If you enjoy wandering along paved streets imagining life in a small French village then next time you are in the Oise region visit the small town of Gerberoy which is on the list of Les Plus Beaux Villages de France.
Earlier this year I was driving around the French countryside between Normandy and Picardy and found myself near Gerberoy which I had never visited. How could I resist? I didn’t and had a lovely couple of hours wandering through village, peering over fences into gardens, admiring the traditional construction in the houses and wondering what living in such a place might be like.
What makes it special? Firstly its history. Because of its significant location this tiny hilltop village has frequently been the scene of battles since the Vikings invaded Normandy.
William the Conqueror fought his son, Robert Curthose here during the winter of 1078-1079 and after being wounded, had to concede the castle to its younger owner. I found this 1845 print of William the Conqueror at the siege of Gerberoy Castle from The Museum of London. It is one of a series of equestrian prints published by A.Park.
Later, French troops fortified the village deeming its elevated site made it a suitable position to protect nearby French-held Beauvais as well as to threaten English conquered Normandy. The Battle of Gerberoy took place in 1435 during the Hundred Years War in which French and English troops fought across Normandy.
I had parked in the single main street that weaves through the village and found nearby a small walled garden commemorating King Henri IV who sheltered in the village after being injured in battle in 1591. Being March there were no flowers but I could see the formal structure of the rose gardens for which the town is known. There is even a Fêtes des Roses held on the third Sunday in June. If you walk under the rose arbor towards the back of the garden you find a lovely view over the countryside.
Traditional medieval construction adds to the beauty of the village with half-timbered, brick, cob, and flint houses. Some have small balconies with beautiful ironwork on the railings that overlook the street. I could see the bare stems of climbing roses entwined up the sides of these houses, just waiting for summer to show off their gorgeous colours. Some have the dates engraved over the doorway and others are decorated with carvings and tiles.
There is very little left of the castle that William fought over other than a part of the old medieval gate and ramparts. Inside the grounds is a lovely garden that was transformed by the painter Henri le Sidaner (1862-1939). Sadly it was closed when I was there in March but I climbed the wooden staircase onto the ramparts and looked across at the terraces he had planted. I adore wandering through gardens and finding new ideas for my small plot, so perhaps I will have to return during summer.
Sidaner fell in love with Gerberoy and spent his summers here gardening and painting. He painted in dots, of dreamy landscapes incorporating the soft hues of the region with its reflecting light. Many of his paintings are views through windows capturing the opalescent light shimmering in the gardens. In one corner high on the hill, Sidaner built a small terrace in the style of Versailles where he spent his winters.
I also walked through the small 11th Century collegiate church, Saint-Pierre that looks austere from the outside but charming inside. Its interior walls are lined with huge Aubusson tapestries and the carved timber stalls remain are a testament to traditional woodworking skills.
As it was early in the year the main cobbled street was quiet rather than clattering with the tyres of trucks and residents. Gerberoy is classified in the les Plus Beaux Villages which means there are no overhead lights or electricity wires, no ugly advertising billboards and very few consumer outlets.
Of course when I saw the ‘à vendre’ sign I couldn’t resist imaging what it would be like to live there but realistically would I want to live in a small village with possibly only about 77 people, and no local boulangerie or epicerie. Probably not, so my husband can heave a sigh of relief for the moment