Sunday, July 12, 2015

A French Castle, Now Open To All

Medieval ruins in the terrace garden. CreditAlex Cretey-Systermans for The New York Times

Viscount Patrice Vignial’s home has been in his family, on and off, since the turn of the century — the 11th century.
He lives in a castle turned bed-and-breakfast in La Flocellière, a small town in the Vendée, a region on the western coast of France known historically as a stronghold of French monarchists. As bed-and-breakfasts go, it cuts a striking figure, with its towers and medieval tapestries and ancestral portraits, set among trees imported from around the world in the early 1800s, including American cedars and sequoias.
The castle, which is near the Loire Valley, was in the viscount’s family until it was sacked during the French Revolution, leaving much of it a crumbled ruin. Mr. Vignial, 73, had heard about it for years, but never visited until he was 36, after it was put up for sale.
“It was in the winter,” he said. “My wife was completely afraid because it was nothing; completely closed, cold,” he said. But he knew he had to buy it.
“I decided in five minutes,” he laughed. “I didn’t tell it to my wife.”
I successfully navigated a great many, but not all of them, and several were so new that my soothing navigation system, now purring along in the Queen’s English, seemed to be increasingly aggrieved by my orbital driving patterns. An errant turn off one of these freshly paved roundabouts led me onto a one-way street, the wrong way, leaving me face to face with a student driver. Excusez moi!
By now the car’s polite British voice had turned more aggressive. “Turn around when possible! Turn around when possible!” I started to wish I could turn the Italian back on.
About a dozen more roundabouts later, I reached La Flocellière, a town of about 2,400. You’d think finding a castle in a French village would be easy, but it was dark and this wasn’t an Econo Lodge lit up on the side of a highway. After several passes through the town, I located the giant chateau behind a gate. The castle has four towers, including a large central keep, though some sections of the chateau remain in ruins, adding to its mystique.
I went inside and began to speak a few lines of carefully rehearsed French, since I had had a couple of hours to practice. This was perhaps not the best idea. Erika Vignial, the viscountess of the castle, proceeded as if I had a working knowledge of French, perhaps being polite. I wasn’t entirely clear what was happening after that.
The Vignials, to their credit, are a far more welcoming brand of aristocrat than you might imagine. The dishes came out. There was fish first — white fish and salmon. And rice. And little baguettes. I ate, and I was well satisfied. I prepared to leave, but then Mrs. Vignial brought out a plate of veal and cheese tarts, then big tomato slices. Merci, bon.
Fromage? I got the sense that it would be in poor taste to leave now, so the cheese came. I ate it. And it was good. And so was the mousse that followed.
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La Flocellière
The castle was filled with upholstered chairs, chandeliers, richly decorated wallpaper and fancy clocks. There was a statuette of a tiger under an oil painting of the Madonna and Child, flanked by Chinese urns. In one room there was a rather severe-looking portrait of an ancestor, Stanslas Vignial, the president of the royal court in Bordeaux in the mid-1800s, imposing in black-and-crimson jurist robes.
In another room, I felt as if I had momentarily stepped onto the set of “The Royal Tenenbaums” — a large family portrait was near a shelf of old games like Boggle, Monopoly and Trivial Pursuit.
There was also a family tree. The earliest known ancestor there goes back to 1090, when the chateau was more like a fort in the woods. The stone castle was originally built around 1200.
The region was a stronghold of support for the French monarchy. During the revolution, the locals filled the Catholic and Royal Army, which didbattle with the French revolutionaries from 1793 to 1796. That did not end well.
“Paris sent heavy, well-equipped troops with cannons and things to the region, to kill and burn every village,” Mr. Vignial said. “It was terrible, especially in January 1794, they arrived here in the village. They killed all the people, burned the houses and burned part of the chateau.”
Mr. Vignial said his father and grandfather were fervent monarchists, at a time when that was a real political movement. While the notion of a return of French kings today is far-fetched — though there are still some claimants to the throne — Mr. Vignial allowed that he still believes it would be better to have a constitutional monarchy.
“In France, we are not very satisfied with our present president,” he said, referring to the long-beleaguered Socialist François Hollande, who has recorded historically low popularity ratings. “I think it would be better to have a man not directly involved in the day-to-day politics, and just a prime minister like you have in England.”
The Marquise Suite, one of five guest rooms available in the main part of the castle.CreditAlex Cretey-Systermans for The New York Times
The viscount, who had his own mergers and acquisition consultancy before retiring a few years back to focus on the chateau, toured the grounds with me the next morning. The castle sits on 37 acres. We toured “le donjon,” and he explained to me that the word donjon, in French, means a keep or a main tower and is not to be confused with a dungeon.
The four-story keep has a dining room on the first floor with a view onto the grounds and three stories of handsome apartments above. But I was most captivated by a lush medieval tapestry in the dining room depicting a man approaching a woman on a throne, against a verdant backdrop of plants and flowers, and a white bird that looked like a heron.
For a week, you can rent the keep, which accommodates 10, for about $2,300. For the same price you can also rent the Louis XIII wing, a detached house that has a tower once used for defense. It can accommodate 12 to 14 guests. (Rates are typically $177 a night for a standard room, $260 for a suite and $327 for a family room for four. Breakfast is included, dinner an additional $30 to $60 a person.)

