Chateau le Rocher Portail

Manuel Roussel's childhood dream of owning this particular chateau came true in 2016. This private residence, which for 4 centuries was closed for public, became accessible for all.

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Artiom Ganin, the owner of Castles_and_Palaces instagram community had a chance to virtually sit down with Manuel Roussel, the owner of Chateau le Rocher Portail in France's Brittany. The man's childhood dream was to become the lord of this beautiful chateau which is a stone's throw from world-famous Mont St Michel. Manuel conducted year-and-a-half-long restoration works and made the chateau - which for some 400 years was closed for public - accessible for all. With all the secret passages and separate premises for servants the castle is a true French-style Downton Abbey. The owner says he has a vision for the future of his castle. He he has a lot to offer to the visitors - not just a stuffed crocodile (YES!) on the ceiling in one of the rooms.

CHATEAU OPENS ITS DOORS TO PUBLIC FOR THE 1ST TIME IN 400 YEARS

Castles_and_Palaces (CnP): Manuel you've said in one of your interviews that you "dreamt of becoming the owner of Chateau Le Rocher Portail one day" – why exactly this chateau?
Manuel Roussel (MR): The chateau is situated where I was born, as a baby I did my first steps in front of it and all my childhood I dreamt about this very chateau!

CnP: What did you feel when you realized it is now yours 100%?
MR: My aim is to preserve it for the future generation, to save this wonderful cultural heritage and the masterpiece of the builders.
CnP: Tell me about yourself and your family please!
MR: I am 47 years old. I am an environmental engineer, I created my own industry when I was 25, and then managed to buy the chateau in 2016 thanks to my job.
CnP: So, you bought it in 2016 and next year it was opened for public – was the castle in a very good shape?
MR: Yes, it was in a pretty good shape. We spent 18 months restoring the chateau, mostly outside. We had to recreate the moat, the gardens, we organized a car park. We also had to restore all the windows and doors of the chateau but inside it was in perfectly good health.
CnP: How did you manage to complete restoration works within just a year?
MR: I've done two other historical rescues in the last 20 years – those were two manor houses, so I made use of my experience of how to go through this kind of challenges. You know it is just a bigger project, that's it!

CnP: What was the biggest challenge?
MR: Well, the biggest challenge was to make it accessible to the public. Rules and safety requirements are very strict.
CnP: Any surprises revealed during the restoration works?
MR: We discovered a "secret passage" under the XVI century kitchen, it was such a wonderful thing to find. And of course, I was also taken aback when the expert declared our tapestries to be Royal tapestries! Imagine this – they are the same as the ones from Hardwick Hall which date back to the times of Elisabeth I.
CnP: Sounds impressive indeed! I know that restoring the chapel took a year and a half – why was it so difficult?
MR: The chateau is on the National Heritage list, so every single thing has to be checked by a Batiment de France architect to validate the works and the artist job. All the original paints on wall and ceiling were damaged so a local painter spent 18 months restoring them. Also, the stained glass has to be restored.

CnP: How much did the restoration cost in total if it is not a secret?
MR: It is my little secret.
CnP: This Renaissance castle was a private residence for some 400 years and it was lucky not to be bombed or destroyed in the turbulent 20th century – it should have great and diverse interiors, shouldn't it?

MR: Yes, visitors can enjoy 20 rooms which are completely fitted with original furniture. It is incredible, it is a national treasure! Open your eyes and take a look at the interiors. We have an association of volunteers, some of them are professional historians. For 2 years they researched the history of this chateau at local and national archives. So, we know everything about each room of the castle and have corresponding fact notes for everybody to see.

COMPETING WITH MONT ST MICHEL?

CnP: Tell me a little-known fact from the history of the chateau – maybe from the times of Gilles de Ruellan who was friends with Henry IV and Cardinal Richelieu.
MR: Well, a lot happened since the 17thcentury when it was built. It was Gilles Ruellan who named the chateau Rocher Portail. I will tell you more – in the French kingdom the man was referred to as "Monsieur du Rocher Portail". It is also interesting that the chateau's grounds with its pond and gardens etc. were probably created by the royal architect, Salomon de Brosse. He was also an architect of Queen Marie de Medici, he designed the facade of the Parliament of Brittany as well as the Luxembourg Palace. Rocher Portail boasts a Renaissance gallery which is open on the ground floor where the access to the chapel is located. The part of the gallery upstairs includes Gilles Ruellan's private area. This layout is very unusual for Brittany.
CnP: Do you live in the castle?
MR: Yes, we do.

