On the first full day of our trip, we walked to see a charming stone manor house that we had spotted from the road and hoped was open to the public. From the outside the house looked as if every generation of its owners had wanted to outdo the previous, by adding to it architecturally.
Each of its mullioned casement windows was decorated with differing motifs and medallions, one side was butted by a round tower with a pepperpot roof, the other had a spiral stone staircase set into it. A Madonna and child guarded the main entrance whilst centuries old wisteria clad the front doorway and porch. Stone balconies and colonnades connected the main house with the red timbered buildings in its large cobblestone courtyard.
It was like a fairy tale but sadly not open to visit, and on first impressions, barring some deck chairs casually strewn amongst the meadow-like garden it looked uninhabited. Rounding a corner, we were stopped by a laughing girl in a small wooden hut and sold tickets to see the animals in the house’s zoological park. What a treat this turned out to be!
We strolled along a shallow stream of paddling ducks in all colours and sizes and were then amazed by the elegant sight of a slim waif-like demoiselle crane next to a sabre hook-beaked sacred ibis.
Around a bend in the water were gathered gigantic Dalmatian pelicans (the world’s largest and the size of toddlers) whilst on an opposite bank the emerald-eyed tails of gossiping peacocks swept regally past a colourful flock of mallards themselves ignoring the calls of a nearby pack of pink flamingos. It was truly a parliament of fowls.
Sitting silently by himself on the branch of a tree a great grey owl ignored me. I tried in vain to draw his attention and succeeded in the end by singing to him, when he spun his head 180degrees before looking down and opening and widening his truly frightening amber eyes at me. I had a sense of being a small frightened rodent looking into the void. I stepped back and he turned away.
In total the park is home to 1200 different birds, or osieaux, from commonly sighted pond birds to garishly-coloured and exotically plumed ones, and others that sport duckbilled platypus type beaks and monstrous claws and look like they are out of the pages of prehistory.
There are mammals too. Small furry ones and large intimidating ones. On a little inlet by the water a group of striped maki katta (we know them as lemurs) eyed us curiously but they weren’t the only Madagascans around. A family of three ‘gentle lemurs’ gazed at us with soft eyes whilst quietly munching on fresh leaves in their huge pen of trees, ropes, ladders and wooden houses.
Opposite a family of four gibbons treated us to a display of jungle antics, swinging, leaping and somersaulting through hanging vines before settling down on the ground to munch fruit. Perched sleepily on top of maypoles two red pandas sighed and snored their way through the morning after a night of nocturnal antics amongst their parkland trees. A herd of spotted antelope galloped past us on the way to meet their morning feed and scattered a dozen kangaroos, and a few pelicans, in their wake.
The park was begun in the 1920s and has become internationally famous as a home for endangered species. The animals are kept largely in the open with some in specially constructed habitats and very few, bar the exotic birds, and gibbons, in large cages.
All of their homes were sympathetically planted with native flowers, trees and shrubs so it was also a highlight to spot south American pampas grasses, African flowering trees and Asian bamboo forests. See a mini gallery here: