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Destination: France : Spend the Night at My Chateau : Getting the Aristocratic Treatment at Country Homes Where the China Is Fine and So Is the Food

<i> Woeber is a free-lance writer based in Tiberon</i>

Lightly dusted with fertilizer, Prince Louis Albert de Broglie stood in the garden, hurriedly wiping his hand on his trousers before shaking my hand in welcome. He apologized for his appearance--he’d been moving sacks of fertilizer for use in the potager, the walled kitchen garden. I’d just arrived to stay in his home--the elegant Chateau de la Bourdaisiere in the Loire Valley--as a paying guest.

After he’d washed up and changed, we met for drinks in the salon: a sumptuous living room with deep red walls and 8th-Century furniture. Even Versailles builder Louis XIV, lover of luxury, would have been at home. The prince fixed Kir royales--Champagne tinted with creme de cassis --while he chatted about the history of the chateau, which was built in three phases during the 14th, 16th and 19th Centuries.

For the record:

12:00 AM, Aug. 14, 1994 For the Record
Los Angeles Times Sunday August 14, 1994 Home Edition Travel Part L Page 4 Column 6 Travel Desk 1 inches; 21 words Type of Material: Correction
Spelling error--Due to an editing error, the town of Tiburon, Calif., was misspelled in the Aug. 7 Travel section story “Spend the Night at My Chateau.”

He also told intriguing tales of his family. Among them, stories about three women ancestors, true femmes fatales, who owned Bourdaisiere during the 16th Century.

“Marie Gaudin was mistress of Francois I, who rebuilt and expanded the chateau for her in 1520,” de Broglie said in excellent English. “She was also the mistress of Pope Clement VII and Charles V. Her daughter, Jeanne, was the favorite of Henry II. And Marie’s granddaughter, Gabrielle d’Estrees, was the mistress of Henry III and Henry IV (both of France).”

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For Americans, one of the appeals of staying in a real French chateau is that they are steeped in aristocratic history; the current chateau owners are often descendants of the the rich, the famous, the powerful. I have found this to be true in many of the three dozen or so chateaux I have stayed in over the past eight years, both for pleasure and in order to research a book I hope to someday write on the subject. In addition to being lovely experiences, my stays have taught me much about French history and culture; while offering ample opportunity for relaxation and fun, they have also provided a personal view of France through the eyes of the people who live here.

De Broglie and his older brother, Philippe Maurice, bachelors in their early 30s, say they are committed to preserving their home, which has been named to France’s Monuments Historiques, a government classification for buildings deemed important to France’s national heritage.

“We want to keep what we’ve been given and preserve it for the next generation,” Louis Albert said. That’s why a few years ago they began opening their home to overnight guests. Visitors provide the income to maintain (about $14,000 a year for electricity alone, the owners say) and to improve the 600-year-old chateau. This includes renovations of bedrooms and bathrooms (the chateau has 12 bedrooms set aside for guests).

The room I stayed in was decorated with antiques and had a large and recently remodeled bathroom. Green flowery fabric covered the walls, the windows and the decorative canopy over the bed. Like many other chateaux, Bourdaisiere also has a swimming pool, tennis courts and horseback riding. Only breakfast is served here, however, so visitors need to drive to the nearby town of Tours for meals. In and of itself, this is a pleasure, since Tours is rich in history and fine restaurants.

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Since the chateau requires constant attention, the brothers, once professionals working in Paris, (Louis Albert a banker and Philippe Maurice a stockbroker, they told me) resigned their positions to take on the chateau’s well being. They are, consequently, a little broke.

That’s where the guests come in, paying about $150 a night for two to stay in their home.

Just before dusk, Philippe Maurice invited me to look around the property. A stone gate led to a road that ran deep into a peaceful forest. The only sounds were squirrels scurrying among the leaves, and cuckoos calling. It felt as if we were worlds away from modern life, yet we were only about eight miles east of Tours.

While this was not the first chateau I had visited, it was like most of the others in its casual, country-home ambience. If it is warm during the day, guests wear shorts or jeans; for dinner women wear dresses or slacks; men, jackets.

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The downside is that some chateaux don’t have telephones in the guest rooms, and room service is not available. Guests can come and go as they please, but perhaps it is only natural that chateau owners seem interested in who is staying in their homes.

Most of my stays I have booked through La Vie de Chateau, an association of private chateaux that are open to the public (they also list properties in England, Scotland, Ireland, Italy, Portugal and Greece). In France, the association represents more than 60 chateaux, of which Bourdaisiere is one. The booking service costs about $40 per room when reservations are made from the United States via an 800 number.

In the spring of 1993, I stayed at Bourdaisiere for four nights (I recommend at least two to provide time for exploration) and enjoyed days of reading, taking walks and driving through the Loire Valley, so rich with flowers and vineyards. My large upstairs bedroom was named for Gabrielle and, looking out the window, I wondered if she ever had time to enjoy the view of the velvety smooth lawn and magnificent centuries-old trees.

When it was time for me to leave, I took my leased Renault on quiet country roads, cutting away from the autoroutes on my way west to stay at other chateaux. During the weeks of touring, I stayed in several other memorable places.

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At Chateau de Saint-Paterne near Alencon, Normandy, I slept in the Henry IV room. The ceiling, painted in the 16th Century, was marked with the seal of Henry IV, who visited Diane de Courtemanche, one of his mistresses and the owner of the chateau.

Every evening of my six-night stay, Charles Henry de Valbray, the 28-year-old aristocratic owner, personally prepared dinner: delicious dishes such as fresh poached salmon, lobster souffle, roast lamb and vegetables from his garden. This we dined on--one night two couples from London, the second a couple from Paris and me--with Sevres porcelain, silver and crystal.

