Château de Menthon St. Bernard

Green- it’s everywhere, surrounding the harsh stone cliffs and lapping at the castle’s feet. Red roofed towers point their sharp skulls through the fog and break the rolling air, cascading across rocked edges. 

It is easy to see why this Chateau was the inspiration for Disney’s Sleeping Beauty. Red paneled windows and painted roofs send me instantly to my childhood and the joyous promenade of flags and families at the start of the film.

As if the castle’s appearance wasn’t impressive enough, the structure dates back through 23 generations of the Menthon family. Originally built in the 11th century, the family of Counts continued to expand their construction into the 20th century. 

Now operating with plumbing and electricity, part of the Chateau remains the residence of the same family. The other part exists as an exhibit for tourists and locals to travel through time. 

To the left of the castle, a little garden of medicinal herbs and spices is cultivated by the grounds keepers. Labeled and manicured just as they would have been through the middle ages. 

Animals rest next to the garden, a lamb, some roaming donkeys outside, a pair of chickens, and multiple peacocks occupying the land just before the sprawling vineyard. To this day, the castle’s vineyard produces local wine, though another family oversees the process. 

Briar Roses

What would have happened if he forgot to kiss me?

And the vines overtook stone with their binding arms,

thorns prickling my hem through the open window

Would I be overgrown?

Would my nails grow long beside my idle limbs,

my hair cascading in knots across the bed and onto the floor?

Would I spill over the edge, and would we be buried, 

living but not quite alive?

Would you take me now, as your prize?

Mount my flower on your wall of corpses,

I’ll stay pinned and pretty, I promise. 

Forget my string of lovers and 

I’ll forget yours, I promise.

Before you call me yours, I will be,

placing your lips on mine, you claim me.

This is how the story goes, 

you marry me with silver inlays

and introduce me to pearl’s mother.

Prick your finger on my poison

and it tastes so sweet. 

You have me, but we will never have

Absolute serenity, only this hovering peace.

Love close enough to touch but not to grasp; 

compelled affection cannot hold with closed fist.

This freedom lies just out of privileged reach.

With a small group, we made our way through the Chateau’s most historic rooms. Starting with a small courtyard, the open air was lined with passageways and balconies above. 

The small doorways and petite hallways stood out, reminiscent of the smaller figures that occupied these halls centuries prior. As such, our modern size made it difficult to shuffle from room to room but ultimately allowed us to slow down and appreciate the antique details of the castle.

Reaching the Menthon family’s personal chapel, I took in the intricate medley of stone, wood, and gold. A site of tranquil devotion, the small room holds artifacts and art through multiple centuries. The ornate robes of religious officials are kept behind glass alongside golden chalices and open ancient texts.

Next, we entered the kitchen. Slightly larger than the previous room, it resembled the courtyard with wooden passages forming a triangle of open air. 

One oven and one table took most of the kitchen space, with two cavities carved into the floor and covered by thick glass. Filled with ash, the cavities operated as pseudo fridges in the early centuries. Kept cool within the building’s stone, the compartments remain close to freezing year-round. 

Though the kitchen’s limited appliances and layout were thoughtfully constructed, its location within the castle was not. Placed on the opposite side of the family’s dining room, the designers remedied this problem by burrowing a service tunnel that allowed servants to propel meals through the walls with a system of pulleys and tracks. I’ve never seen anything like it. 

As we ascended the tight, circled stairway, we were led into my favorite room. The library.

Over 12,000 books lined the floor-to-ceiling bookcases, all dating back to before the French Revolution in 1789. I was in complete awe. On a table rested a book of law documents, open to a page signed by King Louis XIV.

Three walls bursting with books were completed by the fourth wall’s wooden mantle, telling the story of St. Bernard of Menthon in eight parts. Thought to be one of the first residents of the Chateau, born in 1008 and passing in 1081, St. Bernard boasts a life of incredible charity and religious devotion.

The legend goes, St. Bernard was engaged to a rich heiress, but knowing that he desired a religious life, his father locked him in his room before the wedding. There, St. Nicholas appeared and instructed him to jump from the window. 

Heeding his advice, St. Bernard lept from the open window and was immediately caught and carried to Aosta, Italy, by an angel. There he helped build hospice structures for pilgrims and anachronistically healed patients of the black plague. (The black plague occurred in 1348, 267 years after St. Bernard’s death). 

At last, he returned to the family castle, where he was forgiven by all.  After, St. Bernard rose to the rank of king in heavenly paradise. 

Moving on to the great saloon, one can see St. Bernard’s supposed room and the fateful window just to the left of the room’s grand fireplace. 

The center of entertainment and relaxation for the Menthons, this room also charts the family history through portraits and paintings of its members and their various coat of arms. Aside from St. Bernard’s chamber, the great saloon also hosts the room occupied by the Counts of the 19th century and a smaller saloon where many objects of the last century rest. 

Moving toward the Countesses’ bedroom, we observed a slightly grander chamber with wall-to-wall tapestries and a rather petite bed. Redecorated in 1820, this room was home to the Countesses of Menthon over the last few centuries.

The bed, slightly arched and small, was built in this way due to superstition at the time. It was thought that lying in a flat position was reserved for the dead and was therefore avoided by the living. Negligibly creepy bed aside, I was impressed by the attention to detail that stuck to every part of the room.

Wooden cabinets were inlaid with gold and mother of pearl, carved intricately with delicate strokes. The tapestries depict scenes of the surrounding nature, and in the corner lies a dress ruffle owned by none other than Marie Antoinette. 

The grand finale came with the pilgrim’s room. An expansive said to house those who journeyed far to see the site of St. Bernard. 

Equipped with a small oven, religious paintings, a long table set, and ancient arms, this room maintains a communal feel that has no doubt extended through the ages. Helmets above the mantel date back to before the 9th century and the construction of the castle itself.

Exiting the Chateau, I remained in awe. The sheer beauty and integrity of the castle rival anything I could possibly imagine in America. 

Chateau

Guarded & Silent.

Stone cage & Gold chain.

This is how you find me. 

Make me home.

Clean my bones & Paint me pretty again.

Carve your crest into my arms.

Cover me in quilts & Stamp my hands with new ink.

This way, I’ll never really change.

You will

Grow gray & Sag skin.

But all I need is polish.

Bury yourself & I’ll take care of the rest.

Your body a bulb 

I will surround with water.

What a beautiful history

you can have with me.

My limbs may fall

but what do I care?

They’ll be mended in next bulb’s bloom.

More parties & calamities will ricochet inside me,

but I will always love your blood

run through any veins

I will hold your tired body with mine.

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