I stayed in the spacious Baronne Alquier Suite, which had a lush canopy bed and what was advertised as “a yellow gold Louis XVI-style fabric” covering the walls. There was a small television, but it seemed more like a place where I was supposed to sit next to the fireplace and read a novel.
“The relationship you have with this sort of a house is a sort of a love relationship, like with a woman, you know?” Mr. Vignial told me as we wound our way through the chateau. “It’s not a question of money, it’s a question of love.”
It was not an easy relationship at first.

Back in 1979, Mrs. Vignial had two young children, a life in Paris and a job in public relations for L’Oreal. Taking on a castle?
A medieval garden. CreditAlex Cretey-Systermans for The New York Times
“I was quite terrified,” she said. She recalled the first time she saw it.
“We took a plane to Nantes, and it was rainy, dark,” she said. “We took a car and we came here, and it was absolutely horrible. The water was on the walls, everything was humid and everything was empty.”
No electricity, no heating, no plumbing.
“She told me, ‘O.K., if you want to buy it, O.K., but I will never go,’ ” Mr. Vignial said. “That was our convention. But after some years, when it became more habitable, she spent all our holidays here with our children.”
Sandrine, the couple’s daughter, was 10 when they bought the castle. She also remembered being afraid of it and sleeping in the same room as her father at first. But she soon embraced it, and she and her brother spent their days playing amid the ruins. “I was the princess, or the prisoner in my own tower,” she said. “It was our main activity.”
The Vignials started by restoring the dungeon, and it was there that they stayed for many years when they came to the castle. Sandrine, now 46, moved in full time for four years in the 1990s, after she earned an art degree and before she married, and opened up the castle as a bed-and-breakfast.
“I think that this chateau is alive when there are a lot of people every day in it,” she said. “I said to my father, ’It’s a good idea to develop this and the chateau will have a new life in a new generation.’ ”
Another guest, Fiona Thompson, a Londoner who has visited twice, said: “I almost feel like writing them a thank-you letter at the end of it all. They are very gifted at making people feel welcome.”
The next morning, I bid adieu to this remnant of the old world. And I conquered the demons of the new one, fixing my GPS and navigating a far more direct and speedy course back to Nantes. True, I had not earned any Marriott points. But I had checked “Stay in medieval castle with viscount” off the bucket list.
Château de la Flocellière, 33-02-51-57-22-03;
Correction: July 9, 2015 
An earlier version of this article misspelled part of the title of a movie evoked by a room in a French castle. It is “The Royal Tenenbaums,” not “The Royal Tannenbaums.”

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