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This year we have travelled to France, the Normandy to be more precise, for our summer holiday. As none of us had ever been to this part of France, we were quite keen on exploring the area and to see some of the sights.
Thankfully our cottage was exceptionally well equipped with tourist information and, after searching several guide books and masses of information leaflets, we found out that we were spoiled for choice. One place that we agreed on very quickly that we wanted to see was a castle in the town of Falaise, named Chateau Guillaume-Le-Conquerant.
This Castle happens to be the birthplace of this Guillaume, who is nobody lesser than William the Conqueror.
Falaise is about 40 km southeast of Caen and can be reached from there by following the N158. Once you reach the town you can follow the sign-posts, of which there are plenty.
The castle is pretty much in the middle of the town, located high above on a rocky hill, which must have been the perfect position to defend it against attacks.
There is a parking lot at the foot of the hill which bears a huge statue of William and this is where we have left our car during our visit. Parking is free, but we were lucky to have found a space, as the spaces available are limited and obviously very popular with the employees of the local council offices, that are located right next to it.
We did go on a weekday and out of season, so I guess it might not be that easy on a Saturday during the summer holidays, when there is the weekly market going on the same time.
A bit of history:
The castle, as it is to be seen today, mainly dates back to the 12th and 13th centuries and there is little left that would have been existing at the time William the Conqueror lived here. It is believed that there has been another fortification before, probably dating back as far as the 9th century, but no written proof of this exists and the earliest a castle in Falaise is mentioned was in 1027.
Most of the castle that you can visit today has actually been built under Williams son, Henry I. Beauclerc, who took the castles his father had built in England (which include the Tower of London) as an example.
It is a typical "motte and bailey" castle with three square keeps. A round tower, named the Talbot, has been added later on in the 13th century, as well as the semi-circular towers which were constructed to reinforce the outer walls of the castle.
In the 17th century the castle was abandoned and started to fall to pieces, until in 1840 the first minister for fine arts of France acknowledged it as a national heritage monument and restorations began to save at least the surrounding walls and the keeps - whereas the help came too late for the roofs and floors, which had caved in by then.
During WW2 it was severely damaged, restorations started in 1980, and it only opened up for the public in 1997 again. Restoration still continues. With the castle itself done, the curtain wall, gate house and ramparts still need a lot of work and from what we've been told, will be finished in ca 6 years.
Climbing up the steep hill towards the entrance gate of the castle we got a first chance to marvel at how big this fortress is - and how imposing it looks.
The way leads through the main gate, past a guard-house that is still untouched from the works and can only be called a ruin.
The inner bailey is huge and it is easy to imagine, that this has once been the bustling heart of the castle, with plenty of inhabitants, trades-people, etc.
You have a good view over the city from up there but, being afraid of heights, I rather enjoyed to have a look around than a look down.
From here I also had the first proper look at the castle and realised that it had some strange metal frame around its entrance. It could be reached over a metal suspended bridge that didn't look very authentic to me either. I was wondering a bit but thought that the bridge might be a temporary solution, as we only knew that the castle had been finished and this might well not include the bridge.
Once my husband and the kids returned from exploring the walls we started to look for the reconstruction of the chapel. The original chapel was destroyed in 1944 and we found what we had been looking for relatively easy. It is right next to the reception building and a bit of a stunner. Exactly on the spot where the choir of the old church had been stands the reconstruction - made out of living vegetable !
A splendid idea in my book, but my husband declared it to be "nonsense". Now that I know what they have done to the castle, I am even more convinced that they've done the right thing, as it would have, designed by the same person who's responsible for the castle, probably more have resembled an Ikea store than a medieval church.
The reception :
A very modern building with lots of glass. Apart from obtaining your ticket (entry to the bailey is free), they have also a little shop here (books about William the Conqueror in several languages, t-shirts with William print, mugs, umbrellas, bags, cookie tins - I guess you get the picture). There is no cafe in the castle, but they do have a vending machine for soft-drinks.
