Creepy Château de Chaumont & Catherine's Shady Squad

The first time I visited Chateau de Chaumont was in the winter of 2003 - a brief visit that lingered in my imagination for years after.  Since the castle was closed to tourists, I wandered the grounds alone in hopes I might encounter the spirits of inhabitants past.  

This might seem an unusual pastime unless you pause to consider the castle's rather unusual history. 

Chaumont was once the home of Catherine de Medici, queen to Henri II of France.  Catherine practiced what some called "the darker arts" at Chaumont, inviting astronomers, numerologists, and a host of shady characters.  
The astrologer Nostradamus was one of the member's of Catherine's shady squad.  He visited her at Chaumont on several occasions.  Legend has it Catherine attended ritualistic animal sacrifices in the castle's front hall (this told to me by a groundskeeper I encountered).  

On that first visit, when the wind eerily whispered through the ancient pine trees, it wasn't difficult to imagine the queen and her astronomer strolling through the gardens, their heads together as they tried to decipher the meaning of his convoluted dreams.  

I didn't see a ghost that day - the queen politely declined to materialize - but then, I don't practice her dark arts.  Nevertheless, a chill trickled down my spine when a trick of light created a shadow that moved between the trunks.  

Last month, I had the pleasure of visiting Chaumont again.  This time, the castle was open for visitors and I found it as strange and haunting a place as I did all those years ago.  I hoped to learn more secrets about the castle's history - titillating tales about seances and sacrifices, visions and predictions.  I wanted to see the front hall and learn the details about the sacrifices purportedly held there.  I wanted to know if Nostradamus warned Catherine she would become a widow before she turned forty.  I wanted the opportunity to buddy-up to one of the guides, to get them to share stories about sightings and things that go bump in the night.

Much to my disappointment, the spirits failed to materialize and the guides offered no spooky stories. I wandered through the rooms, sat quiet in the empty stairway, listening for echoes.  Though it was a pleasant visit, I learned nothing of the darker side of Chaumont's history.  

As I walked back to my car, I thought about Catherine's final days at Chaumont.  On a bright summer day in 1559, Henri II was jousting at Place des Vosges, a lovely square in Paris, when his lance shattered into a million pieces.  One of the shards penetrated his eye.  Henri II lingered for several long, agonizing days before taking his last breath.

Catherine would don widows weeds and mourn her prince for the rest of her life.  Grief didn't stop her from trading up, though...

A slight, though important, digression:  Henri II had a mistress named Diane de Poitiers.  Diane was pretty much Catherine's polar opposite - stunningly beautiful, gay, stylish.  Henri loved Diane so much he gave her the most beautiful, fairy-tale castle in all of France: Chenonceau.  Naturally, this vexed old Catherine, who burned with jealousy.

Henri was barely cold in his marble tomb when Catherine snatched Chenonceau's keys from Diane's hot little hands.  In exchange, she gave Diane the deed to Chaumont, which had a leaky roof and walls stained with sacrificial blood.  

I will be posting an article about my visit to Chenonceau so be sure to check back or subscribe to this blog.

All photographs on this blog were taken by Leah Marie Brown and are protected by copyright. Please ask permission before reproducing. Merci.

Inner courtyard.

Well located inside
the courtyard.

View of the Loire.

Strange and slightly creepy art inside
the chapel at Chaumont.
Another shot of the chapel.

Church  located near castle.

The stairs are worn and uneven
from years of use.  If you sit quietly,
you can almost hear the rustle
of stiff gowns, the tap-tap of slippers
moving over the stones.

Looking up from the stairway.

The royal chamber with a portrait of
Catherine de Medici hanging on the wall,
glaring down at all who pass.

The Royal Reception Hall - Catherine would
have received dignitaries here.

Beautiful tapestry and painted

Through a glass darkly
- stained glass window
looking out at the courtyard
at Chaumont.

Close up of window.

A Travel Tradition

Sixteen years ago I visited Mellerstain House, an 18th Century English manor home located in the borders between England and Scotland.

I was so taken with the magnificent estate that I flung my arms out and boldly declared, "It's all mine!"  

Cindy, my super fun travel pal, snapped a photo of me sitting on the hood of our rented Jaguar with my arms outstretched and the rambling manor home as my backdrop.  

Mellerstain House, England

Little did I know striking the It's All Mine pose would become one of my travel traditions. Since then, I have posed outside mansions, manor homes, castles, and palaces around the world.  

The photos document nearly twenty years of travel to three continents and eighteen countries (and my surprisingly unwavering taste for black garments). 

Flipping through the collection today, I realized, though not for the first time, how truly blessed I am to have traveled to so many exotic places (I also realized I need to add some color to my travel wardrobe).

For me, these photos have become a whimsical way to document my joy for exploring this great big beautiful world.

Do you have any travel traditions?  I would love to hear about them.  If not, it's not too late to start. Grab your passport and strike a pose. 

