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A night at the Liboson

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A memorable fondue in an over-the-top dungeon chalet straight out of a Hammer film. Our host, Paul du Marchie, has been building an architectural fantasy in the middle of the woods for the last 50 years. Dont' miss my eight 360° panoramas!

Friday night I invited three friends for a memorable evening. I didn't tell my friends where we were going - all I said was to bring good shoes. We drove up to Caux, above Montreux, and left the car at the beginning of a snow-covered path.

At 1000m (3000') altitude, the snow already covers the roads. Lake Geneva is hidden below the sea of clouds.

As we enter the woods the suns seems to disappear and darkness soon surrounds us. We continue on the winding snow-covered road for about a kilometer...

When suddenly we come out of the woods and see our destination - Le Liboson. We walk down and start seeing the huge converted chalet d'alpage. Very mysterious but quite enticing. Christine knocks and disappears into the chalet.

Those familiar with the production of Hammer Films in the 1970s will undoubtedly think of Dr Phibes when, as they approach the chalet, organ music starts filling the air. As the door opens, an impeccably elegant old man with a painter's beret welcomes you in and you see that the music comes from a large organ being played by a young woman with long hair. Vulnavia playing for the Dr Phibes? Be calm, thou fondue guest. Paul du Marchie has nothing sinister about him His model is Leonardo da Vinci rather than Count Dracula, and the lady is Nicole du Marchie, his girlfriend for the last 28 years. He ushers you in and starts explaining where we are.

Paul du Marchie was born a Dutch aristocrat and lived the first 20 years of his life hopping from one palace to the next with his parents. The war started, and he became a medical student at the University of Berne. Then, suddenly, his parents cut him off and he had to stop his medical studies and go work as a field hand on a Swiss farm. When DuMarchie speaks about his philosophy of detachment from earthly property, clearly he thinks about the life he lost as a young man rather than about his amazing house. Every book in the house, every stereoscopic picture is inventoried, and he is justly proud of every single artefact he created. And don't ask him if his house is for sale if you want to see another day.

Du Marchie is not, like you could expect, a man turned towards the past. Behind a reproduction medieval tapestry is a huge plasma screen mounted on hinges to reveal a niche filled with audio video equipment carved from the wall. For an 80-something, I think is resolutely modern.

He bought a ruined chalet d'alpage above Montreux and over the last 50 years du Marchie built a world of fantasy, like a writer creating an imaginary world to escape the brutality and ugliness or reality. But whereas many ruined aristocrats live contemplating the past and ostentatious disgust of the present, du Marchie set out to build his world with monkish devotion. where some people spend fortune to build soulles mansions, he insufflated in those ruins a unique spirit and unique character. How many people own a historic house like an albatross around their neck, only showing the visitors the past grandeur of the family and its present disarray? After a sorry twist of fate, du Marchie decided to look ahead and create his own castle with stray stones and recycled beams. And 50 years later, he has created a whole world people come from all over the world to admire so they can see what imagination and work can achieve, no matter how empty your pockets.

Interactive 360° panorama #1
The huge room resonates with the organ as we start taking the countless objects and paintings in. (Jpeg version)

As Nicole finishes playing and disappears from a side door, Paul du Marchie starts the tour. He tells us about the organ, The organ is electronic, with a real organ keyboard punching on a computer that sends music through two dozens recycled loudspeakers hidden in the room. The pipes are for decor. The sounds is muffled, like if your neighbours were having a late-night Halloween party, but the effect is quite impressive and Nicole plays really well. This sort of organ is popular with organ fans who are not Internet Zillionaires. In essence, du Marchie built a gothic extravaganza on a shoestring. He has no money at all, and yet his house is way grander than many I have visited in the 5-10 million Euros range. This is really 50 years of home improvement by Leonardo. Sure, du Marchie will tell you himself that everything in the house is a reproduction. But most items he made himself patiently or got them from Bedouins in the desert or from some old church. Nothing is original here, he says modestly, and yet the whole is hugely original. The story of this man's house is one of poverty and imagination and work and willpower.

If you need to whisper something to a friend during the visit, du Marchie will stop talking and patiently wait until you are finished. Otherwise I would need to explain a second time, he would apologize and then continue. You need to humor the man, this house is really extraordinary, it left me a much stronger impression than the tourist trap known as Hearst castle for instance. It is a man's entire world, the product of 50 years of hammering away in the silence of the mountain, and it is really well made. So you won't be surprised if Monsieur du Marchie feels the need to explain every nook and cranny even though you might want to move on.

