart that link together approximately 110 miles of heavily wooded forests, purple heaths, peat bogs, pristine lakes and uncultivated rolling meadows. Some of the chateaux are ruins and some are splendid homes occupied by remarkable families. The most exceptional chateau I visited was Bonneval, overlooking the village of Coussac, inhabited by the Bonneval family for almost seven centuries. The present castle was rebuilt in 1350 on the ruins of a Gallo-Roman villa. Each of its four towers points to one cardinal direction on the compass and each tower boasts a mysterious legend.

Once I crossed the drawbridge over the moat I entered a stunning Renaissance courtyard surrounded by a columned gallery, and instantly stepped back in time, as though the veil between worlds had lifted.

It was here I met the Marquis and Marquise de Bonneval. The Marquis, Géraud, seemed shy and understandably circumspect, but the Marquise, Marta, welcomed me with open arms and I was instantly smitten by her genuine warmth and hospitality.

I had previously corresponded with her for a few months trying to arrange a date and time for a private tour to correspond with the performance of a play, Aliénor et Fred (Eleanor and Fred), written and performed by Melinda Mullins and John Lowings, and directed by her husband, Josh Bryant.

In brief, while preoccupied with his mobile phone, Fred accidentally gets locked in the chapel where Eleanor and her husband, King Henry II of England were interred, Eleanor magically wakes from the dead and the past and present collide, with rich dialogue and poignant humor. With his marriage to Eleanor in 1152, King Henry II reigned over lands from Scotland to the Spanish border. Together they had 8 children. Eleanor also had 2 daughters from her first marriage to Louis VII of France. Of all of her children, she had a soft spot for Richard, who succeeded his father as King for 10 years until his death at Chalus Chabrol castle, not far from Chateau de Bonneval. During their ephemeral encounter,

Eleanor and Fred talk about the complication of relationships (even though Henry was the love of her life he imprisoned her for 15 years), sexuality (Richard was gay as is Fred), and children (Fred doesn’t want to adopt one though his partner does, while Eleanor had a total of 10).

Although the chateau is open to the public, I was given a private tour by Tabitha, an extraordinary guide, which was a bit like walking through a richly adorned movie set spanning the Middle Ages to Downton Abbey. My favorite rooms were the “King’s bedroom”, where a young Henri IV (future King of France) spent one night in 1569, and the chapel dating from the year 930.

There are thirty-two rooms in the chateau and more than a dozen can be visited from April through September. Géraud and Marta often greet guests, some 3,000 plus a year, as they purchase tickets and buy souvenirs, making everyone feel like they’ve just been welcomed by gracious neighbors.

I hope to return to Chateau de Bonneval during another season, maybe in the spring when the park surrounding the castle is in bloom and the mystery between worlds unfolds again.

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