To the chateau

A cas­tle is the per­fect venue for a house party in France’s gor­geous Perig­ord, dis­cov­ers Lenore Nick­lin

The Weekend Australian - Travel - - Front Page -

WHAT hap­pened to the man who fell from the bridge at Bour­deilles? It is one of the pret­ti­est lit­tle bridges in the Dor­dogne, with bas­kets of gera­ni­ums hang­ing over its an­cient stone arches and ducks and duck­lings swim­ming be­low. The oc­ca­sional ca­noeist comes pad­dling down from nearby Bran­tome and a mighty chateau tow­ers above. Cru­saders passed this way hun­dreds of years ago and very prob­a­bly Richard the Lion­heart and the re­doubtable Eleanor of Aquitaine.

The man in the river landed on a tiny mid­stream is­land of grass and rock and the first per­son to reach him was the bar­maid from the ho­tel. Bar­maids are used to crises of one sort or an­other. She waded in, held his head above wa­ter and waved to some­one walk­ing across the bridge to ring for an am­bu­lance.

A mo­bile phone (the French call them porta­bles ) was pro­duced but it was an age be­fore four young men in navy blue uni­forms ar­rived. They walked straight into the river, picked him up (ter­ri­ble groans) and took him away. Who was he? A tourist? A lo­cal?

Travel is full of un­fin­ished sto­ries. Why is the lit­tle chapel in the chateau where I am stay­ing walled up on the out­side? The only way you could get to it is via the yet-to-bere­stored pre­car­i­ous me­dieval tower.

And who are the peo­ple in the large spooky por­trait at the top of the stair­case? Chateau de Buree is now owned by two English sis­ters whose cousin found it in a near-derelict state 14 years ago and be­gan its restora­tion. It is still a work in progress but ex­tremely live­able, with ad­di­tions such as bath­rooms, ten­nis court and swim­ming pool. It is half me­dieval and half 18th-cen­tury. The mas­ter bed­room boasts its own ver­sion of an en­suite, a free­stand­ing Vic­to­rian roll­top bath along one wall and, in the cor­ner, dis­creetly hid­den be­hind a screen, a loo. One of the first lessons of chateau liv­ing is that get­ting in and out of a large bath re­quires a de­gree of phys­i­cal fit­ness.

Ghosts? Things def­i­nitely go bump in the night but maybe it is just fel­low guests cop­ing with an­cient oiled floor­boards that dip alarm­ingly in places and creak quite tune­fully. Walk­ing on them gives the feel­ing of be­ing on a ship at sea. Or is that the Berg­erac wine? (Don’t pay twice the price for Bordeaux when Berg­erac can be equally splen­did.)

And where does the red deer come from? Remy, a lit­tle boy whose fa­ther is French and mother Aus­tralian, an­nounces one morn­ing he has seen a red kan­ga­roo. That is a real mys­tery. Sev­eral days af­ter Remy’s sight­ing I spot a young deer among the wal­nut trees. I scarcely breathe but sud­denly it is aware of my pres­ence and takes off across an open field, skit­tishly rear­ing its hind legs.

The chateau where Remy, his sis­ter Matilde and I and half a dozen other Aus­tralians are stay­ing is in Perig­ord Vert, part of the Dor­dogne in south­west France. Bordeaux is 11/ hours away.

There are four Perig­ords; the oth­ers are noir (black), blanc (white) and pou­ple (pur­ple). As its name prom­ises, Perig­ord Vert is very green and, with its rolling hills and farm­lands, is the pret­ti­est of all but less fre­quented by tourists.

This is the land of le petit fermier , where trac­tors are tiny and scythes still swish. Where the herds of cat­tle are num­bered in tens, not hun­dreds or thou­sands. Where farm­work­ers stop each day for lunch at routiers , those lo­cal bar-cafes that surely pro­vide the best diningout value in France. No menu, no non­sense.

We dis­cover our first routier by ac­ci­dent, at the end of a long walk. We are in search of a cold drink but no sooner have we sat down than, with­out a word be­ing spo­ken, a carafe of wine is placed on the ta­ble with a baguette and a large tureen of soup.

This is fol­lowed by a salad, roast pork, a cheese plate that trav­els from ta­ble to ta­ble, an­other carafe of wine, dessert, and cof­fee: all for j11 ($18) each.

If lit­tle vil­lages and an­cient churches dot the land­scape so, too, do chateaus.

Ev­ery vil­lage seems to have one; the guide­books claim Perig­ord boasts 1001 . . . does that 1 at the end in­di­cate a se­ri­ous count? Of course, a chateau can be any­thing from a crum­bling fort to a grand tur­reted es­tab­lish­ment rented by wealthy Amer­i­cans for thou­sands of dol­lars a week.

Some have be­come mu­se­ums, like the one at Mon­bazil­lac, which is also a vine­yard that pro­duces a fa­mous white wine. And some are still lived in by French aris­to­crats whose an­ces­tors kept their heads in 1789.

