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NATHALIE'S HOLIDAY PORTRAIT *

Loire Châteaux
A discovery trip through France


Now I am going to take you on a gourmet trip through France . To start with, I want to show you a delightful region that has been popular with French artistocrats for many hundreds of years. It is easy to reach it by plane or car, so come and follow me to the most beautiful chateaux on the Loire .

The Loire Valley, in the centre of France , is famous for its inimitable castles. Kings, ministers and ladies-in-waiting have had their magnificent chateaux built here since the Middle Ages, charmed by the attractive country setting and the mild, sunny climate. Today, visitors come from all over the world to follow in the footsteps of the French monarchy. To start with, treat yourself to a trip in a hot-air balloon through the enchanting Loire Valley - it's the most exclusive way to view the majestic country residences from the outside. The bird's eye view is well worth it. About 120 chateaux and innumerable manor houses enhance the beauty of this charming valley. And proudly winding its way through the middle is the Loire , at over 1000-kilometres, the longest of France 's rivers!

An absolute must is a visit to the splendid Renaissance gardens of Chateau Villandry which date from the 16th century. In the so-called “garden of love”, four square flowerbeds symbolise the different kinds of love: tender, passionate, tragic and fickle... Monks once used to grow special vegetables here. However, because they did not want to upset the aesthetic feelings of the castle owners, they planted 260 rose bushes in-between. Consequently, in tim e these vegetable patches grew into a kind of ornamental garden with romantic pathways that visitors to Villandry still to wander along today.

Just a few kilometres away, in a small wood, we discover a genuine fairy-tale castle. Yes, you can take that literally. The French regard the romantic 15th century Usse Residence as the original home of Sleeping Beauty. Most of the rooms in Chateau Ussé are open to the public. The east wing though is inhabited and strictly private. The owner, the Count Casimir de Blacas, a Parisian lawyer lives here with his family and it is in his private chambers that he receives me and my TV-team. His office is his private library and contains comprehensive literature on this historic chateau, which was built on the foundations of a medieval castle in 1523.

Count Casimir de Blacas:
The castle has a long history and because the building has been modified by its various owners over the centuries it is particularly interesting. The oldest wing dates from the 12th/13th centuries; the last changes were made in the 19th century. During Louis XIV's reign in the 17th century, this chateau made such an impression on the storyteller, Charles Peraut, that is was here that he wrote his fairytale, Sleeping Beauty. That is why Ussé is known as the Sleeping Beauty castle.

The wax figures dotted around the castle remind the visitor of the fairytale's gentle heroine. Like children again, we wander through the ancient royal chambers. In a regally furnished salon, we stumble on an illustrious gathering, clothed in finest silk, taffeta and lace. They are awaiting the arrival of His Majesty, King Louis XIV, who always reserved the best rooms in this castle during his reign. Despite the glamour and the prestige, being a castle owner is not always a bed of roses. Casimir de Blacas, however, knows how to handle it.

Count Casimir de Blacas:
The upkeep if a chateau costs an awful lot of money these days - repairs are necessary all the tim e. You, therefore, need a large staff and considerable funds. Either you have your own means - which is unfortunately not my case - or you open your home to the tourists. To a certain extent, each tourist finances another brick for this chateau.  

Chateau Ussé looks almost like a fortress surrounded by magnificent gardens. It was here that the talented horsewoman, Diane de Poitiers, mistress to King Henry II of France , used to enjoy hunting with the king.

Count Casimir de Blacas:
Chateau Ussé has not been owned by my family for that long. A great-aunt of mine, the Countess de la Rochaquelin died childless and left the chateau to my great-grandfather. Since then Usse has been in our family. I was here a lot as a child, because I grew up in part at my grandparents. Usse has always been my home and that is why I left a lot the way I remember it. Today, the former private chambers are open to the public, but one can still easily see that this chateau has always been lived in. There is nothing here that makes one think of a museum; Ussé is our ancestral home - incidentally one of the few ancestral homes in the Loire Valley .

Chateau Ussé is a treasure-trove of antiques. A bust of Louis XIV sits in state in the gallery. Priceless Flemish wall tapestries dating from the 18th century as well as paintings by Martin de Bataille hang over the staircase, which is ornamented with beautiful wrought-iron banisters dating from the 17th century. In the anteroom of what used to be the royal chambers, we discover an absolutely gorgeous Italian secretaire dating from the 16th century with 49 drawers and secret compartments - generously embellished with mother-of-pearl and ivory.

One of the most fascinating things about the Loire Valley is that you can experience the past at first-hand yet still happily enjoy the present. Tour is the capital of the Loire region, an archiepiscopal seat and a university town all rolled into one. Business began to boom here in the middle of the 17th century when Louis XI introduced silk and textile production. Today, the romantic little town is the business and trading centre of western France , especially for wine and agricultural products from the fertile Loire Valley .

