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By BEN WOODS
Monday, July 9, 2012
Remembering the number of bedrooms in your house can be a challenge – if you live in a 15th-century French chateau.
This, I learn from the Marquise de Brissac as we stand beneath her family home: a seven-storey former castle known as ‘The Giant of the Loire Valley’.
I had asked the question as I craned my neck to take in its two monumental towers: “So, how many bedrooms does this place have then?”
The marquise paused, her brow furrowed. She was clearly stumped and a little embarrassed.
“I am sorry, I am not sure,” she eventually said in perfect English. “I will have to find out for you.”
To any proud home owner this may seem a little odd – but the marquise can be forgiven. After all, The Chateau de Brissac is a place where the numbers come in supersize proportions. Take the building. Situated in the western province of Anjou, it spreads across 8,000 square metres on a 200-acre estate. Inside, there are 204 rooms including a 120-seater theatre on the second floor. This is French living at its most opulent.
As I tailgated the marquise, Larissa de Cossé-Brissac, on a room-by-room tour, I felt my sense of boyhood wonder start to rekindle. It was the Louis XIII Bedchamber which did it. Here, the décor is laid on so thick it is almost sickly. From blood-red drapes, to Italian renaissance cabinets, each object carried a ‘touch if you dare’ price tag. But it wasn’t until the marquise reached out and turned a discreet handle in the wall that my imagination ignited. Seamlessly cut from both the wall, and the tapestry above, was a secret door. Was I entering the realms of a gothic novel? Eyes peering in from hidden passages, people disappearing without a trace. I half expected a deathly scream when the marquise revealed what was inside- a carefully concealed toilet.
It was the first of many “my God” moments during my travels in Anjou. I had come from England by train, making a quick carriage hop in Paris, before heading west across France. I had been told good things about this province nestled in the lower part of the Loire Valley. The area has been declared a UNESCO world heritage site for its historic castles and arresting landscapes. I was expecting abundant beauty, but there were many other aspects of Anjou which I came to admire.
My journey began in the tiny village of Savennières where I had come to meet the wine-growing equivalent to royalty. At the gates of the Chateau Des Vaults, I was greeted by Michèle Bazin de Jessey. She inherited the vineyards in 1961 and became the first lady president of a wine growers’ syndicate in France. Today, the business is handled by her daughter, vicountess Evelyne de Jessey Pontbriand, who is the latest in a long line of women to become a custodian of the estate.
So far, she hasn’t done too badly. The vineyards of Domaine Du Closel attract some 12,000 people each year for poetry readings, moonlight tours, and harvesting sessions, where you can pick the grapes and crush them with your feet.
Before I am ushered inside the chateau, I am advised to go and explore the vineyards for myself. During my visit in January, the vines appear barren and twisted in their regimented rows. Arrive in October, and you will find the area transformed into a vast swathe of green, with pickers delicately collecting the prized crop. What makes the wine such a success story in the area is the combination of a temperate climate and mineral-rich soil. The earth consists of volcanic rock and purple and green schist – a type of stone which is also used as roof tiles across Anjou.
Back at the chateau, I rejoin with Michèle for a spot of tasting.
“This room used to be the kitchen,” she tells me. “My relatives were made to cook here for Nazi soldiers when we were occupied during the Second World War.”
Now, the area has been transformed into a modest tasting room for tourists. A few prize-winning vintages take pride of place on the wall where the cook pot once stood.
Handing me a glass, Michèle sloshes in a little of the La Jalousie dry white.
She is a playful, full-spirited, woman. The frames of her glasses are as thick as liquorice sticks.
“It is work you can do if you are passionate,” she tells me. “Because the climate can change or there can be disease, so many things can happen – you always have to be prepared.”
I take a sip from my glass and tell her what she already knows: “It is very good”.
She accepts graciously, eager for me to dump the remains in a bucket for a generous splash from the next bottle.
With regret, I had to leave Savennières to take a 25 minute drive to the capital of this wine-obsessed region.
Angers is a city where modern infrastructure meets cobbled streets without comprise. Meanwhile, the shopping experience is varied, with an eclectic mix of small boutiques and national chains.
My exploration started on the banks of the River Maine where I discovered a 13th century fortress spoiling for a fight.
With 17 turrets mounted on 110ft walls, the Château d’Angers casts an aggressive glare over a city which no longer needs protecting.
To maintain its raison d’etre, it plays keeper to an extraordinary work of art with a foreboding vision. I find it by following the signs to the ‘Apocalypse’ until I am standing in a vast corridor cloaked in darkness.
This is where the world’s largest medieval tapestry is kept. The Apocalypse Tapestry, commissioned by Louis I in the late 14th century, depicts the last struggle between “good” and “evil” from the Bible’s Book of Revelations. At best, it is chilling, gruesome, and wonderfully cinematic. Angels descend from swirling clouds, while seven-headed beasts torment bands of heroic men.
What surprises me, though, is how vivid it remains despite its neglectful past. During the French Revolution it came close to being destroyed after it was torn down and discarded with many other prolific works. Stories tell of how parts were used to protect orange trees from frost, or insulate horse stables, before an effort was made to reassemble and restore the art work during the 19th century.
When it comes to historic interest like this, Anjou does it well. But to get a true understanding of the success of this region, I am told to seek out the home of Cointreau in the suburb of Saint-Barthélemy-d’Anjou. If, like me, you are expecting the distillery to be situated in the bowels of a historic chateau, then be prepared for a little disappointment. The factory sits in the midst of an industrial estate. But what it lacks in character, it certainly makes up in intrigue.
Since the company moved here in 1875, it has produced every bottle of Cointreau to grace the back-shelf of a bar.
The process can be glimpsed by taking a tour of the site where you will be accompanied by the heady scent of macerating oranges as you peruse the towering copper vats.
At the end of my visit, I was encouraged to pull up a seat at the on-site bar where I watched as my tour guide turned cocktail maker.
Here, I was given a taste of Cointreau’s’new direction’, which came in the shape of a blush-pink Cointreaupolitan cocktail. As I took a sip from the long-stemmed glass, my guide tells me how the brand is experiencing a new lease of life. Gone is the aristocratic after-dinner image in favour of something a little more playful.
To me, it seemed like a radical move.
But then I thought of the success of the Chateau de Brissac and the Chateau des Vaults.
These two institutions steeped in tradition were making leaps and bounds as modern-day enterprises. I realised, then, I was in no position to argue.