In the middle of France's Poitou-Charentes region lies Mouterre-sur-Blourde, a quiet, rural hamlet with a mystery hiding in its woods: a Madonna with an unknown past.
For over a century, she has sat between the trees, waiting within a secluded shrine for someone to find her.
Where is she from?
"We've heard conflicting stories..." local resident Cilla West tells me. "We know it's dated 1897."
Cilla and her partner, Steve Carter, moved to the hamlet in 2004, buying The Logis de Roche, an old seven-bedroom mansion. Believed to have been built before the enigmatic forest-clad figurine, the manor estate once included three neighbouring farms, all of which have since been sold off.
Now, the impressive building stands on a still-daunting 10 acres of park and woodland with old gates walling the front garden. Over the years, it has been everything from a holiday home to a bed and breakfast, boasting space for tennis courts, gardens, a swimming pool and horse stables. It was even a lifeline for locals in WWII, when one of the barns was used to feed the villagers with its large bread oven.
But in 2012, Cilla admits, the Madonna of the trees still remains a mystery.
"For many years in the 19th
Century, this was the holiday home for a wealthy Parisian family," Cilla explains, walking me down an impressive corridor that seems to run the full length of the house. "They only used the downstairs," she adds, pointing out the original tiles that cover the ground floor - a throwback to a grander time, when marble surrounds and elegant plasterwork once filled the property. Upstairs, the floors are now all varnished wood after the extensive renovation that's been carried out in the last eight years.
We pause in one of the grand reception rooms. After hearing about the home's history in such detail, I find it hard to believe there's no clue to the statue's identity anywhere in the building.
"We do have 15 or so hand-written ledgers, which cover the estate records all the way back to the early 20th century," she reveals, "but we've never found the time to translate them. We're sure they'd throw an interesting light on the whole mystery."
Cilla takes us back down through the private quarters, past one of four bathrooms and into the kitchen. What about village rumours? Someone must have a clue.
"One story we heard was that it was a shrine visited by pilgrims on their way to Lourdes," she says. "The other local legend is that it was built by one of the old Parisian family members to commemorate the death of his brother at war."
I suggest we walk to look at the statue ourselves. Which story does she believe?
"I'm not sure, but it's an interesting feature of the house!" she laughs.
She's right: it's not every day that a home comes with its own mysterious work of art in the backyard. Let alone seven bedrooms, four bathrooms and 10 acres of land.
"It's a property that lets you realise your dreams," Cilla promises me. What she doesn't say is that whoever capitalizes on the property's investment potential, Madonna will continue to sit in the forest outside, still waiting to be found.
Discover the Madonna of the trees for yourself for €720,000.