Welcome to our first issue . . .
May / June 2001
The French Château Experience
Château stays can be very rewarding and interesting "adventures" -- out of the ordinary and not something you are able to do in most countries of the world -- but easily done in France. France boasts thousands of beautiful châteaux, serving as well-loved homes and updated with modern comforts. Hundreds of these offer guest rooms, and perhaps dinner with the hosts, in elegant and historic buildings across the land.
If you've never spent time in a château or manor house bed and breakfast, but think you might on your next visit to France, you will undoubtedly be pleasantly surprised with that first experience. Well over a decade ago, we drove up the gravel driveway of a country manoir in Normandy, awestruck by the gray stone edifice standing before us. Our arrival was at dusk (we were behind schedule!) and warm lights glowed from the downstairs windows. The front door was slightly ajar, our hosts anticipating our arrival. We were very cordially welcomed and guided up to our chambre.
Climbing a winding stone staircase for the first time (trying to manage two overpacked suitcases) gave us our first sense of the age of this building -- the center of each step was deeply worn away from thousands of footsteps over hundreds of years. The climb also quickly convinced us to pack lighter on future visits to France!
Our room was large with a sleigh bed, beamed ceiling and antique furniture. A bookcase held many volumes in both English and French, if we had the desire to read, but we didn't. The room was too fascinating and the view from our window too wonderful, even in the near darkness, that we just wanted to absorb it all. We were actually going to sleep in a French 'château' for the first time in our lives and found that notion almost unbelievable!
Now, many years and dozens of château stays later, we are quite at ease knocking on a great door to be greeted by our sophisticated hosts. Yet, despite the fact that staying in château bed and breakfasts is no longer a new experience for us, it has neither lost its intrigue nor its uniqueness. Each property is vastly different from the last; each location presents its own landscape and regional attractions; and each owner offers a unique perspective and, most often, a fascinating history lesson.
We hope you take advantage of the enjoyment, comfort, elegance and delights awaiting you at a Renaissance château, country manor, restored ancient mill, medieval castle or other historic property in France. Once you get used to doing so, you will find it a very hard habit to break!
Le Mont St-Michel
The River Couesnon empties into the Baie du Mont Saint Michel and serves as the ever shifting boundary between Normandy and Brittany. The imaginary line it carries into the bay bumps right into the little island that has become one of the best known and recognized monuments in France. The famous island abbey of Saint Michael is one of the wonders of the Western world. There has always been a dispute, as the Couesnon's waters shift, whether Le Mont St-Michel is in Brittany or Normandy. It is pretty much agreed that, currently, it is located in Normandy -- just barely. The violent tides at the mouth of the river can change all that at any time.
Legend has it that the Archangel Michael in 708 appeared to the bishop of Avranches and said a church was to be built atop the Monte-Tombe (the Tomb on the Hill), the granite island that was at the mouth of the River Couesnon. Aubert, the bishop, complied by constructing a small oratory dedicated to Saint Michael. In 966 Duke Richard I sent Benedictine monks to live on the island, and a larger abbey was built in the 11th century. At that time, pilgrimages to the island were commonplace, and despite battles between dukedoms and French / English wars taking place in the vicinity, these pilgrimages continued. The armies on both sides often collected bribes to allow pilgrims safe conduct.
It was in the 13th century that the tall Gothic abbey was erected. At the base of Le Mont a garrison was intrenched, and walls were constructed to repel attacks from the English during the Hundred Years War. Later came the occupation by a new order of Benedictines and the abbey's use as a prison following the French Revolution. Victor Hugo was responsible for having the prison permanently shut down in 1863, and in 1874 the abbey was declared a national monument. Most recently, in 1966, exactly 1000 years since Benedictines came to the island for the first time, a small community of monks from Bec-Hellouin returned.
Most fascinating about nature's placement of Le Mont St-Michel are the treacherous mists and fog, quicksand, and rapidly rising tides, all of which helped to successfully defend it against invaders. Surrounded by high tides twice a day, one of the world’s fastest rising tides, it is a world unto itself. Those same elements of nature have proven hazardous to many people over the last 1295 years. Today, tourists still take walks in the wet sand during low tide, many finding themselves in great trouble when the tide comes in. The sea is over nine miles from Le Mont St-Michel at low tide, but returns to high tide at enormous speed. The rising tide can attain speeds of 18 miles per hour in the Spring.
As "tourist traps" go, a great many people believe that Le Mont Saint-Michel holds the record. Joined to the mainland now by a causeway, this island fortress is the most visited monument in France outside of Paris. Be prepared to climb a lot of steps to reach the abbey gates. Along the way, you will find many wonderful distractions (aside from the souvenir shops) such as a cemetery, ramparts, the Eglise St-Pierre, Gabriel's Tower, and the winding little streets lined with people's homes. People, many who are descendants of the original inhabitants, live here in 15th- and 16th-century dwellings, despite the bustling tourist industry. The main "thoroughfare" is La Grand Rue which you might wish to avoid by taking the steps across from La Poste to the 13th - 15th century ramparts, which in turn lead to the abbey entrance. Along the way, you will be rewarded with phenomenal views across the bay in many directions. Don't let crowds of tourists deter you -- in fact it is recommended that you spend the night on the island. La Mère Poulard is a group of somewhat expensive small hotels with a much-written-about restaurant and definitely worth a try. In early evening and at night, when the tourist throngs have departed, it is said that Le Mont St-Michel is a magical place to be. And those who spend the night just might find sunrise equally as interesting!
Remember, many of our member bed and breakfasts are located near Le Mont St-Michel, as well as the famed landing beaches, the Bayeux tapestry, and other Normandy attractions. Click here to see the châteaux.
