Menary Ancestor Hunting in France

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  Ancestor Hunting in France  
    Chateau Fontblachere, St.
    Ancient street in Montelimar
    Huguenot museum at Le Poet Laval

 More on Chateau

*   Chateau Fontblachere

 More on Le Poet Laval and
the Huguenot Trail

*   Dauphiné Reformation Museum
*   Map of the Huguenot Trail








  Text by Barbara MacPherson :: Photographs by Robin MacPherson-Dias

High on a hillside overlooking a broad fertile valley sits Chateau Fontblachere, hidden behind a screen of trees.


My daughter and I had a challenging time finding it. Earlier in the day, we left the freeway from Paris in our rented car, crossed the fabled Rhone River, and entered the Department of Ardeche. Our goal was St. Lager-Bressac, one of the strongholds of the Chambaud family, but our GPS didn’t recognize the term.


We made a few false starts, going through places like La Voulte and Le Pouzin (names of which I recognized from genealogical research on the Chambauds) before we hit upon entering “Bressac, St. Lager” in the GPS, and got headed in the right direction.


After years of seeing this village’s name on detailed maps and referred to in places like Geneanet, I was thrilled to finally be there in person. But Chateau Fontblachere, where we’d made reservations for three days, was nowhere in sight. After inquiring at the local church, we eventually found someone who could understand us and who actually knew where the chateau was.


Guided by a couple of tiny signs that few people would have noticed, we headed in the opposite direction, crossed a bridge, and followed a twisting, narrow road upwards. There in the trees, at the top of the hill, was our goal, Chateau Fontblachere. We were not disappointed.

This was the place where Madeleine Chambaud, our ancestor, had lived sometime in the mid 1500s before she married Zacharie Menuret of Montelimar. The Chambauds were seigneurs of the whole valley, stretching as far as Privas in the north to several miles further south. Madeleine’s father was Noe Chambaud, son of Claude Chambaud and Catherine Chalendar de la Motte.


Records vary as to which of Claude Chambaud’s children actually lived in Chateau Fontblachere and which ones lived in Le Pouzin or Privas, further north, but most records say that Noe and his descendants were seigneurs at this chateau.


According to the book Chemins Huguenots de l’Ardeche (Paths of Ardeche Huguenots) the chateau belonged to the family of Chambaud/ Charrier. Genealogical records show that Claude Chambaud who married Louise Charrier (Madeleine’s grandparents) was born in 1490 and was the seigneur of Chateau Fontblachere.


We don’t know if Claude was born there, but if he was seigneur there during his adulthood, that would mean the chateau dated from at least 1515.


According to another record describing the architecture of various Ardeche chateaus, the Counts of Poitiers Valentino owned it before the Chambauds. The Chambauds lost their property in 1731, which fits in with genealogical records. Later, the chateau was seized by the revolutionaries during the French Revolution but the family who owned it at the time bought it back a few years later.

We had arrived earlier than we anticipated, but decided we might as well check in, if that was possible. The courtyard of the chateau was surrounded by a wall, but we were able to open the gate, then make our way to the main door. The gravel courtyard was flanked by a beautiful garden of herbs and roses on one side and a patio and orangerie on the other side. We rang a bell but heard nothing, so we decided to come back later.

It was 2:00, plenty of time to drive to Montelimar, the place I’d read about so much, the home of the Menurets, our ancestors. Driving the miles between St. Lager-Bressac and Montelimar, part of it through rugged mountains, I reflected that travelling between the two towns would have been difficult during the 16th century, when Madeleine de Chambaud and Zacharie Menuret met and married.


How did they even meet? There was a Huguenot temple at St. Vincent de Barres, part of the Chambaud seigneury and not far from the chateau, so the Chambauds did not need to go to Montelimar to worship. Perhaps Zacharie Menuret, as a lawyer, did legal work for the Chambauds, who would have undoubtedly had to go to Montelimar or some other bigger place for those services.

Montelimar, on first arrival, looked like a very ordinary town with little ambiance. But once we got past the peripheral streets with modern storefronts and started walking, we discovered the centre of the city, the heart of the medieval town. The narrow streets, the three-story buildings crowded cheek-by-jowl, with Mediterranean roof tiles and narrow shuttered windows, were probably exactly as they were during the era when the Menurets lived here from at least the 15th century to the 18th century.


