Exhilarating ancient régimes en France

Fine chateaus, abbeys, vineyards and tapestries put Catherine Cleary under their spell

Chateau de Brissac in the Loire valley

Chateau de Brissac in the Loire valley

 

It’s good to know that France’s tallest chateau is home to France’s luckiest dog. He turned up three years ago barking at the gate of the seven-storey Chateau de Brissac in the Loire valley on the day of their 19th Christmas bazaar. He became part of the household and was named Dixneuf (19) to remember the day of his arrival, according to the chateau’s owner the Marquis Charles-André de Cossé-Brissac.

Not every one gets shown around by the marquis, a tall, bespectacled French man. But you get the impression he enjoys it. I’m on a press tour of the Anjou region, the slate-and-limestone stretch of the Loire valley between the city of Angers and the town of Saumur. It is a lush, quiet part of France crammed with chateaus, gardens, vineyards and underground caves made when the limestone to build the chateaus and cathedrals was excavated from under the soil.

In the Chateau de Brissac, the walls of the dining room bristle with antlers. A huge painting shows another vanished chateau outside Paris that was once in the family. The peripherique motorway now “runs through the dining room”. The 18th-generation marquis took over 28 years ago from his parents, married a Viennese ballet dancer (“I threw 200 red roses on to the stage,” he riffs) and they had four children. Along with Dixneuf the dog, they live in the chateau set in a 200-acre park complete with mausoleum, stables, vineyard and even its own opera house.

This was built by his great, great grandmother Jeanne Say because as a duchess she wasn’t permitted to sing in public. The lavish, red-velvet room which now has a baby grand on stage fell into disuse after she died in 1916 but was refurbished in the 1980s. “My own children used it a lot,” he says.

They have two B&B rooms which are mostly booked by Americans who get a kick out of bedding down for a night in a lived-in castle. “When we have people to stay we make sure there are no ghosts and more heating.”

Over at the 900-year-old monastic city at Fontevraud, the Monty Python team seems to have time-travelled there and painted a foot sprouting out of the back of a nun in the chapterhouse murals. Women ruled this place for hundreds of years, our guide explains. The first abbess was appointed by Breton priest Robert D’Arbrissel who founded the abbey in the 12th century.

The 35 abbesses who followed in her footsteps had the status of bishops so had their portraits added on top of murals in the chapterhouse, in surreal pop-up-nun style. Elsewhere there’s a gilt-framed portrait of another abbess who is the spit of David Cameron – in a wimple.

A short stroll from the abbey is a hotel developed by the regional government as a cultural centre. Instead of velvet swags and pomp, they went for contemporary minimalism. The white-stone place is decked out with hand-made oak tables, screens to turn TVs into flickering artworks and quilted room dividers for cosiness.

The former chapel is now an iBar where the table is a tablet on which you can play a Pacman-style prison escape game, order your lunch or explore a 3D map of the place dragging a timeline across to map the changes.

Hotel chef Thibaut Ruggeri has two hectares of organic vegetables to choose from, and honey from Fontevraud’s 10 beehives. “In France we have lots of heritage,” our guide Olivier Chable explains. “But it’s difficult to live an experience in it. When you stay here you have the monastery and all its 13 hectares to yourself at night.”

A hotel that’s a cultural project shouldn’t work. This does, beautifully.

Wine is a big part of tourism in this part of the Loire. We climb a steep over-road bridge to one of Evelyne de Pontbriand’s Domaine du Closel vineyards above the village of Savennieres. The vineyard now has a mix of beans and 13 other plants growing in it. The cereals and beans will fix nitrogen in the soil and prepare it for new vines. “That way we keep the soil alive.”

Evelyne’s 87-year-old mother was the vineyard owner before her. Like 80 per cent of the 36 winemakers in the region, they grow grapes organically. She grows 15 hectares of wine, most of it chenin blanc and the rest cabernet franc.

Chefs love these wines, she explains, because they have a flinty bitterness in the back of them, a flavour that has disappeared from foods. “Even grapefruit are not bitter any more.”

Her Chateau des Vaults estate includes a pond made from a spur of the Loire. Some of the trees beside the lake were planted to shelter the horses pulling the carts of wine barrels, she tells us just before a small flock of geese gets uppity about having their pictures taken.

Anjou is steeped in history, much of it linked to British kings of the Plantagenet dynasty, but none of it more ancient than its newest theme park. Terra Botanica opened six years ago, turning the old airstrip into a 27-acre park complete with rides, a huge hot air balloon and four “extreme climate” greenhouses. Visitors take in a history of the world written in plants starting roughly 350 million years ago in the carboniferous period when the atmosphere was so oxygen rich that dragonflies grew to the size of large dogs.

“These ferns are probably my favourite plant,” our guide Boris says, pointing to a very ordinary forest fern that sits under the giant fibreglass dragonfly with buzzing sound effects. “They’re probably the oldest tree-shaped plant we still have on Earth.” Then there are the gingko trees, which are up to 100 million years old. The DNA of the oldest trees shows no sign of degeneration compared to the youngest trees, Boris explains. “We don’t know how it dies. Naturally it’s probably immortal.”

Actors roam the park dressed in velvet frock coats with top hats and goggles popping out of the undergrowth occasionally. One of them is dressed in a convincing T-rex suit complete with large dog tag and he bobs his huge head to be petted by admirers. “Look, look he’s very very gentle,” the human park actors reassure the slightly terrified toddlers.

In a walking tour of Angers (the city has 10km of pedestrianised streets), we hear how the local authority gives new arrivals to the city a free bike for a year. The 14th-century Tapestry of the Apocalypse is the city’s biggest tourist draw. It’s housed in a specially built gallery in the grounds of the city’s fortress and stretches 240ft down a long room and around the corner to another long gallery.

This apocalypse is heralded by only three horsemen. One was lost when the tapestry fell out of fashion and was used for horse blankets and painting sheets until a priest found a piece in the 19th century and reassembled it, our guide, Dolores, explains.

Across the river in Angers hangs the tapestry of 20th-century artist Jean Lurcat, whose 50th anniversary is being celebrated this year, at the Hôpital Saint-Jean. Belfast artist Claire Morgan will work as an artist in residence there this summer to reinterpret the Apocalypse for a new audience.

Our last morning is spent walking the hilly town of Saumur with Annie, an older guide who rocks a distinct look of leather trousers, poncho and a trilby. Annie points to an unassuming clothes shop on Rue Saint Jean. It was, she says, the birthplace of Coco Chanel, but is deemed too humble to be marked with a plaque by the Chanel dynasty.

Saumur was the country’s first Protestant city and is looked down on by a 13th-century castle, part of the ramparts of which collapsed in 2001. Then they discovered the town’s cathedral had a void where its foundations should be as it was built on stilts over a Loire lake. Engineers have pumped concrete in to form foundations. “Stronger after the fall” reads the Latin inscription on the front. It is, we presume, a reference to the religious wars in this fascinating region of France rather than its own subterranean failings.

Catherine Cleary travelled to France as a guest of British Airways and the local tourist agencies

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