Here in Europe, History grows in every flower and every tree. Imagine that at Versailles, some trees were planted in 1783 by Marie Antoinette. The remnants of historical heritage are everywhere: houses, castles, churches and chapels. These abandoned places still carry the imprint of their past inhabitants.
In 1989, I’m 20 years old and what I like above all is to explore these historical remnants. I climb over old walls or fences to visit dilapidated mansions. One Sunday in April the clear sky illuminates everything and I’m excited.
In front of me, there’s a brick wall with a gate that opens onto a bramble forest. I make my way through and what follows makes my heart beat, still even today, twenty five years later. I fall instantly madly in love with all that is appearing before my eyes that day: a small “rococo” castle, adorned by lace balconies, buried under a two hundred year old wisteria. Around it, insane, incredible, unimaginable grounds : a boxwood French garden, immense flower beds, avenues lined with silver lime trees and crimson maples. I wander everywhere, everything is quiet, as if asleep. A chapel, an orange grove, a caretaker’s house, greenhouses, a lot of them, many in poor condition, a huge water tank, a cottage …
Further on, I find a large ornamental lake, surrounded by gigantic rhododendrons and hardy azaleas. Then, to my surprise, a Roman garden with its circular bench, amphorae, statues, busts above columns and large laurels. And further again, a rose garden, an orchard, an alpine garden with its cottage and coniferous forest, and finally, a Japanese garden with its red bridge above a stream and erect rocks, Japanese maples and bonsais not really bonsai anymore.
I tear myself away with regret from that divine and magical place, promising myself to return. And I resume my art student’s life in the Montparnasse district of Paris.
Years pass by, I am now 23 years old, I have a Parisian boyfriend, I work in advertising agencies and I have more time to start exploring again. Every weekend we leave the stifling atmosphere of the city and the confines of our too-small apartment to wander from one abandoned place to another.
Until one day our weekend escapade takes us to the castle. We enter, we laugh, we feel good. He says:
“Let’s buy it !”
A year later, we enter the monumental iron gate of my dreams with our tiny baby in our arms. Stepping from 10m² to 3000m².
The castle only cost us a pittance, about 80,000 euros. It belonged to show business artists who had been uninterested in it for a long time.
I sourced the history of ‘La Villa des Iris‘: the domain of an eccentric from the thirties, a sort of Parisian Gatsby. First a priest, then a defrocked one because of medical practice and homosexuality. A scholar, he was at the origin of complex homeopathy in France. Passionate about orchids and irises, he created many new varieties and won many horticultural prizes. He had eleven gardeners, his homeopathic medical practice was open to the villagers for free, and he loved organizing extraordinary and refined costumed parties. His friends were Claude Monet, Albert Kahn (with whom he shared a passion for autochrome photography) and Anaïs Nin …
70 years later, we start to bring the castle back to life. My partner and I roll up our sleeves and begin the restoration of the building, severely damaged by fire in 1989, three years before we arrived. We spend four years to rebuild the roof structure, to repair the irreparable. A third of our time is dedicated to the grounds. We find original autochrome photos of the place which allow us to spot the outline and design of the grounds and gardens. We get up very early, we lack the proper means, we freeze in winter, the wonderful palace ends up a bottomless pit of energy … Summers manage to be delicious, we can work late and the gardens begin to look beautiful again.
Unfortunately, after four years, the fairytale turns to nightmare. Little by little we disagree more and more on how to restore the grounds. He does not believe in the value of old trees and starts to slaughter magnolias, to rip out the box trees, to threaten the great cedar of Lebanon… The building starts to suffer too. He smashes the old tiles, pours concrete here and there and finally destroys the orange grove deemed “too old”.
How many enthusiastic and passionate people have tried to restore such monuments? A lot of old castles in France are sold for a symbolic euro and there is always a great temptation to live in these remnants of the past. But my optimism was not enough to meet the challenge. We separated. He has kept the property and he still lives in it. But the work has not advanced since I left.
‘La Villa des Iris‘ remains a beautiful, enchanted part of my life with very powerful memories. Unveiling the old doctor’s medicinal plants smothered in the thickets, nursing the Japanese maples, picking truffles under the hazel trees, reshaping the boxwood, clearing brush…