Chateau Chambord, France
Blenheim Palace, England

Chateau Chaumont, France
Muckross House, Ireland
Vaux le Vicomte, France

Chateau Chenonceau, France

Balleroy, France

Scone Palace, Scotland

Kasteel ten Berghe, Belgium

Glamis Castle, Scotland

Hampton Court Palace, England

Petite Trianon, France

Hall of Mirrors, Versailles, France

Neuschwanstein Castle, Germany
Cardinal de Rohan Palace, Strasbourg

Carcassone, France

My fabulous publisher, Kensington Publishing, is hosting a giveaway to celebrate the launch of my latest It Girls novel, Owning It.

Step into the stylish world of the It Girls by entering the summer giveaway and you could win a super cute Kate Spade Ice Cream Umbrella & PRINT copies of the complete It Girls series.

Enter by clicking here: http://bit.ly/2qkfbbz

And remember: SHARING is CARING so post, share, retweet!

Hemingway's Trunk

One of my all-time favorite nonfiction books is Ernest Hemingway's A Moveable Feast.  (More on why this book makes my all-time top ten list in an upcoming post)

 If you haven't read A Moveable Feast, I highly recommend you indulge.  The audio book version is a delicious treat for your ears.

 Speaking of Hemingway, I thought this was a great little story about him. (Question for YOU after the story)

"In 1956, Ernest and I were having lunch at the Ritz in Paris with Charles Ritz, the hotel’s chairman, when Charley asked if Ernest was aware that a trunk of his was in the basement storage room, left there in 1930. 

Ernest did not remember storing the trunk but he did recall that in the 1920s Louis Vuitton had made a special trunk for him. Ernest had wondered what had become of it. Charley had the trunk brought up to his office, and after lunch Ernest opened it. It was filled with a ragtag collection of clothes, menus, receipts, memos, hunting and fishing paraphernalia, skiing equipment, racing forms, correspondence and, on the bottom, something that elicited a joyful reaction from Ernest: 'The notebooks! So that’s where they were! Enfin!' There were two stacks of lined notebooks like the ones used by schoolchildren in Paris when he lived there in the ’20s. Ernest had filled them with his careful handwriting while sitting in his favorite café, nursing a café crème. The notebooks described the places, the people, the events of his penurious life."   -- Hotchner, A. E. (2009-07-19). "Don't Touch 'A Moveable Feast'". The New York Times.

Wouldn't it be something to find an old suitcase filled with things you haven't seen in 30 years? What would YOU want to find in your suitcase?

Backpack Full of Goodies: Helping the Homeless

When I lived in Anchorage, I frequently made donations to a homeless shelter, Beans Cafe, and a youth shelter, Covenant House. It was difficult to forget about the homeless in that city because Beans Cafe was located close to where I lived.  I passed the homeless lined up outside the charity every time I ran errands.  This year, they asked some of the city’s homeless to write their holiday wishes on a piece of paper.  Then, they photographed them holding their wishes and posted those photos of social media.

Steven's request for a "backpack full of goodies" really touches my heart.

We don't have a lot of visible homeless people where I now live, but just before Thanksgiving I saw a clean, well-groomed homeless man riding a bike with a little hitch on the back.  He had posted signs all over the hitch saying he was homeless and hungry but capable of doing odd jobs for food.  I don't have a place for him to do odd jobs, so I grabbed two warm drinks and I went and sat with him for about 20 minutes.  I was wearing a Spock tee shirt and he told me what a fan he was of Star Trek.  He also told me about his dog - Maggie - a former bait dog he rescued.  I told him I was sorry I didn't have any odd jobs for him and I gave him enough cash for a hot meal or two...

I tell you that story not to toot my own horn - but to say that so many homeless people are so beaten down by their circumstances they lose their spark.  They have to focus on finding necessities like food, not the things that feed the soul.  This man, holding a sign asking for a backpack full of goodies, still has his spark. 

I am so blessed.  Truly.  And I am full of spark.   My Christmas hope this year is that we all do something to help preserve the spark in a homeless person.  It takes just a few minutes - a warm drink - a few extra bucks - a thoughtful conversation - to help preserve someone's faith in humanity.

Attitude of Gratitude

Since I was twelve, I have had a difficult relationship with my mother. Several years ago, I was preparing to embark on a trip to France with my friend, Cindy. I asked my mother what I could get for her in France -- chocolates, perfume -- she gave me a short list and then added, "And a heart shaped stone."


"When you're at Mont St. Michel, see if you can't find me a heart shaped stone."

And I did. We were walking along the causeway, just before the tide came in (this is before they added the slick, raised, paved causeway). I looked down and saw a heart-shaped stone.

I have made it one of my travel traditions to look for a heart-shaped stone for my Momma...even if we aren't speaking.

I have a nice little collection now.  

A dark greenish heart stone I found near castle ruins in Scotland.  

A heart shaped stone that appears to be a piece of masonry I found near a chateau in France.  

A smooth light gray heart stone plucked from the shores of my beloved Ireland...

I am grateful for this tradition because it helps me to stay connected to my mom in a simple, painless way. It also reminds me that no matter how far I travel, no matter how much I see and experience, I should remember to look for and value the "small" treasures life offers.

