Mix sixteen people together, add sunshine, luxury accommodation, numerous leisure pursuits and some fine dining and you’ve got the recipe for a cracking week in France.
The reason, or excuse, for our week away was a combination of a big birthday celebration and an annual get-together for a friendly tennis tournament between friends – but it could be for any reason at all that you decide to find a special place to meet with like-minded individuals when you’re in the mood for a house party.
Cherrie: My brief was to find an exclusive venue for sixteen to twenty people who would come and go at various times during a week in July, all of whom appreciate the good things in life, especially guaranteed sunshine. I spent a number of days trawling the internet to find the right place that had availability, flexibility and the right facilities. Having decided on the location, south of Nantes in the Vendee region on the western coast of France, I felt that the best route would be via Poole/Cherbourg on Brittany Ferries. Although the journey by car would be easily achievable in one day I also thought it would be an opportunity for us to stop over en route to break the journey and enjoy another part of France.
Sitting in the car on the dockside at Poole in lashing rain, it seemed an ideal time to be leaving England for a week in the sun. The passage by Barfleur, Brittany Ferries ship, was smooth considering the conditions, marred only by the feeling that we’d paid extra for reclining seats in a crèche, given the incessant noise in what we’d hoped would be a quiet area. If you really need some rest for the four and a half hour journey before setting out on your drive across France then a cabin would be a better bet than the reclining seat lounges.
Despite being high season – unavoidable because of the birthday date – the roads through France were both quiet, well maintained and toll free; the only minor bottlenecks being on entering the Rennes and Nantes peripheriques. We reached Nantes in about three and a half hours after a short break for a snack and coffee at a motorway services area – many of which still have the edge over UK motorway refreshments in our opinion.
We’d had Lloyd Edwards staying with us the night before our departure (see our ‘On the Raggy Edge’ post) and agreed to give him a lift across the Channel to Nantes; so our first stop was at the train station for his onward journey to the coast. Nantes has an excellent public transport system that combines an efficient tram, bus rapid-transit and rail network that earned it the ‘most liveable city in Europe’ accolade some years ago. Nantes is the capital of the Pays de la Loire region of France and sits astride the Loire River. Like many developing modern cities with a long history the approaches to the city are far from glamorous but the old heart still imparts a stylish and well-nurtured acknowledgement to its history.
Having dropped Lloyd and not having paid a great deal of attention to Cherrie’s arrangements prior to leaving, it came as of a bit of a surprise to turn up at a church for our first night stopover.
Cherrie: Despite Geoff only listening half the time to what I tell him, he seemed really intrigued by the Hotel Sozo which was slap bang in the middle of Nantes, near the botanical gardens (Jardin des Plantes) and close to the Chateau of the Dukes of Brittany, the oldest historic building in the city, which itself is not far from the Cathedral.
The Sozo Hotel is refreshing boutique hotel where the edgy modern all-white décor and colourful accessories have blended imaginatively with the fabric of the original chapel of this nineteenth century convent. Rooms are not large but more than adequate and the stained glass windows and soaring arches eclipse any reservations you may have about size. The staff are thin on the ground but make up for it in enthusiasm and service; to the extent that you wonder why other hotels need so many to provide so little. Everything is within easy walking distance of Sozo, aided by a plan that the hotel provides.
The Hotel doesn’t cater for dinner but recommended the ‘Le Fou du Roi’ restaurant which is a lively bistro popular with the locals in the shadow of the Chateau, offering a good cross-section of dishes including a really succulent ‘La Pluma de Pata Negra à la Plancha’; which is marinated Spanish black pig that has been raised in the open.
After a comfortable night’s sleep the breakfast was extensive and interesting- again served with a smile and courteous service.
Back on the road again the following day, we were not expected at the Logis that Cherrie had arranged until after 4pm. With no desire to become enmeshed in French holiday traffic around the coast we sought out a lunch halt off the beaten track and a small detour towards the island of Noirmoutier found us at a little Oyster restaurant – Bar a Huitres – on an estuary at Port des Brochets, near Bouin.
