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Don’t let the embers cool

By Gery de Pierpont

Windows into History can sometimes be shut

A press release from the Château du Pont d’Oye in Habay (Belgium) has just announced that this precious historic site is about to undergo extensive renovations. This venerable domain will be closed for several years before re-opening as a prestigious hotel complex more “in tune with the rapidly developing tourism business in the Province of Luxembourg”.

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The Pont d’Oye castle seen from its wooded park on a beautiful autumn evening

The project’s promoters announce that the Pont d’Oye “will continue its cultural activities, bolster its organisation of seminars and receptions and offer new tourist attractions, such as wellness and health club facilities”. Clearly, one of the aims of the owners is “to ensure the site remains viable through sustainable economic development, while maintaining its natural and cultural advantages”.

I am delighted that such a project will breath new life into the Pont d’Oye, but those of you who enjoy historic sites, as I do, may experience a feeling of malaise at the thought of the compromise which will have to be negotiated between cultural heritage and modernity, between preservation and reconstruction …

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The aristocratic old rooms

Will it still be possible to spend nights in the traditional setting of the castle, in rooms with heavily worn wooden floors, evocative of so many memories? Will we still be able to enjoy olde worlde evenings by the fireplace, in salons which have reverberated with countless literary and philosophical discussions? Will the staircase still creak as we step on it? And will the windows still mist up at dawn?

The rooms under the eaves are perfect for family reunions … and what about those old-style candle-lit dinners, similar to those aristocratic receptions which used to take place at the Pont d’Oye when the castle was known as “Little Versailles”? I hope that art enthusiasts will still be able to consult the rich collections in its library and admire the works which are regularly on display in its 17th century wing … May large audiences continue to applaud the musicians, storytellers and actors who perform in the gardens or beneath its ancient roof beams.

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The main living room, just the place for a good read by the fire

Indeed, I was particularly moved by the Pont d’Oye just a year ago, when I was preparing to put the intoHistory website on line, and touched by the obviously sincere welcome my wife and I received. We felt instantly drawn to this stately residence in its woodland setting, attracted by its family atmosphere and we were in tune with its air of mystery. Like the inhabitants of the Ardennes, who emanate a special charm despite their rugged nature and blunt speech, so the Pont d’Oye touches your heart through its somewhat old fashioned décor, which makes no attempt to hide its years …

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A castle inhabited by so many stories and old memories …

Of course restoration work needs to be carried out. Repair work and consolidation are needed, as these key areas of this old residence are showing worrying signs of wear and tear. However, will the planned renovation work, an impressive undertaking, manage to retain the unique soul of this old stately home and keep its embers, which have been flickering in its old fireplaces for several centuries, alive? Is it a sine qua non to have 5-star rooms to enjoy a historic stay between the Ardennes and the Gaume? Won’t this no-nonsense authenticity, which makes the Pont d’Oye so welcoming, become a casualty along the way? I admit I’m worried that the rich cultural dimension of this domain might get watered down in the intricacies of a prestigious hotel…

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An era where wild men were still cast in iron

Considerable effort has been expended over the last few years to maintain this stately home, rooms, restaurant, grounds and the extensive library built up by Pierre Nothomb. Its creative festivals and artistic exhibitions are impressive. Here I am thinking back to the wonderful atmosphere of its concerts and the finesse of its wine cellar, whose wines accompany the dishes on the menu so well. I have dreamed of bringing my whole family back to the Pont d’Oye, organising a “stay in history” reunion, trying out 19th century roles or even writing an account of the profession of foundry master … My stays at Habay captivated my imagination and I am left today with deep feelings of nostalgia.

My thanks to the dynamic team at the castle who have been a real font of great ideas. It was their enthusiastic welcome which really sparked off the intoHistory project. Today, these enthusiasts are the trustees of the old Pont d’Oye’s finest legends, handed down through long and close cohabitation. As for all the guests they have welcomed within their walls, they will remember the flames dancing in the Renaissance fireplace … Let us hope they will sense in the renovated domain the same evocative atmosphere that captivated them in the first place.

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One of the castle’s lovely old doors

The vestiges of the past are destined to disappear one day, but the programmed arrival of pneumatic drills serves as a reminder that that we must take advantage of long forgotten cultural remains while they are accessible. My hope is that during the works, the promoters of the new style Pont d’Oye will preserve that special something which gives this historic rural cocoon its subtle originality. I feel confident about their foresight and the sound advice given by the heritage professionals overseeing the project. Progress report in a few years time?

 


> Life in the castle as a member of the family: the authentic Pont d’Oye with all its secrets
> the Pont d’Oye Castle website, where more information about the renovation project and progress of the work will soon be available.

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