When you pay for your ticket, 4 for adults, they'll hand you your headset, which will be your guide for the trip. Kids under six are free (ours are 4 and 5 1/2), but they will also get a headset, especially adapted for kids, as the very friendly receptionist told us.
Before you finally make your way towards the bridge you can view a model of the town in medieval times or sit down and view a documentary about the history of the area and the castle. I would have loved to see this, but our daughters had a different opinion and were keen to see the castle.
So of we went and the closer we came to the entrance gate - over the ugly steel bridge - the more clear it became, that the steel frame around the entrance had nothing to do with building works at all. It seems to bear a clear warning to me, that visitors to this place might find something a bit different from what they are expecting.
Once in the forecourt behind the gate, you have either the option of climbing up the stairs to the door, or to take the elevator. Why there is an elevator is a mystery to me, as inside there aren't any, but lots of stairs - and even their website states, that only the bailey of the castle and reception hall are wheelchair accessible. It is placed there very prominently and is yet another steel construction. It reminded me of the lift in the Ikea we visit from time to time...
The stairs, by the way, are metall too. At least, the castle itself is still made of stone...
As soon as we entered to the Great Hall and the door behind us shut, automatic blinds came down and it became dark. There were some chairs lined up at a wall and we sat down, while a projector started to put some medieval pictures at the wall opposite site. Apart from that, the huge room was empty. The roof is a construction that reminded me a bit of a tent - or an Ikea store again - lots of metal supports and canvas.
Our friendly guide from the headset started to tell his story. It was all about chess and what it meant for the people living in medieval times and how the figures of the game could be compared to the living persons of the time and what their meaning was then. Not what we had expected and certainly interesting in a way - if we didn't have two little girls, who were anxiously waiting for the exhibits, the interactive displays, colouring sheets, ...
Well, first and mostly they were anxious to get the light back !
Our little one was terrified by the dark room and actually sat very still next to her father, clinging to his arm for good life. She even listened to the whole story over her headset, as it is supposed to be, but I doubt, that it was of any interest to her - or that she understood much.
Anna, our older daughter, took her specially adapted headset of after seconds because it hurt her ears.
When the show was over and the light came back it took some persuasion by us to convince the kids, that we shouldn't just leave, but see the rest.
The Petit Donjon:
Over some stairs, which where again so modern that they looked strangely out of place, we reached the small keep. In here we found some wooden statues of Henry II. Plantagenet and Eleanor of Aquitaine, his wife. There are also two wooden chairs that are probably meant to be thrones and a wooden statue with the head of a horse, which is representing the poet Bernard the Ventadour. All statues were very modern and looked like out of one of these modern nativity scenes they sell at the Christmas markets.
Again it went dark, although not quite as dark as in the Great Hall, and the guide in the headset attempted to tell us the story of Eleanor. Well, he didn't have much success. Our kids both refused to put the headsets back and my husband was the only one to listen, as I was busy the same time to come up with a more child-friendly explanation of what the room was once and who the statues were. If I remember it right, I messed it quite up with the poet, as I just told them that this had been the kings favourite horse - well, they bought the story...
Reached over a long corridor where we found some very old graffity. Now, at least something that was old and that kept us busy speculating, who this Pierre from 1876 and others might have been.
The tower itself offers a small exhibit of wooden figures. They are all soldiers and show what kind of weapons have been carried over the centuries. Apart from that, they looked like puppets without strings. The tower has its own well, nothing spectacular - just a deep and dark hole.
The upper room, where the guide tells another one of his stories, this time about soldiers, can be reached over stairs . By now, we all had given up listening and so we went outside to the balcony, from which we did not only enjoy a very nice view over the hills behind the castle, but also the day-light.
Is reached over the aforementioned balcony and was once the most private living space, chamber, of the king and his family. Now it is an empty room, just some chairs and some very modern standing lamps that seemed to come straight out of the catalogue of an Italian designer shop. A heavenly living room for a minimalist probably, but a bit sparse for our liking.
