Way back in early May when we took a rainy overnight trip to Sarlat, we broke our journey home to Les Terraces with a stop off at the Château des Milandes, on the outskirts of Castelnaud-la-Chapelle. The drive there was scenic, with roads winding through deep valleys off the Dordogne that are liberally scattered with châteaux and impressive manoirs.
There were few cars in the car park, and a delightful absence of coaches when we arrived, which augured well for a peaceful visit. As is so often the case these days, we were given audio-sets to enable us to take a self-guided tour of the property. I’m ambivalent about them, but hey-ho.
The château’s setting is spectacular, with sweeping views over the valley and attractive formal gardens. We took a gentle stroll along a long terrace, looking at some of the raptors that are flown regularly throughout the day before going into the house itself through a properly impressive front door.
My first impression was “cold!” It was quite a shock to the system. Colder inside than out, I thought. The displays are almost exclusively about the Château’s most famous owner, Josephine Baker, with many of her stage costumes on show – complete with darns and repairs, which would never been visible to the audience. Somehow, there was a poignancy to the evidence of thrift and making ends meet. A glimpse behind the glamour to the reality of a long life in showbiz.
There is no doubt that Josephine Baker was quite a girl, in many different ways. She was brave. Not only did she move continents alone at a very young age, but she was a clever, determined, resourceful and passionate woman who was, and still is, the inspiration for many, ranging from pioneers of the anti-segregation movement in the US, to Princess Grace of Monaco (who provided her with a place to live after she was bankrupted and lost Milandes), and more. She was awarded the Legion d’Honneur for her work aiding the French Resistance during the 2nd World War, where she used her fame and charm to elicit military secrets from high-placed men. There are a couple of rooms in the château dedicated to her military service.
There’s also a room reached by a narrow winding stone staircase that shows nude photographic portraits of the star. A sense of fun and joie de vie mixed with the exotic and mischief springs from her, not just sex. And that was her appeal to so many, I imagine.
She clearly loved fine things. One of the upgrades she made to Milandes after she’d taken possession was to install an incongruous bathroom inspired by the black and gold of the perfume house Lanvin. It is a very “blingy” bathroom (as are many of the others). And she loved children too, adopting 12 in total, from countries around the world. She called her family “the Rainbow Tribe.” Baker is ostensibly the inspiration behind Angelina Jolie’s extensive clutch of children.
The Château des Milandes serves as a fitting memorial to Josephine Baker and warrants a visit. Kudos to the current owners, who use it thus. She is a woman whose story is not sufficiently well-known (although Google celebrated her 111th birthday earlier this year with a doodle). But I’ll leave the last word to Ernest Hemmingway, who once said of her:
“the most sensational woman anybody ever saw—or ever will.”