Sarzay Castle – Chateau du Sarzay: DIY Castle Restoration

The site at Sarzay. Chapel tower on the right.

We had a second family summer outing last week, this time to Sarzay Castle – chateau du Sarzay. It’s only about half an hour away, very close to La Chatre. I have no idea why it’s taken us five years to get round to going there. But – we made it.

And it was brilliant. Sarzay is said to be one of the most photographed chateaux in France. Its five towers are very picturesque. I took nearly 100 photos while we were there, and I know Caiti outdid me. So we’ve contributed to its reputation!

These five towers are all that remain of 38 originally. That must have been an incredible sight. The castle was begun in 1348 by Guillaume de Barbançois as part of the chain of castles that the French built to keep the English at bay during the Hundred Years’ War. Guillaume fought the English at La Chatre and followed up with a spot of recreational looting before retiring back home. He built six towers, the moat and pond, and a large surrounding wall. His towers were fairly short. The chapel tower is the only one of these left and it was dwarfed by the later 32 that his  descendant Jean de Barbançois added, nearly a hundred years later in 1440. These are proper towering towers! If only they were all still standing. That would be a mesmerising sight.

Benj and Caits are right at the top.

Over time the de Barbançois fortunes declined, and in 1719 their castle and also the entire village of Sarzay were handed over to Charles de la Porte de Montval. This family had the castle until 1836.

Various other people owned it for short periods and then in 1912 it was designated as a national monument and left to crumble into ruins. It had been getting shabby before then. George Sand used it in one of her novels and referred to it as ‘the pitiful wreck of ancient grandeur’. But, to be fair, it had lived through the Hundred Years War, the Wars of Religion (1562-98), the Fronde civil war of 1648, and the French Revolution of 1789, and survived.

Chris and Rors are by the well - for scale.

But before it completely fell apart, along came Parisian Richard Hurbain in 1983. He brought the castle for 800,000 francs and promised to restore it. But the French government decided to do everything in its power stop him. Civil servants insisted that things be done just so, for no particular reason it seems, and put up as many obstacles as they possibly could.

Hurbain cleared 80 tonnes of rubbish from the old moat

Hurbain was even summoned to court for not filling in the correct paperwork before doing some repairs. He was fined, but the fine was suspended meaning he never had to pay it. However, he has a criminal record as a result of his incredible work to save a fantastic chunk of France’s heritage that the official bodies that should have been looking after were letting fall into ruin.

(This article about Sarzay is well worth a read.)

The restoration is ongoing. And I’m humbled. We’ve renovated two houses and it exhausted us and nearly drove us crazy. Hurbain is restoring a caste. OK, only five thirty-eighths of it are left, but they’re colossal.

Ongoing DIY restoration work

It’s the DIY feel to the place that we all loved. Every room in the tower that’s open is stuffed full of treasures the family found there – knives, axes, pots, barrels, furniture and a seemingly endless supply of boar heads!

You can get right to the top of three of the towers and look out of the little windows at the top. It’s fantastic.

The beams inside the very top of the tower

We visited the chapel and finished up in the Knight’s Hall where there was rather disappointingly a display of artwork. I’d hoped for suits of armour. But some of the pictures were lovely.

Finally we browsed the huge display of antique odds and ends out in the courtyard. We didn’t know what most of it was, but it all looked fascinating. We positively identified a huge stone knife sharpener, various tools and pans, and the watering cans were easy enough.

If you’re in the area, you simply have visit to Sarzay. You’ll be captivated, like we were.

And maybe you can work out what these are:


A Raw Milk Distributor That Doesn’t Go Moo

Caiti and I went to do the food shopping – groan – at Super-U at La Châtre today.

“Oh cool,” says Caiti as we drive into the car park. “There’s one of those unpasteurised milk machines.”

Photo from the Berry Echo - the machine at Super-U

I am clearly way out of touch. I had no idea these things existed. Anyway, we got our trolley and went over for a look. Sure enough, it was a vending machine for raw milk. It all seemed to be incredibly complicated to start with. It looked like we would have to buy a minimum of some sort of key and 8 litres of milk for 10 euro. That seemed a tad over the top, unless we wanted to go into cheese production. Then Caiti worked out that you could buy an empty plastic bottle for 20 cents, and she found the part where the milk is actually dispensed. It wasn’t clear how much it was or exactly how it worked, so we poked around for a few more minutes and then went off to fill the trolley with food that will be gone within days/hours/minutes depending on how hungry the teens are. Super-U is being reorganised or refurbished or possibly even completely rebuilt at the moment. Chunks of the shop are sectioned off and there’s a real din of drills and bangs and crashes. It’s quite noticeable that when shops do this running conversion work, a lot of the cheaper lines disappear off the shelves since space is at a premium. The expensive stuff stays out though!

I decided to use up my 5 years’ worth of accumulated loyalty points to get a free gift. Caiti and I decided on a wicked looking hand blender with an assortment of attachments. Think of all the pumpkin soup I’ll be able to make with it! (Family joke that needs explaining – the kids would frankly rather starve than eat their dad’s pumpkin soup, which both he and I are addicted to. Pumpkins rock!) Sadly it’s not in stock so I’ll collect it next time we hit the shop.

Caiti cadged 20 cents off me while I was unloading the car to go and play with the raw milk machine. Now, this particular one has been in place since November 2010. It was put there by two farming brothers, Jérome and Charlie Chaumette, who live close by at Sazeray. However, the driving force was Corinne Bouriaud, the manager of Super-U. She’d come across such a machine elsewhere (there are around one hundred of them so far in France) and she thought it would be a good additional service for her shop to offer. So she advertised and the Chaumette brothers saw a golden opportunity. They invested in the special distributeur (vending machine). Every morning they put 150 litres of fresh milk into the machine, where it’s kept refrigerated. (There are extremely tight hygiene regulations that they have to meet.) Lait cru (unpasteurised milk) is 46% fat, but you wouldn’t think so to taste it. It’s light and refreshing, and definitely different from treated milk. With a bit of help from a passing lady, Caiti had worked out how everything worked and had half a litre of raw milk in a bottle by the time I joined her.

It’s a win-win situation all round. The farmers get paid a sensible amount for their milk, customers get top quality milk the old-fashioned way in a place that’s easy to access, and Super-U attracts some more customers through its doors.

I’m glad Caiti came with me today. I made a fascinating discovery. I must stop walking around with my eyes shut.