Is right adjacent to the camera and has plenty of daylight - if not much else. No story here and we quickly went back, as the next room could only be reached over some granite stairs that led from the camera.
The Salle Basse:
These are the rooms underneath the Great Hall and in here we could see some of the original stonework in the foundations, dating back to the 12th century.
This room is also reserved for changing exhibitions and at the time of our visit there were some paintings about medieval life there and the statue of a horse( which was beautifully done).
At the back of the room we found a model of a sea-battle and finally the kids had at least some fun, looking at the small boats.
From here you leave the castle and either stairs or the lift will bring you back to the forecourt. All in all our visit took half an hour.
My thoughts :
You might already guess, that we weren't too thrilled with the visit. The way the renovation has been done is meant to avoid confusion about what is new and what isn't. So it was explained to us. Well, I'd rather have been confused!
The very modern materials that have been used to make this castle accessible again have, in my opinion, destroyed the whole originality of it and none of us could get a feeling for it. I've read in the meantime that this refurbishment has caused quite some controversy and I can understand why.
It just didn't do anything for me.
The lack of exhibits has been explained as it being very hard to find anything from this specific period. Now, I can understand that.
A few weeks before our visit in Falaise we had seen the Castle in Colchester, that dates back to roughly the same time. They must have faced the same problem and so have just gone back further in time and closer to now with their exhibition, covering several thousand of years. Something similar could have been done in Falaise.
Too make matters worse, this place is not interesting for children at all. There is nothing in there, that might appeal to them and even they found, that the entrance gate with its metal frame looked "strange". Both complained that the headsets hurt them, my little one got scared and when we wanted to go for another trip to another castle a few days later, they didn't want to go. We have taken them to many castles and other historical sites before and never had a problem and this is rather unforgivable . So, if you want to put your small kids off from visiting castles - try Falaise !
Would I recommend it ?
Now, that I had a few weeks to reflect on our visit and had a good thought, I'd say it depends.
If you have no problem with the way, in which this castle has been refurbished and the idea of the audio-visual displays, instead of exhibits, appeals to you, than you'll certainly like it. If I had gone there without the children, I might have found the stories interesting, although the look of the castle, as it is now, would still not have been my cup of tea.
If you have to take children, especially very small children, than I wouldn't recommend it. Maybe they should have warned us at the entrance, but I don't think that this place is suitable for children under eight at all.
Even if you have children that are older than that you might find, that it all goes far beyond their understanding and that they get very bored. Well, at least they probably won't get scared any more when the lights go out.
If I had a chance to visit again I'd probably give it a miss.
Place Guillaume le Conquerant
Tel: (+33) 2 31 41 61 44
Thanks for reading this, Sandra
Situated on a rocky spur once surrounded by marshes, between the valleys of the rivers Ante and Marescot, the castle is set on an ideal natural defensive site which dominates the city. Testifying to the power of the Anglo-Norman dukes and kings, this fortress was entirely erected in the 12th and 13th centuries. Its two square keeps are rare examples of medieval architecture associating military function with residential purpose. They are part of the great group of Anglo-Norman palace-keeps built by William the Conqueror and his successors after the 1066 conquest of England. Modified little during the centuries which followed its construction, the castle -which had become indefensible because of the progress of artillery-, was abandoned from the beginning of the 17th century. Threatened to be destroyed and in a state of ruin, it is from 1840, the year when the edifice was listed as a National Heritage building, that the projects of preservation appear. Ambitious campaigns of restoration came into being, and it is in 1997, after long years of rehabilitation, that the keeps open their doors to the public. Magnificently restored, this place of English and French history, that cannot be ignored, imposes itself as a major element in the local tourist scene. It is inscribed, with the monuments of Caen and Bayeux, among the sites of the William the Conqueror historical area.