My next book in L’Auberge des Anges series – Angel of Roses – is set in 14th century France, so it was with eagerness and armed with notepad and camera, that I attended a friend’s 50th birthday celebration last Saturday. For this was no mundane garden party; it was to be held in his family’s medieval castle, half an hour west of Lyon.
As I strolled around the lush gardens, maintained by the sole occupant of the castle these days – my friend’s elderly aunt – a glass of champagne in one hand, a plate of canapés in the other, I knew this would be the perfect place around which to frame my medieval tale. My nostrils twitching with the tantalizing aroma of pig roasting on the spit, I could almost see bejewelled noblewomen gliding around the grounds, and hear the whispers of wimpled servants. I imagined sleek horses galloping off through the arched gateway beneath the imposing tower, towards the gently-sloping countryside. I sensed the peoples’ anxiety across the centuries, about the Hundred Years’ War and the Black Death, of famine and tithes. I felt I was touching the past.
In true French style, the aperitif lasted almost two hours, by which time the guests had consumed so much champagne they could barely stagger to the chairs and tables set up beneath the large tent.
Salads of different varieties were served, then potatoes sautéed in the pig fat (forget that diet!), tasty ratatouille and tender slices of roasted pig. Fromage blanc with generous dollops of double-cream followed, the meal culminating in candles, song and cake: chocolate or raspberry topped ice-cream gateau.
His guests sated, our host took us on a tour of the castle his family had purchased after the French revolution. We began in the central courtyard containing the largest well I’ve ever seen, where he attempted to describe the history of the castle. Despite continual interruptions from drunken school friends, with bad medieval jokes, I did manage to glean that before construction of the Château de Sain-Bel in 1109, the village was located next to the parish church, on the right bank of the river. However, when the castle was built on the Montbloy hill, the villagers moved to the left bank to form a bourg castral, huddled within the protective castle walls.
We shuffled across to the rectangular chapel, built between 1473-1476, and gazed up at the medieval beamed ceiling, and around the walls at the vestiges of coloured paintings.
Passing by the ancient kitchens, we climbed the crumbling stone steps of the Colombier Tower. Equipped for artillery, I imagined the people looking out across the vast countryside, for signs of marauding, pillaging troops on horseback.
It was late in the evening when, my notebook bulging, my camera carefully tucked away, I said goodbye to my friends – old friends of today, and new friends of yesterday.