It was one of those nights of chocolate lusciousness, real life seeming so far away that it's hard to imagine oneself ever racing a clock, fretting an assignment or balancing a checkbook.
Outside, so cold and still, miles of darkness lit only by stars. Inside, a fire, after-dinner brandy, amiable conversation.
Also, however, the curious sensation that this was all a fantasy, but here we were dining and spending the night in a 15th-Century castle, every tapestry and wall ornament a gift from some king and with great historic significance.
Our host is Count Antoine deVogue, whose family can be traced to the 10th Century. He's pouring liqueurs and relating the history of La Verrerie, which was built by that Royal Scottish family, the Stuarts, on land given them by French King Charles VII for their help in fighting the British. It was bought by the DeVogue family in 1842.
DeVogue, and other chateau owners we were to meet over the next few days as we drove down the Route Jacques-Coeur in the lower portion of France's Loire Valley, seemed wryly aware that for Americans, at least, their castles are the stuff of fairy tales.
Forget the long, cold corridors and countless stairs; a castle is romantic. It's history. It's knights in armor and haunting ballads.
The Lived-in Variety
But the famous castles--such as Versailles, Fontainebleau or the ones typically associated with the Loire Valley, Blois and Chambord:
"They're just museums, big souvenirs of a king," said DeVogue, his back to a huge Gobelin tapestry that had been given to an uncle, a former ministry of the treasury, by a grateful king. "The private castles--the ones like ours which belong to private owners--these castles are lived in. They're not museums and I think they're a lot more interesting."
We weren't quite sure what to expect when we turned off Highway A10 toward Blois and the Loire Valley proper, heading down Road N20 at Gien for the castles of the Route Jacques-Coeur. (It was named for a 15th-Century robber baron whose fiefdom was this area.)
Truth was, we were just tired. Paris, only 90 minutes away, had seemed a hassle rather than a delight--too many people crowded into too many museums. We didn't quite know what we wanted, except that we wanted out.
As it turned out, staying at a chateau is a little like a house party. Guests--nicely dressed, blazers and ties for men and pretty dresses for women--gather in the evening for drinks, introductions all around, dinner, brandy, then to bed.
They may see each other again during their stay, but maybe not. Breakfast is served in individual rooms and, during the day, everyone is left to his own devices. Even dining with the count and countess is a matter of choice rather than part of the package.
The next morning we saw La-Verrerie. It's the same tour offered to other travelers who were wandering in even as we were wandering out, except that our guide was DeVogue, who clearly had stories to tell but wondered how much we really wanted to hear.
He was, after all, talking about his family as he wandered the downstairs public rooms with its letters, deeds and portraits, then outside and over to a 16th-Century chapel with a crooked tower. Inside, the chapel has marvelous paintings in fresco in fine, high color.
"When I was a child growing up here," DeVogue said, "I didn't see the frescoes. They were covered with a false ceiling and plaster. Then my father and grandfather decided to restore the chapel and all of us got involved.
"It had to be one of the most exciting things, poking away at the chips and discovering under that plaster the 12 apostles, the four evangelists and on the ceiling, the members of the Stuart family."
Goodbys are warm, effusive, friends leaving friends, promises to write, maps and advice for stops down the road. The bill always comes as a discreet afterthought: around $100 a night (breakfast included) plus $25 per person for dinner.
Once on the Route Jacques-Coeur, distances between landmark chateaux are short. The countryside is a placid quilt of vineyards, gnarled vines like skeletons picked clean during harvest a few weeks before, and stretches of green pasture on which the region's prized Charrolais cows graze. The only traffic is the occasional farmer on an old bicycle.
Our mood was as bucolic as the scenery. We lunched at Sancerre in a small wine bar on the square, then detoured a mile to look at Boucard, a small 14th-Century medieval-Renaissance castle hidden behind a hill like the prize in a Cracker Jack box.
