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French castle’s resilience shines through as Covid-19 disrupts European Heritage Days

Esquelbecq castle – which is situated in northern France, not far from the border with Belgium – has remained open this weekend for the 2020 edition of the European Heritage Days, despite a wave of event cancellations across the country due to Covid-19.

Every year, for one weekend in September, the doors of France’s monuments and historic sites are opened to the public free of charge as part of European Heritage Days – a joint initiative by the Council of Europe and the European Union to raise awareness of the bloc’s rich cultural diversity.

To the disappointment of many, this weekend’s celebrations have been disrupted by the Covid-19 pandemic, with events cancelled in Marseille, Bordeaux, Nice, Lille, Dunkirk and Boulogne-sur-Mer.

Yet Esquelbecq, a town of 2,000 people deep in the backcountry of French Flanders, has still been allowed to welcome visitors at its local castle, an imposing medieval fortress classified by the government as a historic monument.

“We’ve been preparing this weekend for months. We’re lucky to have escaped the cancellations,”Johan Tamer-Morael, whose family has owned the castle for three generations, told FRANCE 24. “Of course, that doesn’t mean we don’t have to strictly enforce the local authorities’ health guidelines: mandatory masks, use of hydroalcoholic gel and modified tour routes.”

A remnant of the Renaissance

To avoid overcrowding, a number of the castle’s rooms have been closed to the public, and all entrances and exits are clearly marked. But the main attraction is by far the gardens, as suggested by the castle’s poetic theme for this year’s event: “What We Sow”.

In addition to an outdoor exhibition dedicated to the future of agriculture, visitors are invited to stroll past the castle’s trelissed vegetable gardens, rose bushes, greenhouse, dovecote, park, serpentine river, bridge and moat, all of which comprise only part of the extraordinary architectural ensemble that opens onto the town’s main square.

“Esquelbecq’s gardens are said to be the only surviving Renaissance gardens, which is for the most part true,” Aline Le Cœur, who works as a landscape architect and historian at the castle, told FRANCE 24. “Even though it underwent heavy renovations during the 18th and 19th centuries, it remained faithful to drawings published in 1641 by [cleric and historian] Antoine Sanderus in his book ‘Flandria Illustrata’. Walking through it is like being projected into a Flemish painting. It exudes extraordinary charm.”

Restoration after ruin

Le Cœur first began working at Esquelbecq nearly 15 years ago. At the time, the gardens had been left to ruin, just as much of the castle had, which was severely damaged by the collapse of its tower in 1984. The incident destroyed the entire north wing, which served as the owners’ residence. Fortunately, they had vacated the property just the day before and no one was hurt.

But the collapse marked the start of an extended period of neglect and abandonment that scarred the local townspeople, who were deeply attached to “their” castle, as illustrated by the photographer Stéphane Fedorowsky in his interactive book, “Memories” (“Mémoires”).

Friends and members of the Esquelbecq Castle Association in 2018
Friends and members of the Esquelbecq Castle Association in 2018 © DR

More than 20 years passed before the Tamer-Morael family began work to rebuild the estate in 2006. Since taking over the project from his parents three years ago, Johan Tamer-Morael, 41, has devoted his full-time schedule to it, overseeing every last detail: window replacements, plumbing, electricity, the construction of new walls and rooftops, as well as the restoration of the main reception hall.

Although the site is far from complete, Tamer-Morael has “big plans” for the castle, according to Judicaël de la Soudière-Niault, the architectural conservator in charge of the project. “He doesn’t have a lot of money, but he is good at surrounding himself with volunteers and communicating his passion to seeing this project through,” Soudière-Niault said.

‘You have to dream’

Tamer-Morael has been able to do so largely thanks to the Esquelbecq Castle Association, which was created in 2017 to bring together volunteers committed to restoring the property.

Over the years, the association has won a number of competitions, including Le Figaro magazine’s 2017 title of Most Beautiful Restoration project, which has allowed it to finance further work on the castle.

Encouraged by their success so far, Tamer-Morael wants to push forward: “‘What We Sow’ is a declaration of love for this property. It has been beloved throughout the centuries, and we want to continue to keep it alive, no matter the cost.”

The next step in restoring the castle will be cleaning the moats, which will cost several hundred thousand euros. To finance the project, the Esquelbecq Castle Association began fundraising a year ago. The organisation also hopes it will eventually be able to rebuild the tower destroyed in 1984.

“We have the technical means to [do it],” Soudière-Niault said. “There are a number of other projects that take priority. But it would be great to recover this vertical element, which is typical of medieval castles. It’s a dream I hope we can achieve in the mid-term.”

The word ‘dream’ also came to Le Cœur’s mind when talking about the Esquelbecq castle.

“When you walk in the gardens, you’re submerged in beauty. The flowers, the water, the runes, the stepped gable… It all makes you dream,” she said. “In the coronavirus era, it’s more important than ever. You have to dream.”

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