Haven't you ever wished you could slip into an aristocratic role or be a castle owner just once in your life? In Chateau de la Bourdaisière these dreams can be realised. At this idyllic location, culture seekers and music lovers will soon find people on the same wave-length. The castle concert is not on our programme until the evening, which leaves us plenty of tim e to find out about the chateau itself. Francis I had the chateau built for his mistress in 1520. Today - like Ussé - it is privately owned, but the owner, a French entrepreneur, is prepared to open his gates to interested visitors. And if you like, you can - as in the majority of the chateaux - dine and stay here like a king.

You'll have a good night's sleep in the Gabrielle d'Estree Chamber or would you prefer to stay in the Catherine de Medicis Suite? Regardless of which room you opt for, you should take the time to walk through the castle courtyard, because on some summer evenings, the castle “landlord” invites guests to classical concerts.

Naturally, we also want to meet a lady of the castle on our discovery trip along the Loire. We meet her in the sleepy Chateau des Reaux. It is exactly as one would imagine a fairy-tale castle - with little turrets, a moat and an Alice-in-Wonderland garden. Within sits the good fairy, Madame Florence de Bouille, a particularly charming hostess, who likes to serve her own guests personally if she can.

Statement Madame de Bouille
I like sharing things. So why shouldn't I open my castles gates to guests who know how to appreciate the architecture and French hospitality. I enjoy being able to receive guests in my drawing room. It always bothered me imagining what it must be like for the tourists who spend the whole day visiting the Loire castles and then have to go to a hotel in the evening. How nice instead to be able to stay overnight in a chateau, to have dinner there and to wake up in splendid surroundings the following morning. That's what makes a castle tour into a real experience.

You can also stay in one of the 11 individually furnished suites with a view of the enchanting inner courtyard and the old arched corridors. Prices start at 180 dollars. Chateau des Reaux has a certain Italian flair and “dolce via” is certainly not out of place here. It is difficult to pull ourselves away, but there are many other lovely sights just waiting to be discovered on our tour through the charming Loire Valley . This region is like heaven on earth.

So much has been written about the excellence of Loire wines that one should really put theory into practice and taste a few: Sancerre, Vouvray or Chinon. There are possiblities galore to sample the fine regional products - either at the large co- operatives or at a small, private vineyard. We stop off at Countess Michel de Loisy's property. She is a specialist in Loire and Burgundy wines. The wine domain dates from the 17th century and has been owned by the de Loisy family for some 300 years.

Statement Countess Michel de Loisy
I have always though that foreign visitors would probably like to come into a typical French house to see how we live here. If I am honest, I actually want to interest my guests in everything that I like. I would like them to experience our way of life here, the unique French lifestyle that it particularly true of this region.... with its good wine, excellent cuisine, architecture and art in general.....  

All my guests are my friends explains the Countess and invites me and my TV-team to dine at her magnificent manor house. Dinner naturally included some wine-tasting and then a walk through the wine cellar and the family's own vineyard. God bless this fertile soil which brings forth such bountiful gifts.... In similar vein, another gift well worth recommending is Jean Bardet's gourmet palace in Tours .

It is here that the international award-winning chef, Jean Bardet, has created a paradise for connoisseurs - a paradise with its own herb garden, where the chef actually picks the ingredients for his light, healthy dishes himself. We recommend the degustation menu which starts with either “pigeon on a caramelised bed of herbs” or “crayfish wrapped in green cabbage”. Or what about a “turbot on pumpkin blossoms and steamed vegetables”, followed by “(warm) goose liver, a filet of veal with black truffles” or “lobster on a colourful dish of vegetables Jean Bardet”.

I can never resist a real French Creme Brulée and I also succumb to the Grand dessert fascination - perhaps one day you will also be able to enjoy the gourmet dishes served in this oasis of pleasure. In Jean Bardet's white villa, it is not only the dining facilities that are excellent. Five stylish apartments are at your disposal, surrounded by a large romantic park. Jean Bardet's restaurant is a real gourmet delight. Detailed information is available in the leading restaurant guides (such as the Michelin or Gault Milaut), all of which put Bardet's excellent cuisine at the top of the list for the entire Loire region.

The highlight of our trip is a visit to Chateau Chenonceaux - the ladies cast. In 1547 Henry II gave this gorgeous chateau to his beautiful mistress Diane de Poitiers. In Diane, the king found a merry, amusing contrast to his wife, Catherine de Medici - a cold, despotic woman. After King Henry's death, Catherine had her hated rival forcibly removed from the castle. From then on, Catherine celebrated her triumph with elaborate pageants that proved highly popular with the court society.

It would take ages to recount all the happy and tragic tales connected with the rulers of France and the inhabitants of the magnificent Loire castles. Take a wander back in time yourself and spend a holiday breathing in some of this region's impressive history.

French Tourist Office / Loire

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* This special feature "Loire Châteaux" has been one of more than 300 Portraits, produced by Nathalie Gütermann for her TV-Shows 'Nathalie's Lifestyle' and 'Nathalie's Art of Living' that were broadcasted between 1990 - 2003 in Germany and in 15 countries world-wide. The content has been updated with actual information in 2004 for Nathalies-Lifestyle.com © 1990 - 2004. The reproduction or other use of any text, photographs, layout etc. needs the prior written permission of the Chief Publisher.


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