The directions suggest that it’s in the shadow of a large lighthouse but if you find a bulb on a white stick on the estuary bank, it’s the right place! The Bar a Huitres looks like a shed with a covered awning attached and at first glance isn’t as appealing as the interior which is bright and clean. The plate of oysters and accompanying miniature sausages was a delight, as was the bottle of blush wine to help them down. A dozen Oysters and wine worked out at just over 15 Euros a head including a tip – so it couldn’t be faulted for freshness or cost; as well as good family service from a team who don’t appear to be used to seeing many English speaking people. One of our group bought carafes of fish stock from inside the Bar for future use in a Bouillabaisse and here we saw that the oysters we’d chosen were all shelled to order.
Another forty minute drive found us at the white double gates of the Chateau de Fonteclose, just outside La Garnache in the Vendee. There are so many quaint little villages in France we remarked how we’d never see them in a million years if not for having decided on this place as a destination. A toot on the horn brought the aging gatekeeper from her lodge to open them and after explaining to us where we were to go, we trundled down the mile of driveway towards the Logis in which we were to stay for the week.
The few minutes’ drive took us first past what we assumed to be the old barracks of the historic owner’s retainers, on past a small ‘grotto hidden in the trees and around the base of an imposing but closed chateau and its nearby chapel towards another cluster of buildings in the trees ahead.
The Logis de Vendeen is itself an extensive two storey building that forms a courtyard with an old stable block and single storey of terraced cottages within the Fonteclose estate. A former home of General Charette and his family who were staunch royalists in the face of overwhelming Revolutionary Republican pressures, a descendant of the first Count de Baudry d’Asson now owns and lets the property. With the exception of the husband and wife caretakers who would clean, tidy and solve any glitches, the run of the estate was now ours for the week.
Cherrie: Part of my task in finding our base for the week had been a range of facilities and rooms for the group who intended to join us. We needed good tennis courts, swimming pool, comfortable rooms and efficient catering facilities. What I actually found with Chateau Fonteclose, or more specifically the Logis Vendeen, was a superb all-weather tennis court surrounded by high trees for shelter against wind; a beautiful modern swimming pool with an extensive lodge alongside that easily had seating for twenty together with kitchen, shower and changing facilities; plenty of golf clubs, bicycles, volleyball, badminton and table tennis equipment (some in better shape than others); a selection of ten double bedded rooms distributed between the grand two-storey Logis and the adjacent attached terrace of ‘cottages’ and a large dining room and sitting room in the main building that seemed to expand and contract to accommodate however many people we had at any one time. All were agreed that it was a superb venue.
To say the week went quickly would be an understatement. We set up a friendly tennis tournament that gave a sense of purpose to being there but wasn’t either rigid or onerous in terms of participation; in that numbers would fluctuate during the week and everyone would want a fair chance of winning the ‘Tossers Trophy’ at the end of it. This was interspersed with numerous other impromptu games of golf and volleyball, with swimming being the best way to cool off afterwards. Even if we only chose to read or chat there was always somewhere to do it or someone to do it with. The place had plenty of space to either participate in or distance oneself from any activity so that no one felt either cramped or left out.
Cherrie: Catering is always an issue in self-catering places if you haven’t got your own staff and often means that one person gets landed with the task, or local restaurants benefit significantly. We never left the estate for any purpose other than buying provisions! We set up a simple rota system whereby one couple would be responsible for buying supplies and catering for dinner on each day, whilst the others simply relaxed or played until they were called upon for the odd job such as opening wine bottles prior to dinner. Breakfast and lunches were a more informal affair with people grazing on general provisions that had been purchased the day before. Each couple kept the till receipts and marked them with their names for purchases made. At the end of the week all receipts were added together, divided by the total number of person x days for all participants and the resultant sum multiplied for each participant according to the number of days they’d been with us. It sounds complicated but was really easy to work out and fair to apply – so those who stayed longest paid most and vice versa but each couple only once left the estate and cooked during the week. Geoff gets to do all the logistics and whilst he’s often questioned, always has a satisfactory answer before distributing any funds owing between participants- and most people are happy if its someone else, other than themselves, doing the calculations!
