There are certain buildings that are like something out of a dream. The Château d’Abbadia is one of them. From the moment I first saw it, my imagination ran wild. Set back on the clifftops overlooking the ocean, the building takes you somewhat by surprise, even if you have heard about it, and all the more so if you just happen to chance upon it.
I came across the Château d’Abbadia in winter. It was closed, but I was enchanted by the originality of this isolated castle with its numerous turrets and crenulations, cloaked in the mist rolling in off the ocean, and nestled amongst green meadows where sheep were grazing. I instantly felt as though I had been whisked away from Hendaye and the French Basque Country to Scotland or Ireland. The castle being closed only aroused my curiosity and I made sure to come back the following summer.
With the sun shining, the Château d’Abbadia is less mysterious, but its architecture, setting and history are no less fascinating. In the middle of summer, with bumper-to-bumper tourist traffic on the roads down to the Atlantic beaches, the castle’s car park – only a few metres from the heaving roads – contained just a smattering of cars.
The only people there were those already in the know. Everyone could head off to their own little bit of the park and the surrounding meadows to enjoy the sea spray, the calm and the oddities outdoors. As I made my way around the château, I encountered a real menagerie: crocodiles near the entrance, greyhounds and frogs on the benches outside, mice caught by a cat, an elephant’s head on the corner of a tower, a snake coiled on a wall, shellfish on a balcony railing, snails on the tops of the walls, and monkeys on the roof.
The château’s style and novelty make more sense when you learn that it was built between 1864 and 1884 by renowned architect Eugène Viollet-le-Duc in the Gothic Revival style for Antoine d’Abbadie, a scholar and eccentric born in Dublin, Ireland (1810-1901), who travelled the world to quench his passion as an ethnologist, linguist, cartographer and astronomer and to further science.
The interior décor is just as stunning, blending furniture by Edmond Duthoit, layouts in the style of Napoléon III and ethnic touches – souvenirs brought back from far-off lands that recall the travels of its owner and his wife, Virginie de Saint-Bonnet, who journeyed with him once they were married. The hall, with its Ethiopian-inspired frescoes, stops you in your tracks. And then there is the library and the observatory, where a Meridian circle built in 1879 can be found. The couple’s neighbour, Pierre Loti, was a frequent visitor. Abbadia was bequeathed to the Académie des sciences in 1895. It also has a chapel where Antoine and Virginie are buried.