by Sarah Lucas 16th March 2009
The chateau B&B with its own Count and Countess
If I owned a chateau, I'd want one like Chateau de la Barre, set in 100 acres of parkland on the borders of France's Loir-et-Cher and Sarthe. As aristocratic and elegant as its owners, the Count and Countess de Vanssay, the pale-yellow chateau has a surprising family history involving royals and revolutionaries. That's not unexpected, given that it has been passed from father to son since 1404. Each owner has left their mark. Now it's a B&B, but not as we know it.
Guy, the current Count, is a writer and wine connoisseur and does the flowers. Marnie, the American-born Countess, a former model, psychologist and headhunter, reminded me of legendary beauty Catherine Deneuve. Guy corrected me. Marnie's looks were far superior.
Birdie songs: The Countess de Vanssay, owner of the Chateau De La Barre,
with her macaw Cacou
Together they run the 11-bedroom chateau at Conflans-sur-Anille on a bed-and-breakfast basis, but will occasionally serve a crystal-and-chandelier dinner. You can improve your French, learn the art of gold leafing or discover the local wine and cheeses during an evening in the vaulted cellars. Let the Countess know your requirements and she will efficiently fix things.
My daughter Flora and I came to stay for a weekend. After a courteous greeting from the Count and Countess, we were welcomed into the vestibule, with its 18th Century-inspired wall covering reflecting the days when gentlemen first travelled abroad and their discoveries appeared in sketches and on wallpaper - parrots, native peoples and superior-looking Western women.
An enormous vase, overflowing with creamy gladioli, solidago and flaming chrysanthemums from the chateau garden, dominated a circular table. Behind, an Italian sedan chair rested to one side of a double door, a very sturdy bird cage to the other. Inside, Cacou, a turquoise and yellow macaw, noisily demanded: 'Look at me!'
It has taken about four years to create a home that feels cosily British but uses an audacious French palette. The Chambre Marin, with canopied bed and bath the size of the Thames, is in blue and gold. All the furniture is period and closely linked to the Vanssay family history.
In the Grand Salon, we sat on chairs made for the wedding of the Marquis de Vanssay in 1784, shortly before the French Revolution. The seats look newly embroidered, with their fantastic mix of original pinks, ochres and mauves. His bride's childhood toys, from the French Indies of the 1770s, are on display in another room.
One of the wonderful things about driving in France is how empty the roads are, even in the height of summer. Quite a relief, as the Countess had arranged for us to go for a spin in a Maigret car. For the Clarksons of this world, that would be a 1956 Citroen Traction. This iconic brand had appealed to both the Germans and the French Resistance. Flora and I were very taken by the spacious interior and stylish, navy paintwork. Information on the dashboard was sensibly kept to a minimum: off/on, petrol, speed. The car will travel happily at just over 50mph, though, due to the absence of synchromesh gears, power-assisted steering and hydraulic brakes, I can't say I had my usual touch.
Fortunately Olivier, the owner, took over as chauffeur for a longer trip to the Chateau de Valmer, near Amboise, where the Countess had organised a ride in a hot-air balloon.
The only thing she hadn't been able to fix was the weather. So Countess Alix de Saint Venant, whose husband produces an extremely palatable Vouvray, showed us round Valmer's 400-year-old garden instead. We could only imagine what the rows of white salvia, planted for her daughter's wedding, and surrounding vineyards would have looked like from the air.
The gentle, unassuming landscape of the Loir valley (the Loir is a tributary of France's longest river, the Loire) is relatively undiscovered. True, you won't find the grand symbols of royal rule that line the Loire - Chambord and Chenonceaux being two of the greatest - but there are more modest chateaux and gardens that are equally pleasing, minus the crowds. We were overwhelmed by the scent of roses in the Renaissance gardens at La Possoniere, birthplace of Ronsard, France's revered 'prince of poets'.
Regal pleasures: Sarah Lucas soaks up the ambience at the chateau
Sasnieres lived up to its soubriquet 'The most English of the French Gardens'. A perfect lawn surrounded a spring-fed pond, and the walled garden offered an exuberant outpouring of favourites such as lavender, campanula and potentilla.
In 1516, King Francis I brought that great Renaissance genius Leonardo da Vinci to Amboise. He gave Leonardo the Chateau du Clos Luce and a pension, and asked little more of him than the pleasure of hearing him talk.
The house is bursting with invention. Leonardo's thoughts on ideal cities, the human body, painting and warfare are all there, in model form. It's a Renaissance theme park with Renaissance food. We enjoyed lemon-fattened pullet and potted pear and spice cake.
The Count and Countess de Vanssay managed to make us feel both like members of the aristocracy and their family. We had a candlelit dinner with them, in the grand Salle a Manger. The aristocracy part was the sheer size of the room and a table a mile long. And the family? Marnie and Guy cooked themselves. It was fantastic and formally informal. Crayfish, deep purple beef and chocolate mousse.
During dinner Guy disappeared, concerned about a couple who'd gone cycling and not yet come back. But they were all right. Later he and Marnie waited up for a party of music lovers who finally got in at 3am.
The de Vanssays were up, polite and immaculately turned out, for breakfast next day. 'It's so unusual,' observed Flora, 'and not a bit like a hotel.'
Take a pinch of easy English aristocracy, add French bombast, a vintage Citroen and stunning chateau and you have the perfect recipe for joie de vivre.