While we remain closed to everyone except key workers (please contact us directly to hear more about the special rates we’re offering) we want to keep you entertained with a little travel escapism – and maybe even get you thinking about your next trip. First up is the Loire Valley, where eccentric aristocrats, magnificent Muscadet wines and characterful castles await. Imogen Lepere tells us more.
“To raise enough money to buy the castle back one would have had to be very clever in business. Or marry someone very rich. My family has always been good at that.”
Christophe de Goulaine oozes that suave charm that comes so naturally to the French as he guides us around the Chateau de Goulaine in the Loire Valley, near Nantes.
The estate has been owned by the de Goulaine’s for a millennium, aside from 69 years between 1788 and 1857. In this period it was sold to a wealthy merchant, which probably saved it from being burnt down during the French Revolution (1789) and possibly kept the family’s heads attached to their necks.
Leading us down to a vaulted kitchen for a glass of Muscadet (it is nearly 11AM, after all) he assures us the family live a very simple life these days. “My mother used to take her coffee here every morning. But she knows that we have to have visitors to contribute to the upkeep of the castle, so drinks her coffee in the same room as her tea nowadays.” Sacrifices indeed.
The Loire’s history
The timeless charm of Chateau de Goulaine permeates the whole of the Loire Valley, which luxuriates over 280 km along the Loire River in central France. Kings, queens and nobles came here to establish feudal castles on what was once the border between northern and southern France and, later on, to escape the sewage-strewn streets of Paris to spend their time stag hunting and conducting infamously lavish parties. These days, it's a patchwork of chateau that can be rented for private parties and fabulous wineries specialising in Cabernet Franc, Chinon and Muscadet grapes. At just two hours drive from Paris, it’s the perfect place for a wintery long weekend filled with history, decadent food and world-class wine.
Our four day extravaganza begins with a visit to Chateau de Villandry, the last of the great castles to be built in The Loire. The dying light streams through windows framed by chinoiserie curtains, falling on a collection of 16th century Spanish paintings by the likes of Louis de Morales and spiral staircases worn down by hundreds of years of ghostly footsteps. From the tower, elaborate gardens of perfectly clipped boxwood and avenues of ancient lime trees unfurl below us. It feels as if we’ve stepped back in time.
Exploring the Loire
The illusion continues as we bed down in Chateau de la Raguerniere, a honey-coloured pile nestling in 22-acres of grounds on the edge of the sleepy village of Langeais. My suite is bigger than my entire London apartment, a powder-puff dream of a room draped in duck-egg blue silks. An elaborate dressing table in the rounded turret makes me feel like Marie Antoinette as I primp for dinner; feasting on venison in a medieval dining room lined by suits of armour cements the illusion.
The next morning, bolstered by buttery croissant, we pile into the car for a day’s tippling around the Loire Valley. Our charismatic guide, Franck Pasquier of Nantes Wine Tour, is an apparently limitless barrel of wine knowledge and his easy charm never wavers. He points out famous vineyards as we speed by: Domain de Rocheville, which perches atop a hill and offers sweeping views from its sun-trap terrace. Chateau de la Grille Chinon, one of the only in the area to be surrounded by its own vineyards, is a reference for mineral-rich Chinon wines.
As golden hour approaches, we reach Bouvet-Ladubay, which has been a defining name in the area’s sparkling wine industry since 1851. Gustav Eiffel (of tower fame) designed the labelling room, and the roof reveals the same rusting bone structure as the first lady of French monuments. There are more than 8 km of cellars to explore, which were once used by the monks of Saint Florent Abbey as prayer rooms. Today, they have been transformed into an innovative attraction known as ‘the sunken cathedral’, with sculptures carved into the rock by renowned artist Philip Cormand.
The magic continues…
The magic continues at Chateau de la Chance, where we’re due to spend the next two nights. It’s a hulking castle dating back to the 11th century, it’s belly a cavernous hall with a fireplace so enormous I could lie down in it. My room is at the top of the turret, and after a dinner as elaborate as any of Frances I’s feasts at Michelin-starred restaurant Table de la Bergerie, I sit digesting in the recesses of a window seat. The hoot of owls drifts through the diamond panes and carved angels cast curious shadows around the room. It’s bewitching and slightly disquieting in equal measure, as if I have fallen through a wrinkle in time and landed in the Renaissance itself.
An experience that embodies the trip comes at Domaine du Closel in Savennieres, Grand Cru of the Loire Valley. Evelyne de Pontbriand inherited the estate unexpectedly at the age of 50. Since then, she has become one of the valley’s most respected voices on organic wine. We sit in her salon beneath chandeliers that hang as heavy as bunches of grapes on golden chains, as she tells us the extraordinary effort required to produce award-winning wines. The La Jalousie coats my mouth in honey, peach and green apple notes, the result of grapes picked precisely 100 days after the first flowers appear.
In some ways she sums up what this area is all about. Without ever forgetting its history, it reimagines itself time and again, refining its offering to bewitch a new generation of bon vivants – and their palettes.
The detail: Chateau de Raguerniere (sleeps 18) costs £8,170 per week or £65 per person per night. Chateau de la Chance (sleeps 10) costs £4,595 per week or £65 per person, per night. oliverstravels.com Atout France’s websites are a trove of inspiration and practical tips for planning your trip. visitfrenchwine.com france.fr