A couple of years ago, I spent a week in Southern France exploring the cities of the Gard Department. The city of Nimes where there are numerous historic Roman sites. Uzes, the First Duchy in France. And the Pont du Gard, an aqueduct that is considered to be one of the tallest pieces of roman architecture. But my love of gardens caused me to search out any mention of beautiful villas and gardens that would be available for viewing while in this area. The dry Mediterranean climate of southern part of France is not always conducive to ornate gardens. But I found one. A private villa and garden located in the vicinity of the Pont du Gard. There were only a few references to the castle, Chateau St Privat, on the internet. So, when I arrived at Uzes, I called and made an appointment to visit the castle.
When I entered the castle, I was met immediately by a small bird like woman with red hair and hard piercing eyes. She paced the floor, impatiently waiting for me.
“How did you find out about my chateau?” she demands as she stares directly into my eyes.
“I was doing research on the internet about the gardens of Southern France and saw mention of Chateau St Privat.”
I continue with my explanation about how I had found information regarding her garden on the internet and then visited the Pont du Gard making inquiries at the tourist office. The tourism office had finally provided me with the information on how to contact her for permission to visit the gardens.
“Of course: the internet.” She says and seems satisfied and turns away.
“Come with me!” She commands and disappears through the castle hallways.
Our destination is a long garden room with elaborate wrought iron doors that open onto the 1st terrace of the gardens. The afternoon sun brightens and warms the room. Red Persian carpets, yellow Louis XV furniture and red marble tables fill the room. The walls are covered with ornate hand carved wooden paneling. In spite of the French antiques, the room feels lived in. Off to one side is a wicker chair, tilted upside down while it is being mended. Papers are scattered on top of the tables and a small Westie terrier runs in circles around my feet.
The wrought iron doors open onto an enormous terraced garden. The park like setting of the upper terrace extends outward with an unobstructed view of a large grey statute of Neptune reclining in the middle of a pond. Ancient yew and cypress trees form a backdrop with a canopy that perfectly frames Neptune. Along the perimeter of the upper garden are a series of statues gazing back towards the castle and Neptune. Their origins seem almost lost in history as many aspect of the garden date back to the 1600s.
As we walk through the garden, Madame Fenwick begins to tell me about her childhood and growing up at the castle with her grandfather.
“When I was a child, the castle, the surrounding acreage and vineyard were a part of our country estate. Our main residence was located in Paris, but we would visit during holidays and the summer. My grandfather, who was Director of the Paris Opera, would invite the artists and musicians from the opera to come to the castle to enjoy a break from the city.”
Her grandfather, Jacques Rouch, had married into one of the oldest French perfume families, LT Piver. In 1896, he became the Administrator for the perfume company and patented Amyl salicylate, the first synthesized aroma chemical. He was also one of the driving forces behind the push to make the JT Piver name an international brand. After his success in the perfume business, he became Director of the Paris Opera. His dedication to rejuvenating the floundering Paris Opera caused him to become known as “The man who saved the Paris Opera.” He remained the Director from 1914 to 1944.
As I glance back towards the castle, the wrought iron doors almost disappear into the massive facade of the chateau. They are no longer the main focal point, rather the castle with its huge ochre colored exterior and towers now command all the attention. Even Neptune fades to an inconsequential dot in the landscape. No sounds erupt except for the singing of the birds. Off to the far right, the Gardon River forms a border along the edge of the gardens and it snakes its way through the forest. Occasionally you catch a glimpse of kayakers as they float down the river.
We descend to the lower garden through a series of stairs. The sidewalk extends perpendicular to the retaining wall leading away from the castle to the farthest point in the garden; where the greenhouse and a tall ornate fountain meet to form the border of the property. Urns with red geraniums create a border along the sidewalk leading to the rear of the garden.
Madame Fenwick and I climb the stairs back to the upper level of the garden. She returns to the castle while I remain to take photos. After several minutes, she returns and asks if I would enjoy viewing the interior of the castle.
The castle sits on the site of an ancient roman villa. Its Roman connection has always been maintained through the centuries. Three km from the castle is the Pont du Gard, an ancient roman aqueduct that is registered as a Unesco world heritage site. Throughout the ages, the aqueduct and the chateau were owned and maintained by the same family. However, the cost for the maintenance of the aqueduct became unmanageable and eventually, in the early 1900’s, the aqueduct was sold to the French government.
The most famous room in the castle is where Richelieu signed the Peace Treaty of Ales in 1629. In the center of the room is a massive hand carved wooden table and chairs with leather backing that has been passed down through the centuries to each successive owner. On the wall is a portrait of King Louis XIII of France. Richelieu was considered the first Prime Minister of France and helped Louis XIII consolidate his power during the 17th century. The walls of the room are painted a dark blood red. The wooden slate ceiling is very typical of French castles during this period.
For over 400 years the castle was the owned by the noble Faret family. They were one of many Protestants who inhabited this region. The growing influence of Protestants along with the Huguenots antagonized the Catholic population resulting in series of wars that attempted to prevent the Protestant religion from gaining prominence. Chateau St. Privat was the site where the Peace of Ales was signed in 1629 between Richelieu and the Protestants. The treaty granted religious tolerance to the Protestants.
As we near the end of the tour, Madame Fenwick steps into a small modern sitting room with a miniature refrigerator and offers me a chair. She opens a bottle of French Rose wine and pours us both, a glass. As we relax, she continues talking about her grandfather and her friends, the Duchess of Uzes and Viscount of Mogere. She drapes herself in a in a reclining position, with her arm draped over the back of the upright chair and her legs point outward at an angle. At first I stare, wondering what she is doing. Then I realize; she is posing like the old fashioned movie stars; gracefully draping them self over chair.
About Chateau St Privat
Chateau St Privat is located inside the Pont du Gard Park on the North East side of the bridge near the village Vers-Pont-du-Gard. There is a small gate that is a short distance from the Pont du Gard bridge that says “No Trespassing” Their contact phone is 04-66-37-36-36 and the entry fee is 8 euros. Also, the main office for the park can help provide directions if you need help finding the place.