A thousand years of history at Chateau de Canisy in Normandy (Part 1)

Chateau de Canisy in Normandy has been a window on history for a thousand years. Today it welcomes visitors to share in that legacy. Photo: The Swans at Chateau de Canisy (Photo: Bob Taylor)

NORMANDYDecember 12, 2013 – Walk through the doors of the Château de Canisy and you travel through a tableau of time that spans a thousand years.  Though the castle is immense, even by modern standards, it immediately embraces you in a way that makes you feel you have always been a participant in the panorama of history unfolding before you.  Château de Canisy is a powerful, yet comfortable, journey from the Middle Ages to the present and beyond.

Scholars claim that Windsor Castle, just outside of London, is the oldest continuously occupied royal residence in the world.  Though this story is not about a royal family, it is about a château in Normandy, France that pre-dates Windsor and still welcomes visitors to stay and enjoy living the lifestyle of an aristocrat.

SEE RELATED: A thousand years of history at Chateau de Canisy in Normandy (Part 1)

When the Sire de Carbonnel left his fortress in the verdant Normandy countryside in Canisy in 1066 to join the Duke of Normandy—William the Conqueror—in the Battle of Hastings, he began a story that has continued to unfold during the nearly 1,000 years that followed that defining event which altered the course of history. Three decades later, Carbonnel also participated in the First Crusade in 1096.

During the next nine centuries, Carbonnel’s stronghold underwent countless renovations, tranforming itself from a defensive stronghold to an elegant residence. Over that period of time, the chateau has been a window on the past linking the likes of figures such as Alexis de Tocqueville, Charlotte Corday and General Omar Bradley among others. It even managed to survive the 20th century D-Day onslaught and its aftermath.

With its setting on 740 acres of lush green farmland, the Château de Canisy is still a prodigious  structure with a significant historical presence. That legacy is made even more meaningful today by the fact that the château claims an unbroken bloodline for 10 centuries and remains a family residence. 

Bedroom at Chateau de Canisy (Photo: Taylor)

SEE RELATED: Chateau de Canisy in Normandy offers cooking classes

Count Denis de Kergorlay is the latest in this continuous ancestral procession, but he has taken his ownership to another level of development. To maintain his château’s vibrancy in the 21st century, the count has opened Canisy to the public, allowing visitors an opportunity to experience château life for themselves.

He is quick to emphasize, however, that his home is not a hotel. Should you visit Canisy, don’t expect a front desk, bellmen, room service or elevators. Rather, Château de Canisy is a rare travel discovery that allows guests to enjoy the ambience enjoyed by French aristocracy while you absorb yourself in the sweep of Norman history.

When in residence at Canisy, Kergorlay, who spends most of his time in Paris, loves to treat visitors to the intriguing history of his castle. Everyone is welcomed with gracious hospitality, and all are treated as if they are lifelong friends or acquaintances. It is not uncommon for first-timers to feel completely at home just moments after their arrival.

Though the Château de Canisy traces its origins to the Middle Ages, it underwent major changes and alterations in the 16th, 18th and 19th centuries. The transformations and renovations have continued into the 21st century with the addition of a second pond, a newly landscaped park and a small petting zoo.

Located at the heart of the bocage (forest and pastures) of Normandy at the southern edge of the Cotentin Peninsula, Canisy is rarely, if ever, found on maps of the region, deferring instead to its larger neighbor St. Lo, which is five miles away. Less than a five-minute walk from the castle is the tiny village of Canisy consisting of a parish church, a couple of boulangeries, several shops and a bank. all of which line four streets radiating like spokes from a small roundabout.

Denis inherited Canisy in the 1970s while serving as the French cultural attaché in Thailand.  At the time, he had no great allegiance to the property. In fact, unbelievable as it may sound, he was ready to turn it over to his younger brother. However, when the count’s brother informed him that he planned to turn it into a monastery, Kergorlay reconsidered and kept his castle.

Dining hall at Canisy (Photo: Taylor)

For a while, the château became an elaborate party house where Denis and his Parisian “friends of Canisy” frequently enjoyed spirited weekends and holidays at the massive residence. As time went on, however, the count’s Aunt Brigitte— who had lived much of her life at the chateau and who watched in 1940 from a third story window as the Germans crossed the courtyard and confiscated the property—began teaching her nephew about the historic significance of Canisy.

Count de Kergorlay took the lessons to heart.  The “friends of Canisy” gave way to extensive renovations which eventually restored the château into its present state of grandeur.  As Brigitte continued her tutoring project, Denis’ wife, Marie-Christine, began redecorating each of the 17 rooms and suites with individual themes derived from various periods in French history.

While the Château de Canisy remains a private residence for the Kergorlay family, the count has developed a personal philosophy of opening his castle to the public as a way of creating a link the past while offering an opportunity for cultural exchange.

De Kergorlay has come a long way from his early days with the “friends of Canisy” and his youthful indifference towards his historic property. Today, he is President of the French Heritage Society, a prestigious American non-profit association dedicated to the preservation of French architecture and historical sites not only in France, but in the United States as well.

It is the count’s passion for restoration that drives him to continue making his château at Canisy a unique “living” museum. With ancestral links that bring the pages of history alive through the likes of historic figures, the stories of Château de Canisy immerse you in a vibrant tapestry of the last millennium in France.  It’s like time-traveling with all the comforts of home close at hand.

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About the Author: Bob Taylor is a veteran writer who has traveled throughout the world. Taylor was an award winning television producer/reporter/anchor before focusing on writing about international events, people and cultures around the globe. He is founder of The Magellan Travel Club (www.MagellanTravelClub.com).

 His goal is to visit 100 countries or more during his lifetime.

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Bob Taylor

Bob Taylor has been travel writer for more than three decades. Following a career as an award winning sports producer/anchor, Taylor’s media production business produced marketing presentations for Switzerland Tourism, Rail Europe, the Finnish Tourist Board, Japan Railways Group, the Swedish Travel & Tourism Council and the Swiss Travel System among others. He is founder of The Magellan Travel Club (www.MagellanTravelClub.com) and his goal is to visit 100 countries or more during his lifetime.


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