In September Graham and I set off on a trip down to the Luberon and the Mediterranean – he on his Pan European, me in my van. We travel in convoy part of the way but inevitably lose each other outside Orleans.
I arrive first at our Chateau chambre d’hote on the outskirts of a small town near Nevers. Through the high wrought iron gates, up the long allee with trees turning to gold and red. The turretted chateau, standing beyond a small lake, seemed to be slumbering…… The elderly Comptesse and her housekeeper welcomed me and showed me to a room in the attic with flaking paint and faded furnishings. The chateau was quietly falling into decrepitude, dusty and untouched, and it didn’t surprise me that we were the only guests. But the bed was made with crisp white sheets, and we were made welcome. The Countess recounted how she had been brought to the chateau when she was a baby, 90 years ago, and her grandfather had refused to install a bathroom for her American mother.
An excellent dinner was served in a large stone vaulted room. Owls hooted in the park. During the night I was startled awake by rustling in a corner of the room. On the table a paper bag with the crumbs from a croissant was moving! On went the light, and out darted a creature with a long furry tail. It dived behind the green cast iron radiator, and then popped out on top and sat looking at us. I wasn’t sure what sort of rodent it was, and despite it looking rather sweet, I slept very badly for the rest of the night.
The housekeeper was mortified at the night’s visitations and told us that these were the French version of large dormice. Naturally extremely curious, they are not afraid of human beings. We would not be charged for our room, and we should stay as long as we wished in order to sleep a little more.
The rest of the day passed in an agreeable drive, with a 12 euro lunch en route, down through volcanic landscape towards Le Puy and another Chateau chambre d’hote, with huge beamed ceilings and a stone spiral staircase. We were warmly welcomed and given a delicious home-grown supper in the courtyard with a bottle of Cote du Rhone.
Francoise, the chatelaine, and her husband, had restored the chateau from roof to cellar with the usual catastrophic stories of collapsing ceilings and of living with four children in one room for two years. When she heard about my interest in antiques, she put her hand on my arm and said intently, tomorrow we must speak! Here was a woman after my own heart – she loved architectural salvage, auctions and brocante. In conversation she mentioned “Suzbis” to me, and I was baffled until I realised that she was referring to Sotheby’s!
While Graham tended to his motorbike, Francoise took me through rooms that had yet to be touched, old yellowed wallpapers, walls heavy with large family portraits, grandfather’s old piano, shelves of leather bound books. By midday I had bought a large mirror from her and a small canape, which I later had covered in purple velvet. As we left she kissed me on both cheeks and promised to keep in touch. What a delightful encounter. Francoise and I were to become long term friends.