We left Duras in the early afternoon and headed north, along the D708. Our plan was to make it to St. Michel de Montaigne, and to Montaigne’s chateau, in time for the 3:00 tour of his tower. When we finally arrived in the town we missed the tiny sign directing us to the chateau, so we turned around and soon found our way to the entrance of what looked like a large, leafy park.
We drove slowly along the fenced lane, surrounded by clusters of trees and grapevines and an occasional farmhouse. There was nothing touristy to catch our attention. We might have been on an afternoon drive to a winery in California’s Napa Valley.
A sign led us to a grassy parking area. The place was still and quiet and quaint, and it felt as if we’d stumbled onto someone’s private property, which in some ways we had. An old, white-washed barn stood nearby, so we walked over and stepped inside.
The interior was cool and dark, and was filled with pictures and postcards, and homegrown wine and other items for sale. A young French woman standing behind a wooden counter told us that the 3:00 tour was full, but that another would start at 4:00. She said she wasn’t sure yet if the tour would be conducted in French or in English.
We purchased a bottle of wine as a gift for our hosts back at our gite, and since this day-long pilgrimage during our Vacances Français was my idea, I treated Laurel and Paul to the entrance fee of €8 each.
We went back out into the afternoon heat and walked around and explored. There was a tree-lined path that offered shade, so we stepped inside and took our cool time. Bees were buzzing in the nearby trees. At the other end of the path there was a grassy lawn and short hedges, suggesting a garden. But what caught my eye, and took away my breath, was the tower, and beyond it the fairy-tale chateau.
There it was.
A narrow footpath circled the property, so we strolled along, and then we sat for a few minutes on a stone wall that overlooked the lush valley below. We continued to the front of the chateau, which we’d learned was privately owned and not open for tours.
Of Neo-Renaissance architecture, the chateau and connecting buildings had been re-built after a fire in the late 1800s. The only structure not damaged by the fire was the circular tower itself, which is the main tourist draw. It was Montaigne’s “Room behind the Shop” and housed his chapel, study, bedroom, and the library where he wrote his Essais.
As we were making our way back to the tower, we passed a walled-in side yard and spotted two donkeys coming out of a barn. One was brown and the other grey. The brown one, maybe the mother, lay down on a round, well-worn patch of dirt and had herself an afternoon dust bath. We stood for a while and smiled and took pictures of this little ritual. It was so peaceful and rustic and real.
The moment became surreal when out of the silence, in the distance, I heard piano music. It was most certainly coming from the chateau. Someone was playing Beethoven’s “Für Elise” and its minor chords wafted over to us. I closed my eyes and listened. I was at Michel de Montaigne’s home in the south of France, on a summer day, with my friends and these animals and this music, and I was alive.