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Living with the French Aristocracy

by Walter Glaser

The castle was straight out of a fairytale. Set in large, forested grounds and with a sizeable lake coming almost to its foundations, it was everything I had imagined when, as a child, I would fantasize on how it would be to live like a king or a wealthy nobleman.

CastleAnd now I was in just such a castle – built in the Loire by the Scottish Royals and subsequently purchased by a titled French family in whose possession it remains to this day. Now those lucky enough to know about this fabulous property can stay in one of the twelve superbly comfortable and luxurious rooms at an amazingly reasonable cost. (Later, in Paris, we were told that upkeep and taxes of castles was now so high that many aristocratic families were devoting a handful of rooms in their castles for letting out to visitors, as this then made much of the maintenance of the castle tax-deductible.)

There are many places in the world that you are unlikely to find unless a local with ‘insider’ knowledge points you in the right direction, and so it had been with the Chateau La Verrerie located not far from Oizon in Aubigny-sur-Nere, close to Sancerre, famous for its excellent white wines. The chateau had been recommended by a friend who had given us an introduction to the owner, and as we drove into the huge property, we were delighted that he had done so.

ChateausThe property was originally built in the 15th century by The Stuarts and remained their French home and that of the Dukes of Richmond and Lennox for 400 years. The site was originally granted to the Scottish Royals when, during the 100-year war, the Scots joined the French to fight the English who were then in possession of half of France. A later owner was Louise de Penancoet de Keroualle, Duchess of Portsmouth and Aubigny who was also the mistress of Charles II, King of England – and a spy for Louis XIV of France. This lady -- an ancestor (ten generations back) of the late Lady Diana Spencer -- lived at La Verrerie for 50 years during which time she made many improvements to the property.

The count at homeIt now belongs to Count Beraud de Vogue, a charming French Aristocrat who, having worked in Canada for a while, speaks perfect English and treats his visitors like house guests. His ancestors include the last French President of the Suez Canal Company, the French Ambassador to Russia, and the daughter of the founder of France’s Bank Lyonnaise.

To arrive at the castle we first drove through a small deciduous forest which, in earlier times, was ideal for deer-hunting. Today the deer lead a less threatened life, but the forest still has a fairytale air about it. I kept thinking that it would not surprise me if some medieval prince or princess stepped out from behind one of the trees.

Once we had passed the surrounding forest we came to a clearing, and here the fairytale-image was further enhanced. In front of us was a meadow leading to a lake, reflected in this stood the castle of my dreams – turrets, towers, pointed roofs, all beautifully replicated in the water. It could have been straight out of a children’s picture-book.

Chapel and porticoDriving through an arched portico we came to the courtyard where, several times a year, the Count arranges for classical concerts. But now he was waiting to welcome us (we had phoned ahead) and soon we were being shown to our luxurious ‘quarters’.

The twelve elegant guest rooms are furnished with antiques, tapestry, portraits, and sculptures from the 16th to 18th centuries, but have superbly appointed bathrooms any five-star hotel would be proud of. From our window we looked down on the large lake and across to the forest. What a marvellous base from which to explore the famous castles of the Loire – Chambord, Blois, Azay-le-Rideau, Amboise, Chenonceau and many more.

Having settled in, the Count offered to take us on a tour of his private rooms in the castle, and this was an ooh-aah experience indeed, because the many rooms in his family wing were filled with museum-quality artifacts that were historic treasures owned by the Count’s family. One room was dedicated to the Stuarts and contained the royal sporrans (the decorated ‘purses’ that hang in front of a kilt and act as pockets), dirks (Scottish daggers), pistols, and other items brought from Scotland. 

Another room was filled with nursery items – cradles, rocking-horses, dolls houses and dolls – and all the things that children in centuries past played with. Then came the library with floor-to-ceiling books that belonged to the Count’s ancestors, guarded-over by an aristocratic suit-of-armor. The billiard room, like all the others, had wonderful beamed ceilings and featured portraits of earlier ancestors as well as priceless antique furniture, chandeliers and bronzes.

Passage-ways were flanked with antlers of deer that had been hunted in the nearby forest generations ago, while in the large formal dining room, decorated with superb tapestries, portraits and fine French furniture, the table was set with silver candelabra, white tablecloths and fine china and silverware. Visitors can organise private banquets in this dining room by prior arrangement, but for today’s guests, meals are less formal, yet just as delightful.

Dining roomNext morning, a breakfast of croissants and homemade jams was served in our room, making us feel like real royalty. Dinner was at the castle’s restaurant, located in a nearby cottage on the grounds. Here gourmet meals can be enjoyed in a relaxed atmosphere. On one evening we were joined by the Count himself, who told fascinating tales of his ancestors as well as of his experiences in Canada.

And there were lots of other things to do also. We could have gone horse-riding, practiced archery on the lawns, fished in the private lake, picnicked on its shores, gone wine-tasting in nearby Sancerre, or meditated in the castle’s private chapel. Whatever you do, a stay in this unique chateau will add an extra – unforgettable -- dimension to your trip to France.

For more information and bookings, go to
http://www.ila-chateau.com/verrerie/index.htm

Chateau de La Verrerie
Oizon
18700 Aubigny-sur-Nere
FRANCE

Railroad Station: Gien et Vierzon (35 km) Airport: Orly (150 km)

AN INSIDER’S TIP FOR THE BEST TIME TO GO – May to October. I tend to avoid July/August which is peak season in the Loire, with wall-to-wall tourists and end-to-end lines of tourist buses.

AN INSIDER’S TIP FOR TRANSPORTATION – when in France, we use the fantastic system set-up by (Renault-Citroen) where we can get a brand-new car for three weeks or more at incredibly low rates.

AN INSIDER’S TIP FOR FINDING GREAT PLACES TO STAY – A fascinating group of remarkable and often unusual places to stay is ILA, an independent network of excellent, top-quality accommodation. Check it out at www.ila-chateau.com

CASTLES OF THE LOIRE – Our suggestion is to stay at La Verrerie for a week if you can spare the time and explore the most beautiful castles in Europe, all of which are within easy day-drive distance. Some of these are – Chambord, a breathtaking hunting castle built by King Francois I; Clos Luce in Amboise, nearby, where Leonardo da Vinci lived as the King’s artist and architect in his later years; Blois, used as the royal seat between 1498 and 1595 when this area was the capital of the Kingdom of France; Chenonceau, presented to Diane de Poitiers by Henry II, and constructed as a ‘castle-bridge’ that spanned the River Cher. During WWII, it was right on the border between German-occupied France and Vichy France; Azay le Rideau, an architectural jewel; and Villandry, which has arguably the most beautiful medieval formal gardens in France. 

And, whatever you do, don’t miss the Abbaye de Fontevraud, in my opinion the most interesting – and important – medieval abbey in France. I had always thought of Richard the Lion-heart as an English king, and it came as a shock to me to find that he was French, and is buried here, along with other giants of European history like Eleanor of Aquitaine, Henry II of England and Isabelle d'Angoulême who, tiring of her husband, King John, fed him a dose of poison in the popular manner of the day.



Note: This information was accurate when it was published. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the businesses in question before making your plans.

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