Enchantment in Brittany - Château de la Ballue
Château de la Ballue is steeped in history and tradition. Frequented since the 18th century by artists and writers, it can boast of a proud cultural and artistic past. Balzac and Victor Hugo were among the most renown guests of Château de la Ballue. In recent times screenwriter Marc Cholodenko and sculptors Panayiotis Takis and Jacky Coville have stayed at Ballue. Artists Robert Rauschenberg and Jacques Monory found the harmony of architecture and landscape conducive to creation. In keeping with these traditions, visitors to Château de la Ballue will discover the works of contemporary sculptors and painters displayed in the both the gardens and in the château.
Today's guests are received with grace and charm by your hosts Madame Barrère and Monsieur Schrotter. Every effort is made to make guests feel like good friends and right at home. A sense of relaxation is experienced by all those who stay at Ballue -- the appeal and warmth of the château with its fireplaces aglow instills a serenity and calm in its guests. As the comfort of all guests is their first concern, smoking is not permitted in the bedrooms or dining rooms.
Special attention is paid to the little niceties of life. Ballue's hosts will provide a carefully selected list of wines and fine spirits for guests' enjoyment, and an interesting variety of teas are available at any time. Perfect for after dinner relaxation, several salons are at the disposal of the guests at Ballue. Comfortable armchairs, ideal for relaxed conversation and perhaps a small cognac, armagnac or calvados, await following their return from local restaurants.
There is an abundance of activities within a few short minutes of Château de la Ballue, such as Le Mont St-Michel. If one chooses to stay on the grounds, a picnic basket can be prepared containing regional produce and specialties -- a perfect meal to enjoy on the terrace or in the "pavillon de chasse" for those who do not wish to go out to lunch or dinner.
Perhaps most enjoyable for guests at Château de la Ballue are the exquisite gardens throughout the estate. Designed after the sixteenth century Italian period, the gardens at Ballue are historical classified gardens. Interested guests can enjoy tea and a guided tour of the gardens with their host, M. Schrotter, discovering that the magical spirit and enchanting atmosphere add to an already delightful château experience.
To contact Alain Schrotter directly for further information or to book a room at Château de la Ballue, click here.
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French Quiz 2
the United States, women have had voting rights since 1919.
You will find the correct answer at the end of this newsletter.
Jaunts in Provence
Provence is the dream destination of many a traveler. Photographs of lavender in bloom, images of sleepy golden villages, the start of the grape harvest in September, the fragrance of herbs wafting in a warm breeze, sipping a pastis at a café on the Cours Mirabeau, or tales of daily life as lived and told by Peter Mayle -- all these draw visitors to this intriguing part of southern France. Some people, however, aren't quite sure what they will do or see once they are actually there. They just might need a little guidance to obtain local transportation, to find a place to stay or to learn about the "must see" sites and unique pleasures off the tourist route.
Here's where Jaunts in Provence enters the picture -- a small company specializing in personalized travel assistance, owned and operated by experts on Provence. Allowing you the freedom to plan your own visit to Provence, Barbara and Genevieve are happy to let you in on all the possibilities. This bi-lingual team can assist you in French or English, tailor making your holiday to suit your tastes and personal interests. They make it possible for you to experience Provence as an insider, pointing you toward the antiques and flea markets, out-of-the-way and charming little hill towns, picnic spots along the wine route and telling you when it's best to visit the artist studios and homes of Cézanne and Renoir. Jaunts takes care of making reservations, provides airport pickup and will even plan a private walking tour of Aix-en-Provence to get you started.
For more information, you can email Jaunts for a free, detailed estimate. Or, send them a fax at 011.33.4.42.92.30.87. If you would like to receive their brochure only, call 1.619.574.0755 in the U.S.
Regional Recipe: Ratatouille à la Provençal
This easy and delicious vegetable "stew" is enjoyed throughout France, but the addition of tomatoes and garlic takes it to Provence. Ratatouille (ra ta tuy) can be made in large quantities and is one of those dishes that tastes just as good (if not better) the second day! You will need the following ingredients: 1-1/2 to 2 pounds of eggplant, salt, 1/3 cup of olive oil, 1 large onion sliced, 3 medium-sized zucchini cut into bite-sized pieces, one red bell pepper and one green bell pepper cleaned and sliced into wide strips, 2 large tomatoes seeded and cut into small wedges, 3 cloves of garlic minced, coarse freshly ground black pepper, 2 tablespoons tomato paste, one bay leaf, one teaspoon thyme, 1/3 cup of fresh basil leaves minced.
Toss the eggplant with salt in a colander and let drain for 20-30 minutes. Pat the pieces dry. Preheat oven to 350 degrees. In a large skillet heat two tablespoons of oil and cook half the eggplant for about 5 minutes, stirring occasionally. Remove with a slotted spoon to a casserole dish. Repeat with the same amount of oil and remaining eggplant. Next cook the zucchini for 3 - 5 minutes in about 1 tablespoon of oil and add it to the casserole. With 2 more tablepoons of oil, add the bell pepper to the skillet and cook until slightly softened. Remove with spoon to casserole, and now add the garlic and onion. Cook in 1 tablespoon of oil until golden, or for about 6 minutes, and place in the casserole with the slotted spoon. Finally, add the tomato wedges, tomato paste, basil, thyme, pepper and bay leaf to the casserole and stir all ingredients gently but completely to combine well.
Cover the casserole and place in the oven on the middle rack for about a half hour. Be sure to remove the bay leaf before serving. This recipe will serve 6 people as a side dish, or 4 people as a vegetable stew served with crusty baguettes. Ratatouille can also be served cold as an appetizer. Bon appétit!
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(The answer to Quiz 1 is Belize and to Quiz 2 is 1945.)
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