Friday, May 16, 2014

Chateau de Canisy: A Thousand Years of History in France

NORMANDYFRANCE May 16, 2014 – Walk through the doors of the Chateau de Canisy and you travel through a tableau of time that spans a thousand years.  Though the castle is immense, it immediately embraces you in a way that makes you feel as though you have always been a participant in the panorama of history that unfolds before you.  Chateau de Canisy is a powerful, yet comfortable, journey from the Middle Ages to the present and beyond.

Scholars claim that Windsor Castle, just outside London, is the oldest continuously occupied royal residence in the world.  Though this story is not about a royal family, it is about a chateau in Normandy, France that pre-dates Windsor and welcomes visitors to enjoy living the lifestyle of an aristocrat.
When the Sire de Carbonnel left his fortress in the verdant Normandy countryside in Canisy in the 11th century to join the Duke of Normandy in battle, it began a story that has continued for nearly a 1,000 years.  Carbonnel went to war with William the Conqueror at the Battle of Hastings in 1066; a defining event that altered the course of history.  Three decades later, Carbonnel participated in the first crusade in 1096.

Nearly 900 years after the Norman Conquest, in June of 1944, Normandy became the focal point of another pivotal moment in history, D-Day.  But the fortress at Canisy survived, and during those nine centuries, Carbonnel’s stronghold underwent countless renovations, changing from a defensive fortification to an elegant residence.  Over that millennium, the chateau has been a window on the past linking the likes of figures such as Alexis de Tocqueville, Charlotte Corday and General Omar Bradley among others.

With its setting on 740 acres of lush green farmland, the Chateau de Canisy is a prodigious structure with a significant historical presence.  That legacy is made even more meaningful today by the fact that the chateau claims an unbroken bloodline for 10 centuries and remains a family residence. 

Count Denis de Kergorlay is the latest in the ancestral procession, but he has taken his ownership to another level of development.  To make his chateau vibrant in the 21st century, the count has opened Canisy to the public, allowing visitors the opportunity to experience chateau life for themselves.  He is quick to emphasize, however, that his home is not a hotel.  Don’t expect a front desk, bellmen, room service or elevators.  Rather Chateau de Canisy is a rare travel discovery that allows guests to enjoy the ambiance of French aristocracy combined with the history of Normandy.

When in residence at Canisy, Kergorlay, who spends most of his time in Paris, loves to treat visitors to the intriguing history of his castle.  Everyone is welcomed with gracious hospitality, and all are treated as if they are lifelong friends.  It is not uncommon for first-timers to feel completely at home within moments of their arrival

Though the Chateau de Canisy traces its origins to the Middle Ages, it underwent major changes in the 16th, 18th and 19th centuries.  The transformations and renovations have continued in the 21st century with the addition of a second pond, a newly landscaped park and a small petting zoo.

Located at the heart of the bocage of Normandy at the southern edge of the Cotentin Peninsula, Canisy is rarely, if ever, found on maps of the region, deferring to its larger neighbor St. Lo which is about three miles away.  Less than a five-minute walk from the castle is the tiny village of Canisy consisting of a parish church, a couple of boulangeries, several shops and a bank that line four streets radiating like spokes from a small roundabout.

Denis inherited Canisy in the 1970s while serving as the French cultural attaché in Thailand.  At the time, he had no great allegiance to the property and, unbelievable as it may sound, he was ready to turn it over to his younger brother.  However, when the Count’s brother informed him that he planned to turn it into a monastery, Kergorlay reconsidered and kept his castle.

For a while the chateau became an elaborate party house as Denis and his Parisian “friends of Canisy” frequently enjoyed spirited weekends and holidays at the massive residence.  As time went on however, the Count’s Aunt Brigitte, who had lived much of her life at the chateau, and who was watching from a third story window in 1940 when Germans crossed the courtyard and confiscated the property, began teaching her nephew about the historic significance of Canisy.

Kergorlay took the lessons to heart.  The “friends of Canisy” gave way to extensive renovations which eventually restored the property to its present state of grandeur.  As Brigitte continued her tutoring project, Denis’ wife, Marie-Christine, began redecorating each of the 18 rooms and suites featuring individual themes from different periods of French history.

While the Chateau de Canisy remains a private residence for the Kergorlay family, the count has developed a personal philosophy of opening his castle to the public as a way of creating a link the past while offering an opportunity for cultural exchange.

Count de Kergorlay has come a long way from those early days with the “friends of Canisy” and his youthful indifference to the chateau.  Today, he is President of the French Heritage Society, a prestigious American non-profit association dedicated to the preservation of French architecture and historical sites not only in France, but in the United States as well.

It is the count’s passion for restoration that drives him to continue making his chateau at Canisy a unique “living” museum.  With ancestral links that bring the pages of history alive through the likes of figures such as Marie Antoinette, Charlotte Corday, Alexis de Tocqueville and General Omar Bradley, the stories of Chateau de Canisy immerse you in a vibrant tapestry of the last millennium in France.   It’s time travel with all the comforts of home.