It was with genuine regret that we had a final game of tennis, swim and meal at the Logis before packing our bags for the trip back. We’d certainly proved to ourselves that the notion of a large venue with multiple facilities would cope with a disparate bunch of friends and acquaintances, some of whom had never met, without a cross word or sulk. I’m not sure this would have been achieved so easily if the venue had been more restrictive in space and options. The fact that we never left the place was testament alone to its suitability as a holiday venue. Yes, the rooms were grand but aging; yes, the sports equipment wasn’t always top notch; yes, one of the ovens had a fit and the barbeque gas went on go-slow at a crucial moment; yes, it’s not a five-star hotel – but it felt like a comfortable country estate of our own to invite a good bunch of friends along who were happy to roll with any minor deficiencies in the interests of having a great time.
Our caretaker couple, who spoke no English, were more than happy to rectify any minor glitch immediately and any bigger one by the next day with the appropriate tradesman. All in all we had a wonderful week – but it wasn’t over yet.
In the interest of milking our time away to the full, Cherrie had booked another Chateau for the journey back simply to break the journey. This one, Chateau de Bouceel was only fifteen minutes from Mont St. Michel; on the coast at the base of the Cotentin Peninsula in Normandy. As we had to leave our Logis by ten in the morning, we elected to drive to the Mount for lunch and a spot of sightseeing before making our way to the Chateau.
To say that the Mount is tourist savvy would be an understatement but it’s still well worth the visit. From enormous car parks an efficient service of free shuttlebuses ferry passengers across the newly raised causeway to the Mount and back. Our now somewhat diminished party of seven (others had headed off to Cap Feret or home via other routes) chose to pay to ride the horse drawn trolley-car, which in my opinion added little to the trip other than a half hour’s delay whilst the poor old horse in front gathered enough steam to haul twenty people to the end of the causeway.
Cherrie: so much for the romance of horse-drawn transport!
The Mount is impressive from whichever way you approach it and it is possible to walk around the full circumference of the rock at low tide (as long as you’re aware of tide times). It surprised us that other than the car park charges for the cars there were no entry fees to the Mount but anything you buy on the Mount will have a premium attached to it – especially food and drink.
We stopped at La Mere Poulard and having seated ourselves in the restaurant, haunt of the great and good throughout history, decided that 30 Euros was too rich a mouthful to swallow for a plain omelette, however famous the meal or the venue. We did however find a perfectly good Moules Frites and wine restaurant further up the steep hill, with views over the bay, at a price that didn’t cripple us for the rest of the ascent. Here is not the place to recount history but suffice to say that we spent a good hour or so exploring the various nooks and crannies of the Mount and came away with a very pleasant experience before hopping on a shuttle bus back to our car – as I wanted to get to the Chateau before dark!
Chateau de Bouceel was convention for us as it left only an couple of hours’ drive to Cherbourg on the following day but its ideally placed should you contemplate a trip to Mont St. Michel and the Normandy region as a whole. You’re no doubt aware that France is never short of Chateaux, even if it’s short on service sometimes and the chateaux themselves vary significantly in size, standards and quality – varying from decrepit piles to the ostentatiously tarted up ‘Disney’ versions of their former selves.
Not being great lovers of modern ‘oldified’ representations of history; if choosing period hostels we err towards places with a true patina of character that has prevailed rather than been imposed artificially. Chateau de Bouceel is, for us, an example of this.
The chateau, the third on this estate, was refurbished completely over a period of eight months just before the turn of this century and has held up well. Don’t go expecting flashy and efficient service, all mod cons and modern appliances at your fingertips but do go if you’d really appreciate being welcomed into the home of the owners as their personal houseguests, albeit you’ll still get a bill on departure!
The Compte and Comptesse Regis de Roquefeuil own and run the Chateau de Bouceel and the Count greeted us personally on arrival. He also seems to do everything else except actually serve coffee at the grand breakfast table and we saw no sign of the Countess who we were assured keeps herself immensely busy making preserves and other provisions that we also enjoyed at breakfast.
