We stayed at the Château de la Ferté Beauharnais, in the Blue Tower Room. Apart from the novelty of being round, it boasted a four-poster bed with beautiful linen and a mohair blanket. Elsewhere were pieces of period furniture, riding boots and some elegant hats. I wondered whose feet had trodden the oak boards and who had gazed out of the shuttered windows.
While our host, Daniel, was phoning a restaurant for us, my husband, Tony, discovered there were no bath towels (they arrived later). We then learned the restaurant was closed (vacation) and there was no key to the room (not even a key-hole).
We went in search of food. The nearest town claimed it was the home of the ‘véritable tarte tatin’, my husband’s favourite dessert. We found a lively restaurant and at dessert time, the waitress rattled off a list.
‘Is there no tarte tatin?’
Maybe Josephine suffered the same dismay at her wishes being frustrated.
The next morning, the breakfast table was laid with fine china and elegant cutlery. We avoided toast as the smell of burning was strong. I asked about the house and Daniel settled himself down beside us.
It had indeed belonged to the Beauharnais family, Josephine living there in her pre-Napoleonic days with her husband, Alexandre, before he lost his head in the French Revolution.
‘Do you have time to see the original kitchen in the cellar?’
Of course we had. In the centre was a wooden table, polished by many hands. It was where Josephine signed over the house to her son, Eugène de Beauharnais. I stroked the table and felt her fingertips.
What’s a bit of disorganisation when you get a treat like that?
Thirty years ago our son, Joe, had an exchange visit with a French lad, Paul. The boys kept in touch for around five years then communication lapsed, although I remained in Christmas card contact with Paul’s parents.
When Paul’s father died, I felt guilty we’d not been to see them for so long – there was a standing invitation to their family home near Grenoble. So we made the effort; there was a reunion this summer.
The large, almost-chateau they live in accommodated Joe, his wife, Vic, and their three boys, together with Tony and me with no problem. It has the dilapidated grandeur of a home that has been in the family for years, possibly centuries. Huge, elaborate pieces of furniture sit side-by-side with bits and pieces of the modern world. It was a continual surprise to see if anything came out of the hot water tap. And the tangle of electrical wires would have sent Health and Safety into a panic. It all added to the charm.
Christine, Paul’s mother, offered us aperitifs in the large drawing room before lunch. French windows were open on two sides of the room but it was too hot to sit outdoors. The nose of a donkey peeped in. They have many animals among which are two donkeys, gentle, friendly beasts who like human company. Normally they remain in their paddock but when there are children around, they are allowed to wander up to the house, as entertainment. The boys were thrilled.
After some delightful Sangria, we moved into the adjacent dining room. Christine was serving her homemade gazpacho when there was a horrendous crash. Paul went to investigate. He came back shrugging his shoulders as only the French can do and laughing. One of the donkeys had entered the drawing room, skidded on the polished wooden floor and fallen. Paul sorted out the problem. No-one seemed bothered. Vic could barely contain her hysterics. She whispered to me, ‘This is surreal!’
Much wine flowed with the main course, cheese and dessert (in that order, of course). There was no question of helping to clear up afterwards. The staff did that. We were expecting to wander around the estate after lunch – it is truly an estate, acres of it – but there was a surprise planned. Paul offered to take us up in his smaller plane (he has two). He gained his licence twenty-five years ago, the youngest pilot in France at the time, and has been flying ever since.
Tony and I went up with him first. My fears of air-sickness were happily unfounded as we did a twenty-minute tour of the area, passing low enough over the house to see the boys in the outdoor swimming pool. I saw one of them wave. Joe and Vic went up next, a trip to Alpe d’Huez where they stopped for a drink before returning. Both Tony and Joe had been allowed to take the controls for a while in the plane.
Such generosity! We’d all had a wonderful treat. Vic’s face was a picture of stunned amazement. She could not believe what was happening and the world she was in.
Paul invited us to aperitifs at the home he shares with his partner, Sandrine, before dinner back at Christine’s Domaine. It was another delightful place, an old family home and barn on land they owned, tastefully restored with a new swimming pool in a natural garden surrounded by mountains. It made the view from our garden in England pretty insignificant.
Eating dinner outside at a granite table in a perfect temperature finished the evening. We spoke in a mixture of French and English that worked well. My French started to disintegrate with the wine – champagne with the dessert finished it off. But we communicated and that was what mattered. Paul and Joe decided they must not lose touch again and were discussing Paul visiting later in the year. He would come by plane – his own, of course.
We left the following morning after breakfast, one of the dogs having stolen much of the brioche. Christine said she hoped we would return again next year.