CnP: Which part of the castle do you love most of all?
MR: Inside, the gallery of Gilles Ruellan, which is not open to the public yet. Outside, it is the royal courtyard, and the gardens which I love too.

CnP: What are your strongest emotions liked with the chateau?
MR: The opening date. I was so good to share this with the visitors, as it has never ever been opened to them before. I also love to see the smile of the visitors when they come – it is so inspiring during hard days. It gives me power to continue carry on with this big challenge. This year was particularly difficult.

CnP: Do you remember your first night at the chateau?
MR: Yes, of course! I was so tired. I was literally knocked down by the work. I slept as a baby. And you know I never heard or met any ghosts here.

CnP: How come you have a crocodile on the ceiling? This is rather unusual for a castle!
MR: It is from the former Lord of the chateau, he brought it back from Egypt as a hunting trophy. The particular curiosity room you mentioned was has objects of varying degrees of strangeness, which were found in the chateau after it was sold by the de Boutray family. Among them, the Nile crocodile, brought back from Egypt on a camel's back by the Baron Alexandre de Boutray and his wife, a scene immortalized in a photo dating from 1880.
CnP: The chateau has so many secrets - a hidden private staircase, special rooms for servants, what else – could you tell me more about these things! Or is it what you tell people on a VIP tour with you as a guide?
MR: We organize special tours for VIPs to show them rooms which are not open to the public, such as the library, the classroom, and the baroness apartments.

CnP: What is so special about the Rocher Portail tapestries?
MR: The royal tapestries are made of wool and silk and represent, as was often the case during the Renaissance, scenes from antiquity, which were the height of fashion at the time.
CnP: The chateau has grown to become the largest private historical monument in the west of France. Tell me honestly - do you compete with Mont-Saint-Michel for tourists?
MR: No, I wish I could catch 1% of Mont St Michel visitors. As the chateau has never been open to random visitors, we need to spread the word about it wherever possible! I personally believe making it famous will take years! We received some 30,000 visitors. Do you know how many people visit Mont St Michel per year? Three million people!!!
CnP: This is huge! But normally when such a tourist attraction - like your chateau - turns up, the local economy grows – how do you get along with local community?
MR: Very well, the mayor is a member of our volunteers' team, and local shop and restaurants are very happy to get visitors which increase their economic life.

CnP: Do you employ people from the neighborhood?
MR: During summer time, yes. But otherwise I manage it with my wife and volunteers. Hopefully I will still have my own job to contribute to the challenge, as 30,000 visitors cannot provide enough finances to keep the chateau afloat. And last year, we have a loss of 80,000 euros because only 20,000 people visited us due to COVID.
CnP: Let's hope people will start travel again soon. Get a jab and off you go! You've recently started the restoration of the Gardens – what's the plan in the long run?
MR: This is correct. We want to restore the kitchen gardens such as the historical one. We want to produce vegetables, honey and fruit. And our dream is to recreate the fountain and the French parterre with yew topiary trees, roses, and maze of hornbeams.
CnP: This should be very beautiful! What can you offer to your guests apart from your beautiful garden, a guided tour and exhibitions?
MR: We have a lot to offer – a playground, games, costumes and a hunting hut for children. Fireworks and performances, opera, dancing show in summer time and fantastic Christmas decorations and illumination in winter. We have delicious ice cream and cakes at our tea room. To cut the long story short – we can offer great experience. You should come and visit us!
CnP: Why don't you offer accommodation? You send people to Manoir du Vaugarny – but a lot of tourists would love to spend a night at the chateau to experience the atmosphere first-hand!
MR: It is not possible for now, but probably in the future.

CnP: What is the most difficult thing in running a castle?
MR: Nothing is very difficult if you love what you do. I love it. Our motto is "Si l'aventure est dangeureuse, la routine est mortelle", which can be translated into English as "If a challenge is dangerous, routine is deadly". By the way, we sell mugs with the motto at our boutique as a souvenir.
CnP: You don't regret you bought Le Rocher Portail, don't you?
MR: No, it was my dream, I feel very happy.

CnP: What would you tell dreamers like yourself who wish to buy a castle and restore it?
MR: If you are not really passionate about saving the heritage, do not do it!
We very much hope that you liked the interview with Manuel Roussel who owns Chateau le Rocher Portail!

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Photo credits: Chateau le Rocher Portail

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