Chateau d'Ussé

Chateau d'Ussé with its iconic turrets and towers in France's Indre-et-Loire department inspired world-famous Charles Perrault to write his Sleeping Beauty.


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Stanislas De Blacas, one of the owners of Chateau d'Ussé © DR / Famille De Blacas
Artiom Ganin of @Castles_and_Palaces community talks with Stanislas de Blacas, one of the owners of iconic French Chateau d'Ussé in France's Indre-et-Loire department. The castle which inspired Charles Perrault to write his world-famous Sleeping Beauty was a strong magnet for tourists from across the world before the pandemic struck. COVID-related restrictions affected the operations of the chateau whose revenues dropped some 30 percent. The situation is now dangerous because this money was used to cover renovation and maintenance expenses, besides the castle also employs local residents who still get their salaries. However if the chateau does not re-open in spring the owners say they will be forced to take drastic measures. The lack of tourists has also affected local community whose businesses like restaurants, cafes and shops had to close down.


Castles_and_Palaces (CnP): Your family has owned Chateau d'Ussé since 1885 – what is it like to own such a classy Loire Valley chateau for more than a century?
Stanislas de Blacas (SdB): It could be seen as a great privilege or a great task. But actually, as I've been used to spending so many holidays and week-ends there since my childhood, I am not really asking myself this question. I feel more like it's my country house!Let me correct you - my family bought the castle in 1807, so we've owned Ussé for more than 2 centuries. Ussé arrived in the Blacas family through the wedding of Count Xavier de Blacas and Félicie de Chastellux. Their son Count Bertrand inherited the castle from his aunt Comtesse August de la Rochejaquelin in 1885. Félicie de Chastellux's mother was Félicie de la Rochejaquelin sister.
CnP: This makes a difference – some 100 years more. Could you please tell me a few words about your family?
SdB: The Blacas family is one of the most well-known families in Provence. Our real name is Blacas d'Aulps, the name of city where we come from. The first member of the family Pierre d'Aulps, was on the side of the Normans during the conquest of Sicily. Then he moved with the crusaders, and served the Byzantine emperor Alexius I Comnenus. Blacas the 3rd was a very famous troubadour. His poetry is still well-known today. During the French revolution, Casimir de Blacas emigrated. Then he served Louis XVIII. When the Bourbons came back to power, he was made Duc de Blacas. He is also a well-known art patron. He helped Champollion, or commissioned paintings from Ingres, Delacroix, Vernet.
CnP: A family with a history! Tell me do you live in the castle now?
SdB: No, we all live in Brussels now (both my sisters and my parents). But we still spend many week-ends and holidays in Ussé. We do also have family weddings, funerals and baptism in Ussé. For instance, Beatrix, my older sister, got married in Ussé. Her daughter Alienor was baptized in the church, and one of our grandfathers is buried in the family vault under the church.
CnP: A true family seat – but apart from being the family seat the chateau has always been a great attraction for tourists. The latest news reports look gloomy – you experienced a drop of about 30% in revenues which is likely to affect the 2021 renovation and maintenance plans – what is under threat?
SdB: Following this sharp drop in revenues that we have experienced since last year (it is approximatively a third of what we normally get), all the renovations and maintenance plans are on hold. Except the urgent ones which are paid for from our pockets!
CnP: How much of the revenues do you normally channel to restoration and maintenance?
SdB: Usually between 25% and 30% or 300.000 - 400.000 euros.
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CnP: Is it that bad? I mean that the crisis is likely to pass and the travel industry is likely to recover in 1, 2 or 3 years, perhaps you could just relax, close down and focus on works which you normally can't do in high season?
SdB: We are currently spending a lot of money in order to be able to re-open when the government allows us to do so. Salaries (we haven't fired anybody), advertising contracts, ancient costumes exhibitions, audio guide rental...).


