Mondo Weirdo

A reader's tale of a magical interlude in a charming -- and cheap! -- French ch


Salon Staff
November 14, 1997 4:24PM (UTC)


This week's Mondo Weirdo relates a magical interlude in the kind of French château you rarely hear about: old, still somewhat crumbling -- and affordable! What's your favorite travel discovery, or most amazing on-the-road tale? Send it to wanderlust@salonmagazine.com.


it was a pity that the children hated goat. They were delighted to sleep in
a medieval stone-flagged castle chamber -- learning quickly how to get down the
broad spiral stairs, worn down by tramping feet until
they sloped like a river bed -- but when they were told what was for supper,
they refused to eat. "Just kidding," my wife said, without missing a beat:
She told them solemnly that "chèvre" was the French for lamb, not goat.
They were hungry enough to believe her.

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Everything else about the château de Chémery was perfect. It is quite easy
to stay in extravagant and perfect châteaux in the Loire valley, if you
have the money, but my English snobbery demands something else -- somewhere old, ordinary and cheap. This place, which had a moat, a fax machine and a history dating
back to the 13th century, seemed perfect. It is set in the dusty flat
country where France begins to seem strange as well as foreign to an
English eye: The perspectives are too long, the roads too straight, the
bluffs above the rivers too steep. Fruit that normally comes with its taste
shrouded in cellophane is suddenly revivified. Tomatoes turn into
revelations.

The first vineyards start at this latitude, a little south of Paris. Some wines are famous, like St. Nicolas de Bourgeuil, the best red in northern France. But most of the vineyards here are small and domestic. Enameled signboards hang where
the farm tracks come down to the road, advertising goose liver or goat's
cheese.

The village of Chémery was dustier than usual, since the main street had
been dug right up. As in most French villages, the main street is also the
main road, so to reach the village, we had to follow a long diversion down
narrow roads straight as a pin with right-angled corners, through woods and then out onto the potholed center of the village. Nothing
moved but a chicken scratching in an overgrown garden. I drove carefully
round a few potholes to the outskirts of the village, and found the château
by its towers. For centuries it had been a farm and then a rock star's
retreat, but it still had the towers essential for any Loire château: gray,
round, with conical slate roofs, so they look like squat sharpened pencils
rising from the ground.

The drawbridge was down, across a green and soupy moat. It did not look
even safe enough to drive a car across. The owner of the château was an architect, Axel Fontaine, who had bought
it 10 years before when it was almost derelict, as parts still are. He
hopes to restore it and make it into a museum of costume. But in the meantime, he and
his wife take in guests for bed and breakfast. They live in the oldest part
of the building, where there are still traces of 14th-century wall
paintings in one room, which also has a grislier souvenir of the Middle
Ages: a model of the soldier whose skeleton was found bricked up inside a
wall in 1850.

Guests stay in more modern and less haunted rooms inside the main
tower. The larger room has feather beds, as in the fairy stories. No wonder
princesses couldn't sleep on them: They were so soft that the sides seemed
to close in on us when we lay down. The smaller room had more
comfortable beds -- and a deep narrow window, handy for shooting arrows
through.

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The afternoon slid languorously into evening, as plump carp jostled at the
surface of the moat beneath the window. The owners showed us around the château, or at least those parts that are
safe to walk in.

Slowly, they are transforming the château into a museum of clothing.
Every inch of wall in the children's chamber was covered in prints of
historical costumes and uniforms. In the cavernous stone room next door
stood a spinning wheel, a loom and a four-poster bed, all looking quite decayed, as if they had been waiting there since the end of the age of fairy
tales.

Some traveling actors dragged their horse-drawn cart over the drawbridge and across the
crunching gravel of the courtyard, preparing a show of La Fontaine's fables
for the village. The smell of herby goat chops frying drifted around the
old tower.

The mummers' performance was almost entirely silent. They stalked and
strutted in grotesque costumes and headdresses, acting out fables that originated with Aesop in the 6th century B.C. The characters were foxes, crows and ants -- the only
humans were a gang of robbers with a donkey. Each story concluded with a
rhymed moral, just as in Aesop. But these were the last sententious strokes
of the hammer on a nail already driven in. Even without any French, the
stories were clear enough: They were as dramatic as the frog who tried to
puff himself up to the size of an ox, appearing three times from behind the
cart until the last time he was puffed up 10 feet wide. This was still
too small, a cackling crone on a step-ladder assured him, so he ducked
behind the cart for one last effort -- and a tremendous bang scattered his
costume all around.

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As night fell, they performed the last fable, which was brought right up to date: The
grasshoppers sang and played all summer, while the ants all around them
toiled. When winter came, the ants retreated to their nest; the grasshopper
starved outside. They begged the ants three times for food and shelter.
Three times the ants refused. The third time, the grasshoppers, cackling
wildly, brought out a huge, old-fashioned bug spray, and squirted it down
the chimney of the ants' nest. The ants allowed them in; everyone sang,
and socialism triumphed.

When it was over, the exhausted children vanished into their feather beds.
Around them, in the high and distant corners of the room, only friendly
ghosts lurked. "Actually, goat does taste good," muttered the elder, and then they slept.

-- Andrew Brown

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Salon Staff

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