In the 11th century, a certain Arthaud de Mirambel built a fortified Stronghold in what is now the Charente-Maritime department in the Nouvelle-Aquitaine region of south-west France. For his garrison, Arthaud selected a hill between the chalky heights of Pons to the East and the Gironde estuary to the West. Looking at the history of sustained warfare in this region during the early Middle Ages which included raids not only by Viking bands but also by those of the Umayyad Caliphate, I believe there might have been even earlier defense structures in the location of Mirambellum, as Arthaud de Mirambel’s fortress came to be known.
Since then, once or twice per century, Mirambellum changed hands and many well-known aristocratic families became “Lords of Mirambeau” during these turbulent times. The fortunes of war were never too kind, until, in the late 16th century the Stronghold ultimately succumbed to sieges and fires. Only one wing of the former Mirambellum fortress was rebuilt over the following century.
The poor old thing had to wait for the Count of Duchatel, who bought the ruined castle in 1813. The Duc and later his son Tanneguy Duchatel dedicated a fortune to the restoration and rebuilding of this historical place. Eventually, in the spirit of his leftish-democratic convictions, Tanneguy turned his castle into a senior citizen home. As a bachelor without issue, he appointed his nephew Louis-Charles-Marie Duc de Thouars et de la Trémoïlle, Prince de Talmont et Tarente et XXIXe Comte de Laval as his sole heir who thus became the last noble-born French Lord of Mirambeau. The duke subsequently bequeathed the Château de Mirambeau to the French government during WWI.
Between 1916 and now, the castle underwent many more transformations before it became a 5-star hotel in the “Relais & Châteaux” organization. My first, fleeting acquaintance with the Château de Mirambeau occurred last autumn when we were viewing a house-for-sale in a nearby village and had to take a detour outside the castle grounds. Posh, I thought then, gorgeous and out of reach.
Fast forward to my birthday. My husband had made secret arrangements for a get-away for us, including a birthday dinner in a Michelin-starred restaurant. We had just moved into our new place in Cognac, where painters had taken over the core of the house, namely the entry and the staircase which made life a bit awkward, so heading out toward the unknown seemed especially enticing.
My special day started out quite pleasantly with good wishes from the painters, who had even brought croissants for my birthday breakfast! Late morning, we left on the leisurely drive through the softly undulating Charente countryside dotted with bright-yellow rapeseed fields and still winter-bare vineyards taking us to our secret destination.
We were greeted warmly and shown into the Grand Salon to relax with a glass of champagne after our arduous journey of 48 minutes.
After this pleasant interlude, we were escorted to our room through a maze of hallways.
Making the most of a beautiful afternoon, we traded the seducingly cushy comfort of our room for a riot of leafy greens beckoning in the castle park.
Pausing our perambulation in a courtyard for a refreshing glass of sparkling water, we basked for a while in the warming rays of the Spring sun. Although I doubt we were the only guests, it certainly felt that way.
Climbing the stairs to our second-floor room, we admired many more design details.
Of special interest was the discovery that there was no wallpaper in the Château de Mirambeau. Not even one square inch. There was carved wood and cut stone, and then there were fabrics. Heavy, dense upholstery fabrics, most likely silk and linen, with or without tassels. These fabrics were sewn into curtains, often double-hung as inner and outer curtains, always lined with cotton backing and surmounted by richly pleated valances. Sofas, armchairs, and window seats were upholstered with matching fabrics. And finally, there were the wall panels. Wherever you would “normally” expect wallpaper, in this château you touched softly cushioned, sound-dampening fabrics.
In our room, for example, the overall motif was a butterfly design contrasted against a soft plaid. Both fabrics used the same light green and rust-red palette for perfect harmony.
In other areas of the château, stronger and more powerful colors and designs were used to accentuate specific spaces, as you no doubt noticed in my pictures of the Grand Salon and the hallways. Brilliant!
For my birthday dîner, we repaired to the winter garden or the conservatory or the orangery, whichever term you might like best. Such an agreeable, summery space!
The large windows overlooking the park combined with the soft splashes of the fountain, plus the chirps of the sunset birdsong enhanced a peaceful atmosphere,
while the oversized wrought iron and lacquer chandeliers added whimsy.
But, hush, hush, be quiet now. The Chef demands all our attention.
Before advancing to the desserts, we also indulged in a selection of cheeses.
Oh, my! So delicious!!
Late the next morning, after a last glance toward the horizon, we said adieu to this charming place, nestled so beautifully in the springtime Charentais landscape.
On our way out, we detoured through the lovely bar with its remarkable vaulted ceiling and monumental fireplace.
“EX URBE EJECIT HOSTEM”