CnP: How many people do you employ now? Are they locals?
SdB: We employ 11 people year-round, and up to 20 during a peak season. All of them come from the village of Rigny-Ussé or from the neighborhood. But please let me continue - If we decide to stop all those expenses, it means we have to fire people who have been doing a great job here for years, and sometimes for decades, cancel contracts we have with companies for exhibitions, advertising... And then we won't be able to re-open without a few months of preparations!
CnP: Why not turn part of the castle in a luxurious exclusive hotel or a restaurant now when you have time for that (and it looks like banks wouldn't refuse a loan to such a promising property) to make up for the income you did not get due to COVID?
SdB: It is difficult to have tourists and hotel or restaurant guests at the same time. The tourists want to see as many parts of the castle as possible, it would be disappointing for them if a significant part of the castle was a restaurant or a hotel.
CnP: Sounds sensible. But what is your plan in the long run?
SdB: For the next few months we'll wait and hope that the castle will be allowed to re-open before summer. If it turns out that we cannot have tourists next summer, then we will dramatically reduce costs and the castle will become only a beautiful country house for friends and family, until the situation improves. This would be very heartbreaking because it means firing people, killing the restaurants in the village who can't be profitable without people coming to see the chateau, and limiting renovations.
CnP: How is the government going to help you, it is going to help you, isn't it, because to me it looks like a matter of national significance?
SdB: Unfortunately, the government doesn't share your view. We do not get any help from the government. You know we did ask for the government support (from the "Fond de Solidarité") but it turned out that we are not eligible. It seems that they help companies, not private owners of castles.

CnP: The times are really tough and the authorities have to make difficult decisions. So castles and castle owners are apparently not the priority now. Every country-house requires interventions occasionally to mend this or that. A castle - being a huge old building - requires them non-top. What about a large-scare restoration – when did you have one last time?
SdB: We do have large renovations almost every year. The biggest one was the renovation of the 12000 square meters of the roof which took almost 30 years to complete! The roof, for instance, is now in a perfect shape thanks to the tourists who visited the castle!


CnP: Your castle has a rich history and it is not the original version of itself now - it combines the medieval Gothic and Renaissance styles – have you found anything interesting during the restoration works?
SdB: A village existed here during the Roman period, it was called Uceum. Since that time, the castle had many transformations. The foundation seems to be from the time of Gueldin the Saumur who was a Viking warrior and the seigneur of Ussé (around 1000 A.D)!
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SdB: The "modern castle" was really built after the Hundred Years' war, around 1460. During the restoration work we found bullets which seem to date back to the religious civil war in France of the 17th century. The castle also has the Neo-Gothic structure, and the works help us to date some of the parts.

For us Ussé is an "architectural museum" showing all the French architectural styles. Anyone can notice something unusual if they look at the castle - like a closed door in the middle of a wall. The chateau kept transforming through the times. Try tracking down when this or that happened, play a detective!
CnP: Do you have a castle museum?
SdB: Yes we do. Inside our guest can see fantastic pieces of furniture of the 18th century. Each year we organize a new display of clothes. It helps our visitors to travel to the past!

CnP: Nice! As far as I know one of the rooms in the chateau boasts 17th century tapestries and there's a passage to an underground area which is 10 centuries old – is it where your castle ghosts wander day and night?
SdB: We have a very nice collection of 17th century tapestries by Teniers weave in Brussels. But they don't hide underground! We have two doors leading to the underground. One room there is basically a cellar - we keep our bottles of wine there! The second room hosts the antique heating system. From those 2 underground areas, we can see the old galleries with falling rocks. They might have been used to go out from the castle in the time of war. As for the ghosts - he or she turns up sometimes! But we hope it does not happen in our wine cellar!
CnP: What's your favorite legend about the castle – there should be many of them!
SdB: At the end of the 17th century, Louis XIV was at war with most of Europe. To pay for these wars, he ordered rich people (nobles and the clergy) to melt their gold and silver furniture. The Marquis de Valentinay, the Ussé's owner, was one of those. He decided to hide his treasures underground. He chose a blind man, so that the poor man couldn't tell anybody where he hid the treasure. But the blind man later said he could hear the noise from the water mill in the underground. The gold coins and the silver chairs of the Marquis de Valentinay are probably hidden somewhere in the underground area close to the water mill of Ussé!
CnP: Oh! This is incredible – you need to send out a team of archeologists to search for them! By the way do you have medieval mechanisms which still work?
SdB: I would love to have one! But you know we still have the medieval toilets! They are not very comfortable, but it is be possible to use them!
CnP: The castle was a shelter for royalists who wished to reinstate the Bourbons, it was visited by Chateaubriand and Voltaire. What's the most extraordinary fact from the castle's history in your opinion?
SdB: My aunt Félicie de la Rochejaquelin helped the Duchesse de Berry to bring back the Throne to the Bourbons when the Orleans took it in 1830. But nothing happened in Ussé. If we look through the centuries, in the 15th century, Jean de Bueil, the lord of Ussé was a well-known warrior. In the 17th and 18th centuries Voltaire, Perrault and many others writers came here. Marshal of Vauban found inspiration to write his education system, and his grandson Sebastien was a poet. In the 19th century, Duchess de Duras wrote a few important novels, and she invited Chateaubriand here too.