We walk down a narrow flight of stairs into a maze of impossibly low underground passages only a Viet-Cong soldier would find cosy. I dug everything myself into the moraine below the house, explains du Marchie while I hold my breath to try and pass through the stairs. We arrive into the workshop, a beautiful Leonardesque space where du Marchie spends most of his time.

Interactive 360° panorama #2
The workshop with the tower in a niche, chemical workshop, bench and oven (Jpeg version)

I had noticed beautiful old ceramic tiles in the bathroom and asked du Marchie about them. I made them myself, he explained. A man of taste, no doubt. In a small room separated by a glass pane to keep the fumes in is the chemical workshops.

Du Marchie brings us to an alcove where a dungeon model revolves on a turning table. Inside, dozens of scenes and figurines with characters playing dice and other boiling tea on working miniature fireplaces.

I had read about Le Liboson's «Egyptian Crypt». Sure enough, du Marchie takes us into one of the many crooked, low-ceiling and impossibly narrow corridors and down a flight of stairs. He opens a huge door and we enter the «crypt».

Interactive 360° panorama #3
The Egyptian Crypt is a small room with low ceilings where du Marchie patiently carved Egyptian tombs high relief out of stone chipboards. The room is warm and tomblike and best seen in pictures. (Jpeg version)

Despite his kindly demenaor, as du Marchie closes the giant stone door behind you and locks the claustrophobic "Egyptian" crypt, I could not help but wonder when we would exit. From the crypt another flight of stairs leads down to the library. Du Marchie start explaining in great details how each of the ornaments in the library had been made, This one was cut by a laser out of a former telephone pole. Some of them are really knick-knacks and this library is not as interesting as the other rooms. I leave the library for the crypt and try to open the stone door. No joy. I try again, trying to remember his instructions. The air is thin and heavy and I start sweating. After 5 long minutes and countless tries, the door slowly opens with Nicole right behind it. I heard somebody trying to open the crypt and came down to see if you needed help, she explains in a soft voice. I rush out. If somebody really wanted to have a claustrophobia attack, I think that crypt would be a fine place to start, I say, charging up the narrow stairs.

Du Marchie starts preparing the fondue. It is the only dish I cook, he explains, I'm just not into cooking. If I spend more than 10 minutes in the kitchen a day, that'a already too much. For us a microwave dinner is all we need. As I heard the word 'microwave', I reach for my garlic plaid.

He brings some white wine to a boil and mixes it with pepper. That's his touch, explains Nicole. This is pepper from the desert, I buy it from the Bedouins when we go spend a month living with them, says Du Marchie, focused on the task.

I point out that pepper doesn't grow in the desert but in the jungle. Du Marchie stares at me coldly. Nicole sees the tension and intervenes delicately Indeed this pepper is grown somewhere in Sub-Saharan Africa, where the Nomads buy it and carry it through the desert. We buy it from the Bedouins in the desert, she says.

From time to time he adds a little more wine until all cheese is melted in a smooth fat-in-water emulsion.

Nicole comes and cuts the bread in large dices. The meal is almost ready.

When the pot is bubbling nicely and the surface is smooth, ...

... we all rush to the table, cleverly lit by a low hanging lamp that gives the place enormous intimacy. The huge table looks medieval but upon closer inspection, loads of names are carved on the surface. A school table maybe? The old-looking tin plates complete the look. Nothing is really medieval, but nothing looks fake. You feel that these furnitures have been made by hand and used for decades. Highly atmospheric.

Du Marchie gives the fondue one last whisk ...

... and we tuck in, placing a bread cube at the end of a long fondue fork, and dip it in the cheese emulsion until thoroughly coated. In Switzerland there is always a clift at any given fondue table - those who like pepper and those who don't. I love pepper, cracked black pepper, and always ask people at the table if they agree that we put some more in the soup. Well, not this time, plenty of delicious freshly cracked pepper «from the desert».

How to convey the convivial ambiance of sharing a fondue, with all guests eating from the same warm pot? How about two over-the-pot fondue panoramas? They are interactive if you have Flash installed (96% of browsers have Flash, in case of click but no bang just use the alternate Jpeg version, not quite the same thing though).

Interactive 360° panorama #4
John is dipping a piece of bread intot he fondue with my unsightly photographic umbrella behind me. I didn't use it, Du Marchie's lighting was nicer. (Jpeg version)

Interactive 360° panorama #5
Paul du Marchie exchanges a sweet look with his wife Nicole du Marchie I moved the brolly so you can see the beautiful byzantine portraits they have painted on the dresser behind me. (Jpeg version)