Ascension Day is a French Bank Holiday and this year the weather was glorious, tempting us to take time out. We don’t usually “take” these days off but my beloved decided we should go out for a picnic. This rather caught me on the hop, some notice would’ve been appreciated. Still I managed to cobble together something acceptable, packed it in the wicker hamper and small cooler bag and we set off, destination Gourdon.
Gourdon is yet another of the many ancient perched villages that dot the Cote d’Azur hinterland. It’s a favourite destination for cyclists who often stop at one of its two cafes outside the village to slake their thirst. Adjacent to the village is a large park which is very popular with picnickers. That Thursday was no exception and there were plenty of groups taking shade under the trees who’d laid out and were enjoying their bountifull picnics.
Because of its strategic geographical situation, on a rocky peak, at an altitude of 760 metres (2,500 ft), overlooking the Vallée du Loup, the village served for many centuries as a strong-hold. Numerous traces of conquering folk bear witness to this: oppidums, Roman roads and fortifications. But despite the many invasions, Gourdon has stood the test of time and remains a most popular place to visit. Its incomparable panorama extends over 80 kilometres (50 miles) of the Côte d’Azur, from Nice to Théoule. Only ten kilometres as the crow flies from the Mediterranean, Gourdon provides a wonderful viewing platform.
The main draws in Gourdon, aside from its spectacular views, are two listed 12th century Romanesque churches. The Chapel of Saint Pons with its splendid medieval garden and the Church of Saint Vincent, the patron saint of Gourdon. But most come to see the Chateau, which dates back to 9th century, and its splendid gardens, ownership of which has changed hands frequently through the ages.
The chateau is built on the western side of the village, looking down over Gourdon. It is currently closed while undergoing extensive renovation. It has imposing dimensions with its square courtyard, three towers and a keep, the great wall providing a rampart to the north, looking towards the Pré-du-Lac – Gréolières road. The chateau is now a listed Historical Monument.
In 12th century, the counts of Provence built a new stronghold on the foundations of the original 9th century fortress while they organised the defense of their border between the county of Ventimiglia and the county of Provence. “Gordon” became “Gourdon”: fortified site on the rocky slope.
The seigneury of Gourdon belonged to the counts of Provence and from 1235 successively to the family of Grasse, Lord of the Bar, passing to Louis de Villeneuve in 1469. The castle then fell to Bourillon d’Aspremont and thereafter to Louis de Lombard in 1598 who inherited the title of Marquis de Montauroux, following his marriage in 1672. Louis de Lombard remodelled the castle whose arcades and first floor were built in 1610 in the spirit of the arcades of the Place des Vosges in Paris. The second floor was added in 1653 by Francois de Lombard.
During thehe French Revolution, John Paul I of Lombard’s liberal ideas saved his castle from devastation, though it lost one of its four towers and dungeon. John Paul II of Lombard was the last of his line, and bequeathed the castle to his nephew the Marquis of Villeneuve-Bargemon whose heirs sold the house in 1918 to an American, Miss Noris, who opened it as a museum in 1938. An American citizen, she became Lord of Gourdon until her death.
The chateau was finally opened to the public in 1950, becoming listed in 1972 after its collections were put on display. It has since changed hands a number of times and in 2015 was closed to the public while much needed renovations take place.
Its garden, which I was fortunate to visit in the past, is beautiful and shaded in summer by tall linden trees. It offers a delightful bower of foliage from which one has a stunning view of the panorama below. The main terrace was designed by Andre Le Notre, landscape gardener to Louis XIV, who designed the gardens at the château of Versailles. There’s a magnificent topiary garden in boxwood clipped into fascinating shapes and a large Apothecary’s Garden devoted to herbal plants used both for medicinal purposes and for seasoning food.