Looscaunagh Lough

Looscaunagh Lough is a little lake on the edge of Killarney National Park in Ireland.  I drove by it at least a dozen times during my stay in County Kerry.  For me, it was heaven on earth.  There were several abandoned cottages and I thought how simple and grand life would be if I could love in a little cottage besides Looscaunagh.  I imagine it's just a boring plot of land beside a wee lake to most Irishmen, but I thought it was as close to perfect as one could hope to find. It was just one of two places that I have been in this world where I felt I belonged.

How To Be A Badass

"If you don't distance yourself from the wrong people, you will never meet the right people." 

~ Joel Osteen

What a beautifully simple concept.  For years I clung to the wrong people - people so toxic that I felt I needed a decontamination shower after spending time with them.  Then there were the people who weren't loyal to me but to their need of me.  Once their needs changed, so did their loyalty. 

I held onto those people out of fear.  "What if I end the friendship and spend the next fifteen years looking for a new friend?  What if I die alone?  Since God delivered me to this family, He might think I am unforgiving and ungrateful if I stop talking to them."

Fear kept me in painful and toxic relationships.  Fear motivated me to forgive people when they were cruel, disloyal, abusive, or negligent.  Fear is a powerful motivator.  Healthy fear protects you from making dangerous or unwise decisions.  Unhealthy fear paralyzes you and makes it difficult to move away from the familiar, even if that familiar is painful.

The same principle could be applied to the pursuit of one's dreams.

"If you don't distance yourself from the wrong dreams, you will never achieve the right dreams."

Having ADD means I spend a lot of time distracted, engaged in pointless pursuits or in chasing shiny things that suddenly attract my attention.  A few years ago, I started making Christmas ornaments as a way to distract myself from family problems.  I spent months making decoupage ornaments. When boxes of ornaments covered my kitchen island, family room bar, and dining room table, I did what anyone would do: I sold them on eBay and Etsy.  A sane person would have pocketed her profit and moved on.  I made more ornaments.  What had started as a relaxing pastime quickly turned into an all-consuming distraction. It was also a major diversion that kept me from continuing to pursue my real dream:  to be a multi-published author.  

For years, I doggedly wrote historical fiction.  Even though I received enough rejection letters to wallpaper the Taj Mahal, I kept writing historical romances.  I had dream myopia.  I put on my blinders and trotted the track - around and around and around.  A few close friends said, "Why don't you try a new path?  You're funny.  You should try writing chick lit."

Unhealthy fear fell upon me like one of Wile E. Coyote's anvils and made it nearly impossible for me to move.  The thing about anvils?  They freaking hurt.  After a while, you are so exhausted from the pain you are willing to gnaw off your own leg just to get away from it.  

We hear stories about courageous people.  Often they are described as Herculean men and Amazonian women - soldiers who evade capture, firemen who run into burning buildings, mothers who lift vehicles to free their trapped off-spring, a teenager who survives a plane crash and then fights her way through miles of jungle just to reach help.  No offense to them, but they kinda give courage a bad rap.

Their admirable acts are so freaking awesome they make our challenges seem trivial.  "I mean, seriously, if a blind elderly woman with one leg and one kidney can climb Mount Everest, you should be able to end a friendship/write a book/join a new church/apply for that job."

No challenge is trivial.  They might not all be Mount Everest - maybe they're merely foothills.  It's all about perspective though.

Sometimes, courage doesn't come with a bolt of lightning, but with a bone-weariness need to change, to move away from the pain.

It takes courage to say, "I am going to stop chasing the wrong dreams/friend/man/career and remain faithful that God will show me the path toward the right dream/friend/man/career."

Be quietly, wearily courageous.  You might not be able to lift your shirt and impress your friends with your wicked battle scar, but you will have one badass story to tell.

Badass By The Numbers:

What Should You Stick In Your Beach Bag?

You've packed your swimsuit, sandals, suntan lotion, and slinky sundress, but did you remember to pack the one thing that will make you laugh, feel sexy, and give you some serious girl power?  

This summer's new Chick Lit releases are super fab, laugh out loud fun. So, don't forget to stick one or two (or more) of these novels in your beach bag or carry-on.  (I suggest starting with Working It - but that's merely a suggestion).

You know how you have that favorite summer dress - the one you bought a few years ago, but still makes you feel fantastic?  

You probably think you'll never find a better summer dress, right?  But one day soon, you will be walking through the mall and...WAAHHHH (that's the heavenly chorus sound effect that plays whenever a woman finds the perfect garment)...

...There it will be!  A new summer dress that looks as fab on your body as it did on the mannequin.  A dress that is slinkier, sexier, and more sensational than your old one.  You will still love your old dress, of course, but you will joyfully slip into the new one.

That's what it is like with this summer's chick lit novels.  Previous summer's offered great reads, but these novels are slinkier, sexier, and will make you feel marvelous.  

There's a lot to choose from:  a fashionista seeking a destiny beyond Dior, three romantic rivals vying for the same man, a would-be actress in search of her first husband, sisters with secrets in a Cornish cottage...

Take your pick (but I recommend buying  the whole lot - after all, one can never have too many slinky, make you feel super-sexy dresses, can one?)