The Count was extremely gracious and impressed us with his courtesy, intelligence and good humour; without any indication that he’d rather not be ushering visitors around his home, even if they do help pay for the upkeep. Although he would appear to share the same stories with each of his house guests they are nevertheless fascinating and well worth quizzing him on, as they reveal a very rich vein of humour, bravery and conflict that the chateau and the family have experienced over the centuries.
A book of illustrations of which the Count is justifiably proud sits in the main hallway on a stand and appears to be the precursor to Georges Remi ‘s work, who wrote Tin-Tin under the pen name Hergé. The comprehensive volume of hand coloured illustrations was apparently assembled day-by-day by the current Count’s father as he wove stories of his experiences and travels for his children by means of these illustrated pages.
Cherrie: I’d found Chateau de Bouceel by scanning the internet but it hadn’t really prepared us for the character of both the Count and the Chateau, both of which had a warm and welcoming sense about them. Geoff and I stayed in the sumptuous Marquis’ room, a large, richly decorated ground floor room adjacent to the dining hall whilst the rest of our party stayed on other floors of which there are two in rooms of varying size and decoration. There are also a number of character holiday cottages around the estate in addition to the guest rooms in the chateau and although the website is in English its sometimes a little confusing in its terminology and therefore best to correspond directly with the Count who, I found, always replies promptly. We were also given a small publication dedicated solely to chateaux in France that lists most of the commercial establishments and their facilities, which I’ve given a link to at the end of this post.
As the chateau doesn’t offer dinner, we were recommended for our last night to a small farmhouse restaurant about fifteen minutes’ drive away in Servon – L’Auberge du Terroir. We were told that Le Patron was trustworthy and could be relied upon to present a wonderful meal if he was left to his own devices but similarly the ‘Salt-marsh Lamb’ was a speciality and if on the menu should be tried. We spent a very hospitable few hours watching the setting sun over aperitifs and dining over the Salt-marsh lamb as part of the six tables in the restaurant occupied mainly by locals. L’Auberge apparently has an excellent reputation that enables such a fine dining to prevail in such a remote location. It does have accommodation as well but the reviews we’ve read have mixed opinion about facilities and value. The restaurant has rectified one of its apparent ‘deficiencies’ in employing an English-speaking waitress whose English and waitressing were both questionable but in no way detracted from the overall experience – her transgression in breaking one of our plates with our first bottle of wine being forgotten by her willingness to help and converse. We hope her probationary period proves successful despite our visit!
Breakfast at the chateau next day was pleasant but unremarkable save for the delicious rhubarb preserve courtesy of the Countess and feeling well-rested we departed for Cherbourg but not before following another recommend of the Count’s in travelling via the bay road to Carolles and Granville to enjoy stunning beach and ocean vistas and yet another lunch at a quay front restaurant in Granville, The Citadel, before cruising a reluctant return to Cherbourg and then Poole.
So, you can always block book an hotel and be waited on hand and foot but if you fancy more freedom to move around without someone watching over your every move; with friends of like mind who wish to relax or play; then why not consider a house party such as ours and discover a different dimension to entertainment?
Full sailing options to France can be seen at:
https://www.gov.uk/foreign-travel-advice/france/entry-requirements also if travelling from within a country party to the Shengen Agreement then see: www.schengenvisainfo.com/france-visa/
As a British citizen travelling to France you should not need a visa but for latest travel information check the Gov.uk site:
Sozo Hotel, Nantes
Le Fou du Roi restaurant
Bar a Huitres Oyster Restaurant
Le Logis Vendeen (within Chateau Fonteclose estate)
We found this through Dominiques Villas
Chateau de Bouceel, near Mont St. Michel
L’Auberge du Terroir, Servon
5 Place Saint Martin, 50170 Servon, France
Tel 02 33 60 17 92 – closed on Wednesdays
Many more chateaux can be found in BienVenue au Chateau