If you have become familiar with the various terms to describe the different styles of French luxury properties, including the renowned ‘French chateau’, ‘maison de maître’, and ‘manoir’ you will most likely have encountered the term ‘chartreuse’. You may have asked yourself what qualities and criteria does a chartreuse need to have to merit this descriptive name, and what are their historical background.
The French dictionary describes a chartreuse as being “a country house, often elongated and one-storey in the south West of France”. Jean -Marie Bélingard, co-author of “Le Perigord des Chartreuses” is more explicit in his description of the Perigordian (historical name for the Dordogne) chartreuse as a ‘manor house, built between approximately 1650 and 1850, consisting of a single storey, often elongated, composed of exterior architectural elements and interior finishes out of the ordinary, and manifesting a certain art de living. There is a chartreuse in the Gironde (adjacent to the Dordogne) that is reputed to be the first of its kind in France and given its distinctive name from the monks of Chartreuse region that designed and built it as their monastic home. They gave their name also to ‘chartreuse’ liqueur made since 1737 from 130 plants, herbs and flowers, produced by the ‘chartreux’, a religious order from the Grand-Chartreuse convent located in the Chartreuse mountains near Grenoble, and a type of green (relating to the colour of the chartreuse liquor). Curiously in Toulouse the term was used to describe a secondary house built in the garden of a bourgeois town house.
In its origins it was conceived of as a property that leant itself to easy living, with all the living quarters on the ground floor, often raised with steps leading to the main entrance, the service rooms in the basement, and servants quarters and storage in the attics. They are most commonly one room deep, with traversing rooms with windows or French doors on both facades, giving a pleasant light and airy and indoor-outdoor feel to the living space. The gardens often contained a formal French style kitchen garden and the buildings were surrounded in well maintained parks to complete the full country living experience.
In historical terms these properties were built as the French country homes and retreats of the bourgeoisie and gentry residing in the towns and cities of the area in the 18th and 19th century. These early French owners brought with them a certain penchant and appreciation for refined architecture and décor. They often commissioned top craftsmen and master artisans to undertake the construction and finishes of the buildings, including details such as carved stone cornices, stone mouldings above doorways and windows, stone sinks, ‘oeil de boeuf’ windows (small stone oval shaped windows), sculpted stone framed dormer windows in the roofs, and commonly towers at either end of the building, and often with an interior courtyard. In the Perigord Noir area of the Dordogne, it is not uncommon to find double pitched roofs which were reportedly built by boat builders from Brittany as there was a shortage of local skilled craftsmen, and if you have the opportunity to look at the roof structure of one, you will notice it is a replica of an upturned boat.
The Perigord region of the Dordogne is known for its history of wealthy land owners and merchants due to the trade of wine and other natural resources on the river Dordogne to Bordeaux. With its native honey coloured sandstone quarried in the region, stunning landscape and bucolic settings it is not surprising that several kings have claimed some of the most prized locations to build their chateaux which now populate the landscape ( there are reputedly 1001 Dordogne chateaux). The Dordogne and its landscapes offer a perfect backdrop for the elegant chartreuses that today provide us with one of the most sought after architectural house types in the region.
Written by Kirsten Pollard