King of the castle

Michelle Griffin joins a legion of Camelot fans beneath the fairytale towers of Chateau de Pierrefonds.

Many castles lay claim to being the original Camelot. The latest home of King Arthur's magical kingdom lies about 90 minutes north-east of Paris, in a glorious stone folly called Chateau de Pierrefonds.

For three months of the year, this imposing grey-stone pile is the location of the BBC series Merlin, which revamps the Arthurian legends as an awkward friendship between arrogant Prince Arthur and his teenage manservant, Merlin, who must keep his magical talents a secret. If, like the program, this castle is not exactly faithful to its mediaeval origins, it hardly matters to the fans who watch the camera crews re-enact battles, jousts and feasts for the fourth series.

They're not filming when my family and I decide to make a pilgrimage to the site of one of our favourite shows. But even without the catering vans blocking the archways and production teams roping off the staterooms, this mad 19th-century vision of the ideal mediaeval castle turns out to be a terrific day trip from the French capital.

"It truly is like the seventh or eighth character on the cast list," actor Anthony Head, who plays cruel King Uther, told website Monsters and Critics. "The stones still look new even though it's a few hundred years old ... It's not like a castle that's got bits missing and chunks taken out of it."

Looming above a tiny village in the Oise district, this restored mediaeval stronghold was one of France's favourite romantic ruins long before Napoleon III started rebuilding it in 1857. Cardinal Richelieu ordered its demolition in 1617, after the nobles within backed the wrong duke.

It's the remaining 14th-century twin towers that take our breath away as we walk up the steep hill to the entrance - especially "Charlemagne's tower", a round donjon with a peaked roof that local wisdom says is the inspiration for Walt Disney's Sleeping Beauty.

There has been a castle on this site since the 12th century. It's a strategic location, because invading armies have always marched down the Oise Valley. Julius Caesar fought the Gauls in this region. Joan of Arc fought the English in the surrounding forests and prayed unsuccessfully for victory in the church at nearby Compiegne. On the outskirts of Compiegne, a memorial stands on the abandoned rail line where the armistice was signed on November 11, 1918. In 1940, Hitler made the French sign on his terms in the same rail carriage, which was then destroyed in Berlin.

Eugene Viollet-le-Duc, the architect appointed by Napoleon III in 1857 to restore Pierrefonds, did far more than rebuild the ruined towers and the outer walls. Like the cathedral of Notre Dame, this castle was re-created as a 19th-century dream of the Middle Ages - a riot of gargoyles and arches and long, airy galleries with camera-ready sight lines. Steel girders prop soaring roofs, and walls are painted in intertwined stencils. Viollet-le-Duc died before the job was done and the money ran out when Napoleon III was deposed in 1870 but Pierrefonds still feels ready for its next royal.

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A few huts - remnants of Merlin's lower village locations - line the walkway to the moat. The jousts are filmed on a green sward overlooking the valley. Through the enormous arched gateway, with its satisfyingly fierce portcullis, we discover a central courtyard that reminds us not only of the TV series but every Arthurian book illustration. A wide, sun-bleached staircase is fronted by a bronze knight and guarded by snarling griffins. Downspouts have been carved into lizards. A long walkway is decorated with earnest stone knights and demented gargoyles - screaming monkeys, vomiting dragons and a loony five-breasted monster, its jaw unhinged to poke out its curling tongue. This is where Uther and Arthur walk and talk about how best to repel the series' latest invasions. The draughty stateroom on the first floor of the main building hosts art exhibitions but is also the TV location for countless courtly confrontations before the throne.

Climbing the stairs to half-decorated chambers and echoing arched corridors is tremendous fun for anyone who ever read childhood novels about being transported back in time - it speaks as much of Rapunzel or Narnia as Camelot. Every time we lean out a window, flocks of pigeons take off in loops above the castle roofs. Our one regret is that we cannot climb to the very top and peer out between the Lego blocks of the battlements.

FAST FACTS

Getting there

Emirates has a fare to Paris for about $2070 low-season return from Melbourne and Sydney, including tax. You fly to Dubai (14hr), then Paris (7hr 30min).

To get to Chateau de Pierrefonds from Paris by car take the A1 motorway, or go by train to Compiegne, followed by a 20-minute, €20 ($26.60) taxi ride to Pierrefonds; voyages-sncf.com. A bus runs to Pierrefonds from Compiegne twice a day; oise-mobilite.fr.

Visiting there

Chateau de Pierrefonds is open daily from 9.30am to 6pm until September 4 and from 10am-1pm and 2-5.30pm Tuesday to Sunday from September 5 to April 30. Entry is €7, concession €4.50, under 18 free; pierrefonds.monuments-nationaux.fr/en.

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