It was difficult to find anything we were looking for, but we finally came upon the square dedicated to the original Protestant church, where the Menurets, as devoted Huguenots, once worshipped and where Alexandre, one of the sons of Zacharie Menuret and Madeleine de Chambaud, was the administrator of the consistory. He was among the group who was ordered to demolish the temple and pay back what the building cost.


The square seemed dispirited and lonely, some neglected roses clinging to a wall and a cat looking down from a windowsill. A plaque on the wall commemorated the temple, stating that this is where the Protestants were able to practice their “cult”, with little mention of the bloodshed behind the facts.

Back at St. Lager-Bressac, we made our way confidently back up the steep road to Chateau Fontblachere, hoping our host was home now.


After ringing a bell and hearing nothing but the shrill bark of a dog, the door creaked open and a French bulldog greeted us, followed immediately by his owner, Bernard Liaudois. Bernard, a retired Parisian banker, bought the chateau many years ago as a country retreat and now runs it as a guest house. He told us that he is only the fifth owner since the chateau fell out of Chambaud hands in the mid 1700s.


After showing us around the public quarters, which included an expansive living room and a dining room, he led us up the wide stone stairway to the upper floor, where there were several rooms available.


I was intrigued by the small windows at the top of the stairs, imagining our ancestors looking out these very windows. Down a dark tiled hallway, we opted for the suite in a corner tower, which Bernard told us was formerly the children’s residence. At that time in history, children lived in separate quarters from their parents.


From there, Bernard showed us around the grounds, with a pool, pond, spa, tennis court and trails criss-crossing through the woods. We were astonished to learn during the next few days that our host was the receptionist, bookkeeper, housekeeper, cook, server, groundskeeper, pool guy, and gardener, as well as being the artist behind the paintings on the walls and the maker of the delicious confitures (jams and jellies) for breakfast!

After resting in our room, my daughter and I decided to go for a walk. Behind the chateau, we came upon a small road and strolled along it. Bernard later told us this humble road began in the west of France, hooked up with the famous Santiago de Compostela pilgrim trail, and eventually led to Corsica!


Wild flowers abounded along the trail and in the deepening twilight, we could see across this beautiful valley to the Ardeche mountains. That night, despite the absolute dark and silence, no ghosts evidenced themselves, although we woke occasionally to the braying of donkeys in a lower field.

Two days later, after touring the Ardeche Mountains and venturing into Provence, we decided to spend our last afternoon at Le Poet Laval in Drome, a place we’d seen briefly mentioned in a tourist brochure.


The brochure stated that the town had a Huguenot museum and was the genesis of the Huguenot escape route to Geneva and beyond. Going through Montelimar once more, we drove west 18 km through flat farmlands and lavender fields not yet in bloom. We had no idea what to expect, but when we turned at the “Le Poet Laval” signpost, we found ourselves transported back in time to a breathtakingly beautiful medieval town on a hillside.


It was early evening, the museum closed, and not a soul in evidence. As we strolled through the eerily empty walled streets lined with luxuriant wild flowers and weeds, we would not have been the least surprised to have met medieval peasants or a knight.

Standing on one of the towers, we could see across the valley and into the steep hills, and it was no stretch of the imagination to see Huguenots slipping through the trees as they made their escape from the dragonnades and certain death. For the first time, it was absolutely evident how and where our ancestor, Alexandre Menuret, escaped from France.


The young man, born in Montelimar, eventually fought with William of Orange and settled in Ireland, although records do not say exactly where he joined William. But with Montelimar only 18 km away and Geneva a place that his family was familiar with (several of the Menurets had gone to the Geneva University, established by John Calvin), the trail from Le Poet Laval to Geneva would be the only logical escape route for him.

How we would have loved to have hiked part of the Huguenot trail, but this was our last day before leaving for the airport in Paris. As we drove back to the chateau through the deepening dusk, we fantasized about staying for another week, exploring more ancestor sites, paying our way by helping Bernard clean the pool, weed the garden, and bake croissants for breakfast.


But instead, we paid the modest bill in the morning and regretfully made our way back to North America and the 21st century.


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