From there, a brief stop to wander through Maupas, a village known for its pottery. By mid-afternoon we were in the village of Ainey, parking at the wall just outside the chateau of Ainey-le-Veill.
All those old movies with terrified peasants crowding into the castle courtyard for protection, rebellious soldiers trying to bulldoze their way over the drawbridge or climb the fortress walls only to be fought back with pots of boiling oil or a barrage of arrows--that's Ainey-le-Veill. It's both a castle and a fortress, and just about everybody who was anybody in French history has slept there.
This too was where Marie-France de Peyronnet, whose family has owned Ainey since 1467, grew up--racing with her four brothers and sisters through the corridors, playing in rooms closed to the public and, when they thought they could get away with it, throwing snow on stunned visitors.
Most Americans are openly puzzled that the owners of these chateaux would even consider opening their homes to the public.
Unhesitantly, the chateaux owners say it's a matter of fiscal reality.
"We needed to have something to help keep up the castle," DeVogue said. "If we open to the public, there's the advantage of taxes. If we keep it for ourselves, we only have to pay. So several things are accomplished. It's good for the tourists who like seeing the castles. It brings money into the castle and it's contributing to the increasing in the value of our local life."
Count Bernard de Jouffroy-Gonsans at Chateau de la Commanderie saw it as a natural evolution. "With the children out of the house," he said, refering to their three daughters at schools in Paris, "it's best to have people here. It's not good for the house to remain empty. Besides, we have many restorations to do to the castle. But it wouldn't be worth it if it were just for us."
La Commanderie, built in the 15th Century as a command post for the Knights Templar, is at the southernmost part of the Route Jacques-Coeur. It's virtually next door to Noirlac, a stunning, beautiful Cistercian abbey founded in 1150 by St. Bernard.
At La Commanderie my husband caved in to the cold bug that had been stalking him since we arrived in Europe. Lying on the four-poster bed in our warm cozy bedroom, he sneezed, sniffled and moaned a few times before I went in search of Mme. de Jouffroy-Gonsans to make his excuses for skipping dinner en famille. She was in the kitchen, preparing the house specialty, chicken tarragon. She was sympathetic. She had a cold herself.
Vision of Elegance
Her husband entered just at that moment. One of those tall, slim men who can look equally elegant in an ascot and blazer or cords and a worn sweater, the count actively farms La Commanderie and is well-known for his competition saddle horses.
"I think what your husband needs is perhaps a whiskey," he suggested.
By the time I returned to the room the whiskey had been delivered. By the count himself.
"He just knocked on the door, then came in," my husband said. "I didn't know who he was. Only after he handed me the drink and said 'cheers' did I realize he was the count. I thought these nobility types left everything like that to the servants."
Not any more they don't. At La Commanderie, which has four double bedrooms (six more are refurbished), Mme. Jouffroy-Gonsans has one full-time woman for help.
Nothing is impersonal. There's no way to compare a chateau to a hotel. "It's like having house guests," said Mme. DeVogue. "Do you do any less when friends stay over?"
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Chateaux on the Route Jacques-Coeur with guest accommodations:
La Verrerie: Countess A. deVogue, Oizon, 18700 Aubigny-sur-Nere, France. For more information, contact Beraud and Diane deVogue (Count Antoine's son and daughter-in-law), 1830 S. Mooney Blvd., Suite 113, Visalia, Calif. 93279, phone (800) 338-0483 or call collect at (209) 733-7119.
La Beauvriere: Countess de Brach, St. Hilaire de Court, 18100 Vierzon, France.
La Commanderie: Countess de Jouffroy-Gonsans, Farges-Allichamps, 18200 St. Amand, France.
Boussac: Marquise de Longueil, Target 03 140 Chantelle, France.
Chateaux prices range from $74 to $149 per room per night, including breakfast. Dinners are priced from $30 to $50 and include all you can eat and drink.
Additional information is available from the French Government Tourist Office, 9401 Wilshire Blvd., Suite 840, Beverly Hills, Calif. 90212, phone (213) 271-6665.