CnP: How come Chateau d'Ussé inspired Charles Perrault to write his world-famous Sleeping Beauty?
SdB: Perrault came to Ussé, to visit his friend Valentinay. Ussé looks like a dream, that is why it inspired him to create his Sleeping Beauty.
CnP: What about Walt Disney castles, what does Chateau d'Ussé have to do with them?
SdB: You know in a way Ussé looks like a Disney's castle, even if Walt Disney never chose it as the example.
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CnP: The site where the castle stands now dates back to the ancient times, even Romans had something to do with it – are there traces of those times long gone now near the castle or inside the castle?
SdB: Not in the castle, but in the park – we found the remains of a Roman road. Had we dug deeper, we could have found more traces!
nP: Your gardens are extraordinary – as far as I know the same person who worked on the Versailles gardens created yours, why are they so unique?
SdB: Valentinay's father-in-law was the marshal of Vauban. Vauban knew the best techniques to create those kinds of terraces, and through his connection in Versailles he was able to bring Le Notre to Ussé. Together they did a fantastic work, which would not have been possible without one of them. And Le Notre gave to Ussé two Egyptian mummies, which are now in the Louvres. But we still have some orange trees from that time!

CnP: Old trees! When I talked to the owner of Chateau des Grotteaux he told me Napoleon brought rare plants from his campaigns and presented them to the then owner - this was how the chateau's vast and unique garden was started. What are the rarest plants in your gardens?
SdB: We don't have any extraordinary plants, but the two cedar from Lebanon in front of the castle are presents Chateaubriand made to the Duchess de Duras; and as I said - we still have orange trees from the 18th century.

CnP: I bet you have places in the castle which you hold dear and love most of all – what are they if it is not a secret?
SdB: My older sister would immediately answer "the attics". She spent so much time there. She was bringing back old toys, photographs, furniture, paintings. As for me, I like to spend time in the underground where we keep the wine. It is a very ancient place, and to imagine people digging this huge area with very simple tools one thousand years ago is astonishing!
CnP: You mentioned the wine cellar at least three times! You should really love this place… or wine!
SdB: Of course I do! These cellars were carved out of the local tufa in the 14th century. We have sort of a wine-making museum there now. The cellars are connected with each and other and each cellar hosts a display of unusual and traditional wine making and harvesting technologies. We also have ancient barrels and an original wine press there. In the 15th century the wine knowledge of the Seigneurs of Ussé became recognized across the French kingdom.
CnP: Thanks for this insight – now I know why you love the cellars so much! Look - the chateau was a strong magnet for tourists before the COVID pandemic. Understandably for locals it was a blessing to live near such a castle, it was a great source of income and energy. How did you interact with the community?
SdB: A castle always brings life. In the past by providing jobs in the castle like in Downtown Abbey. Nowadays, the castle needs shops, hotels and restaurant for the tourists who come to visit. We depend on each other.
CnP: How do local support you now when you face difficulties?
SdB: The mayor of the village helps us when he can. But it's a very small village, they are not going to pay for the renovations. Sometimes we get some help from local administrations. For instance, the ADT of Touraine (Agence de Développement Touristique de Touraine) gave us plexiglass panels, when it was mandatory because of the COVID. Sometimes small things are very useful!
CnP: If we don't take into account 2020 – is running a chateau a difficult thing to do?
SdB: It is very time-consuming, but it is also very rewarding. Actually, I do like it, I don't see it as a burden.

CnP: Imagine you don't have Chateau d'Ussé – would you buy a castle for yourself?
SdB: Why not! My sister Beatrix bought one!
CnP: Which European castle do you like (apart from Chateau d'Ussé of course)?
SdB: There are so many beautiful places in Europe, it is difficult to pick one! I love the castle of Chinon, with its huge ramparts standing above the river Vienne. The view of the castle from the other side of the Vienne is astonishing, and it has so much history!
CnP: My traditional question: what would you tell those who are dreaming about buying a rundown castle to restore?
SdB: There are plenty of beautiful castle in France that you can buy for the price of a 2 bedrooms apartment in Paris or London! But keep in mind that restoring a castle is a very long-term commitment.
We very much hope that you liked the interview with Stanislas de Blacas, one of the owners of Chateau d'Ussé in France's Indre-et-Loire department!

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