To the chateau
A castle is the perfect venue for a house party in France’s gorgeous Perigord, discovers Lenore Nicklin
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
Grand dame: Imposing Chateau de Buree near Bourdeilles