Hol­i­day in this part of France and you dis­cover the French no longer de­serve their rep­u­ta­tion for rude­ness. A re­cent pres­i­dent told them they all had to stop be­ing nasty to

tourists as the econ­omy de­pended on them. In coun­try­side France all is agre­able ; it is only those snooty Parisians that the lo­cals can’t abide. And if the English and the oc­ca­sional Aus­tralian are buy­ing houses, then so be it. It is good for the econ­omy and cer­tainly good for the lo­cal trades­men.

Some may­ors in­sist that no mat­ter how large a restora­tion, only lo­cal trades­men can be used. (And in rural France the mayor is a very pow­er­ful fel­low in­deed.)

At a cafe in Rib­erac, our chateau’s near­est small town, we over­hear a con­ver­sa­tion be­tween an English cou­ple and the lo­cal real es­tate agent. ‘‘ We don’t want to be near other English peo­ple,’’ they say. How­ever, for many of the English who have sold their houses and bought in France for half the price, the move has not al­ways been suc­cess­ful. Hun­dreds are re­turn­ing home. In Perig­ord few French speak English. A lo­cal doc­tor tells us it is of­ten frus­trat­ing that the English don’t have enough French to ex­plain what is the mat­ter with them. Home­sick­ness, per­haps?

At Chateau de Buree, where ev­ery­one is on hol­i­day, there are no such prob­lems. David, an af­fa­ble English­man who lives nearby and has over­seen the restora­tion of the chateau, keeps an eye on things and can be con­tacted should the wash­ing ma­chine mis­be­have (it doesn’t) or the swim­ming pool need clean­ing. Jean Jac­ques de­liv­ers wood and mows the lawns and Mar­tine comes to clean once a week. Suzanne changes bed linen on Fri­days.

The great­est trea­sure of all is Lucy, an English cor­don bleu cook mar­ried to a lo­cal artist who, given a day’s no­tice, will pre­pare meals.

‘‘ Help. We are nine to din­ner to­mor­row night,’’ we cry. Lucy sug­gests in­di­vid­ual cheese souf­fles fol­lowed by tar­ragon chicken and a wal­nut tart. (Perig­ord Vert is wal­nut, as well as foie gras, heaven.)

None of the lo­cal restau­rants bet­ters Lucy’s cook­ing. But booked to cater for a lo­cal wed­ding, the fa­ther of the bride says to her, ‘‘ Of course, you must have learned to cook in France.’’

On Lucy nights, we eat in the grand mar­ble-floored din­ing room where the oak ta­ble eas­ily seats 14. On other nights we sit around the kitchen ta­ble in front of the 17th-cen­tury fire­place. Just about ev­ery­one is in­spired to cook; vis­its to the Fri­day mar­ket at Rib­erac pro­vide most of the in­spi­ra­tion for the chateau meals: fruit and veg­eta­bles picked that morn­ing, eggs fresh from the nest, chick­ens that have free-ranged in the lovely coun­try­side, cheeses, herbs, wines, wal­nuts, foie gras.

And who could imag­ine so many va­ri­eties of straw­berry, all sweet and pink, with none of those hard white cen­tres that are our lot in Aus­tralia.

Each morn­ing some­one is dis­patched to the boulan­gerie in nearby Verteil­lac to pick up crois­sants and pain au choco­lat. (Note, in France this is a man’s job.) Af­ter break­fast there are vis­its to other vil­lages such as Tocane, Mon­ta­grier, Saint Jean de Cole, Non­tron (fa­mous for its knives) and Bran­tome, where Charle­magne founded the abbey, or to towns such as Perigueux, which has a Paris feel with all its smart fash­ion bou­tiques, and Berg­erac, where there is a small air­port.

But be warned: if the plane ar­rives early it also de­parts early. Two English friends miss their flight back to Lon­don and no amount of an­guished cries can per­suade the au­thor­i­ties to re­open the plane’s locked door. As the English will tell you, the French can be dif­fi­cile . (An­other warn­ing: ser­vice sta­tions are of­ten un­manned and the petrol pumps ac­cept only French credit cards.)

As the weeks pass, it be­comes harder and harder to leave the chateau. Some of us take to the li­brary to read, oth­ers dis­ap­pear in the 15ha of gar­den and or­chard with their paint­brushes and wa­ter­colours. There’s cro­quet and ten­nis and, when the weather re­ally heats up, ev­ery­one is off to the pool.

De­spite its grandeur, the chateau is never in­tim­i­dat­ing. Among the ac­com­mo­da­tion is a bunkroom for chil­dren (the chil­dren of the own­ers are reg­u­lar vis­i­tors) and, in the grounds, a small, two-bed­room cot­tage for guest over­flows. There is no television, no spa. There is peace and gen­tle bird­song and an over­whelm­ing sense of his­tory.

If we lis­ten very in­tently per­haps we’ll hear Richard the Lion­heart’s horses gal­lop­ing in the dis­tance. www.chateauxand­coun­try.com www.dor­dogne-perig­ord­tourisme.fr www.franceguide.com www.voy­ages-sncf.com

Pic­ture and wa­ter­colours: Lenore Nick­lin

Pic­ture: Lenore Nick­lin

Grand dame: Im­pos­ing Chateau de Buree near Bour­deilles

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