One sunny afternoon, I relaxed in a deck chair on Saint-Paterne’s lawn--an expanse of grass leading to a 28-acre oak forest that’s also part of the property. I thought, how wonderful these chateaux are with their ancient stones, witnesses to centuries of history and romance, and their towers remnants of medieval pasts.

At Chateau de Canisy in Normandy--about 90 miles west of Rouen--I spent a blissful night in what was originally a medieval castle that was enlarged and remodeled in the 16th Century. The sitting rooms and 20 bedrooms are absolutely wonderful; its round music salon is a gem.

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Canisy’s sitting room is furnished with impressive antique wooden furniture. My bedroom was light and airy with patterned fabrics on the walls and bedcovers and a modernized connecting bathroom.

The chateaus huge dining room contains imposing furniture and two magnificent hunting scenes--one depicting a leopard cornered by snarling dogs with barred teeth; the other a female lion being hunted. During dinner I asked the owner, Count Denis de Kergorlay, to tell me about life in the chateau.

“About 10 years ago, while I was a diplomat living in Thailand, my father died and my oldest brother informed me that he’d decided to enter a monastery. He asked me to take the chateau, so I came home.”

De Kergorlay redecorated most of the rooms and added modern baths. Three years ago, he and his wife begin entertaining paying guests.

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The most impressive and formal of the chateaux I stayed in on this trip, I thought de Canisy a perfect retreat for adults. Because of its size and grandeur, the owners are looking for groups--both business people and tourists--although they do accept couples.

The next morning, as I photographed the count, I looked at the chateau from the lake side (actually, the back yard). I tried to locate the windows of my bedroom, but there were so many windows in the huge building that I couldn’t be sure which room I’d slept in.

A few days later in Brittany, I stayed at the Chateau de Bourbansais--a historic property owned by the de Lorgeril family since 1583, and now run by Count Olivier de Lorgeril, another bachelor. The magnificent building has mansard roofs, towers and the remains of a dry moat. Upstairs, two rooms, elegantly furnished with antiques, are reserved for paying guests. During the day, the downstairs is open for guided tours to view antiques and collections of memorabilia associated with the history of the family.

In Picardie, about a two-hour drive north of Paris, I stayed at Chateau de Remaisnil--a property that once belonged to Laura Ashley, the famous British decorator and designer. She redecorated the 18th-Century rococo chateau with exquisite 18th-Century furniture and tapestries.

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I stayed for two nights in one of Remaisnil’s 20 lavishly decorated rooms. The current owners, Susan and Adrian Doull, who bought the property about three years ago, serve outstanding French cuisine and dined with me and other visitors in the elegant, neoclassical grand salon, beneath the flickering candles of an ornate glass-and-brass chandelier.

For me, the Remaisnil stay was woven with many charms shared by other chateaux in which I have stayed. One of them is the rare opportunity to see museum-quality art and furniture in context--in settings for which they were created. Yet the chateaux are comfortable--not impersonal galleries with guards watching closely to make sure nothing is touched. Staying in a chateaux is also a little like being a house guest in another era. And perhaps that--combined with a brush so close to royalty--is what makes it special.

GUIDEBOOK: Chateaux Charms

Getting there: From LAX fly nonstop to Paris on Air France, United and TWA; with one change of planes on American, British Air, KLM, Delta, Continental, Northwest, USAir, Lufthansa. Round-trip fares start at about $990.

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Where to stay: Reserve summer visits several months in advance. Some chateaux have conference facilities and welcome business, weddings and other groups. English is spoken. Most are open all year. Chateaux activities include bicycling, golf, ballooning, hunting, swimming and tennis.

Dinner is served at most chateaux and begins at about $50 per person and usually includes four courses, aperitifs and excellent wines. Breakfast of coffee or tea and bread or croissants is always served.

Chateau de la Bourdaisiere, rue de la Bourdaisiere, 37270 Montlouis-sur-Loire, Loire Valley; rooms average about $150 a night for two; no dinner served; from the U.S. telephone, 011-33-47-45-1631, fax 011-33-47-45-0911.

Chateau de Saint-Paterne, 72610 Saint-Paterne; about $150 for two; tel. 011-33-33-27-5471, fax 011-33-33-29-1671.

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Chateau de Canisy, 50750 Canisy, Normandy; about $170 to $230 for two; prefer adult business and tourist groups, although individuals are accepted; tel. 011-33-33-56-6106, fax 011-33-33-55-9275.

Chateau de Bourbansais, 35720 Pleugueneuc, Brittany; about $150 for two; tel. 011-33-99-69-4007, fax 011-33-99-69-4604.

Chateau de Remaisnil, 80600 Doullens, Picardie; about $150 for two; tel. 011-33-22-77-0747, fax 011-33-22-32-4327.

For more information: La Vie de Chateau: Chateau de Verrerie, Oizon, 18700 Aubigny Sur Nere; tel. 011-33-48-58-4400, fax 011-33-48-58-4401; or in the U.S. call (800) 323-5463; (708) 251-4110; $40 per room reserved. (Ask to find out if children are welcomed at a particular chateau.)

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In Quest of the Classics, P.O. Box 890745, Temecula 92589-0745; $25 per room reserved; tel. (800) 227-1393, fax (909) 694-5873.

French Government Tourist Office, 9454 Wilshire Blvd., Suite 715, Beverly Hills 90212, (900) 990-0040 (calls cost 50 per minute).


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