Off to the de Rochecouste family estate we go!
Not too far from Beau Vallon, in the hamlet of Riche en Eau, lies a vestige of our colonial past: the ‘Château de Riche en Eau’. By circumstances, I found myself there on March 12 (one of the two days of the year this private property opens its doors to well informed visitors, the other day being Heritage Day). One would soon notice that as far as estates are concerned, that one is a rather large colonial mansion dating from the 1900s and belonging to a family of French origin, the de Rochecouste.
First of all, the route leading to this area of the island is second to none. The almost deserted roads, shaded by tall trees, gave me a sense of fulfilment and peace. On the outskirts of the estate, we met some locals whose bygone stories abound, stories from the time when Riche en Eau sugar estate was fully operational, creating employment for several families in the area. ‘Our old folks’ – ancestors, worked at the factory, in the fields…but also at the estate’ they told us. Interesting fact: this mansion is periodically booked by old relatives during their holidays under the sun. I learnt that some scenes from Pierre Gaspard-Huit’s TV series ‘Paul et Virginie’ were shot there in the 1970s.
This estate housed the first sugar factory in Riche en Eau. Before reaching it, my gaze was immediately drawn to the front wall covered with vines. The long path, lined with palm trees at the entrance, gave me a glimpse of the extent of this property. I was soon taken back in time and easily pictured the social dimension of this family. Green vegetation predominates and some wild flowers here and there brought a colorful touch to this sumptuous garden! And while the beautiful central mansion captured my attention with its stone steps, its veranda and its wooden doors, it was the expanse of the estate’s park that impressed me the most.
The green spaces took me back in time where I could picture the long horseback rides of the owners in the neighboring village and around the estate. The magnificent stables covered with climbing plants, have not lost their charm, even if they are no longer of much use. A shoe scraper at the bottom of a stone staircase caught my eye. I found out that it was used to wipe the mud off the equestrians’ boots after their horse rides.
A few meters away, facing the stables, was a dovecote, which was unfortunately of no use, the pigeons having deserted it a long time ago. I nevertheless had to praise the preservation of this rare and ancient monument. Extraordinary trees, some of which are fruit trees, majestically adorn the park; it is easy to imagine the children of the estate gleefully frolicking around these trees under the watchful eyes of the nannies of the time.
Water surfaces can be found across the park. Riche en Eau (literally meaning abundance of water) indeed is a spot where there is no shortage of water. The reason for this most probably being that this part of the island is well-known for recording high rainfalls. In some spots, the water takes on a nice greenish color because of the moss at the bottom of it and the reflection of the sun on the lush vegetation. I also spotted a shaded pond of some sort and I enjoyed thinking that it served as a pool for the ladies of the estate who wanted to freshen up in the midst of heat waves.
At the turn of a grove, I found a great vegetation of beautiful Chinese Bamboo. Further on, I could see a wing of the estate, still fully operational and which at the time was reserved for servants. While peeking through the windows of the great mansion, I was able to let my imagination wander and to form an impression of what the life of the residents must have been. Here and there lied some beautiful pieces of antique furniture made of rare wood.
During my visit, I overheard a conversation between an elderly visitor and the children who accompanied her. She explained that she had lived in the area since she was born and had always heard about this mansion that fueled her imagination as a little girl and that she was lucky enough to have set foot on for the first time. Our eyes met for a split second and I could feel a hint of nostalgia in her gaze and even more so…a degree of emotion.
Standing on the amazing veranda of the de Rochecouste family, with a commanding view on the immense garden as far as they eye could see, I caught myself silently thanking this family who goes to great lengths to keep this gem intact, without seeking to modernize it. We owe the privilege of visiting it for free every year to them. I value the fact that to this day, they have not succumbed to the temptation of enticing proposals from real estate developers who would not think twice about turning this magical place into a modern shopping mall with parking lots with a view on the water surfaces of Riche en Eau!