The landscape had disappeared with the last of the sunlight and for the last hour we’d been feeling our way through in pitch darkness of country roads - following the little white markers pointing the way to Villersexel.
When we finally found the tiny village in the Franche-Comté region of eastern France, just over the Swiss border, it too was dark and silent: not a person, a dog, or even a bat, to be seen.
“Turn by the church,” the direction read. We turned and there it was the château, looming up in the night in all its gothic magnificence.
“This is where we’re going to sleep?” my daughter asked.
My son loves castles, although I often wondered if his initial enthusiasm for them had something to do with the element of torture, not just the creepy things in the dungeons but the entertainment he found in making his sister, Ariel, climb stairs to the highest tower of any castle we visited.
On this trip, however, Ariel had largely been spared by the presence of Sam’s girlfriend, Laura: He didn’t have to amuse himself by making Ariel climb 300 stairs. Laura, it turned out, loved castles as much as he did. We found this out when Sam and Laura enthusiastically explored every corner of Hoensalzburg, the mighty Austrian fortress, early on in our trip.
Now, on the last part, as we headed from Switzerland back to Belgium, via France, we were going to stay in two castles.
This is not a hard thing to arrange in Europe these days: Castles have been converted to luxury hotels and student hostels. We were staying, however, in castles that still belonged to families who had managed to stay in their grand homes over centuries.
The current château of Villersexel is its third incarnation, explained the owner, Jean-Pierre Portet, who met us on the steps of the château and carried in our bags, commenting on the regrettable tendency of Americans to lug about huge suitcases. Portet, a baron who can trace his ancestors back to Charlemagne, said this castle, he said, was built after the previous castle was destroyed in the a battle between the French and Prussians in 1871; and it had been burned to the ground another time as well.
“There has been a castle on this site for a thousand years,” he said, adding he would tell us its stories in the morning. For the time being, he and his quiet wife, Corinne, took us up a sweeping staircase to an enormous three-room apartment, the beds all crowned with cornets.
When we woke up in the morning Ariel said, “I kept expecting to look out from the curtains and see a tour group coming by.”
“Did you meet any ghosts?” Portet asked, when he met us in the morning, after Mme. Portet had brought us breakfast. “No? Well, I heard they have all gone to a convention in Scotland.”
The officially listed architects of the current structure are Charles Garnier, the creator of the Paris Opera House, and Gustave Eiffel, of the tower fame. The baron and his wife live in their private quarters but it can accommodate up to 100 guests. Among those who have stayed there are Charles de Gaulle and Winston Churchill.
It has also gained fame as a former home of Lafayette, the French aristocrat who helped colonists in the American Revolution. He married one of Portet’s ancestors. “He is more admired by Americans than the French,” he noted.
Germans comandeered the château in World War II, Portet said, but was locals who had looted it at the end of the war. Portet, who lived in Paris during the war, said he had spent many years afterwards tracking down the château’s furnishings, to return it to its former grandeur.
He became a collector along the way, he admitted ruefully, as he brought us into the grand salon where he has six or so pianos, one of which belonged to Marcel Proust, another on which Chopin once played. “I wish I would collect something smaller,” he quipped.
The grounds, where some much older outbuildings still stand, are inviting and serene, belying all the battles that have taken place in its vicinity. We admired it all so much, he offered to sell it to us — with an engaging twinkle in his eyes. “You know, I might like a place that has smaller rooms and not so many stairs.”
On the other side of France, we found the château de Canisy, a Norman fortress that has managed to stand for all its 1,000 year history.
“This château is heading towards its millenary existence and it belonged to the same family, my family, throughout the ages,” said Count Denis de Kergorlay.
Like Villersexel, Canisy welcomes visitors, but it is no way a hotel; there’s no check-in desk, no bellhops. We were welcomed by a Sandrine Pien, the gracious overseer of guests. She doesn’t stay in the castle, she told us, but lives nearby with her small son. She showed us our choice of rooms, gave us her cell phone number to call her, in case we were bothered by ghosts in the night, and she left us, in the castle.
According to Normande magazine, the current count was serving as the French cultural attaché in Thailand, when inherited the castle in the 1970s. He was inclined to give it to his younger brother, but then rethought this and, with his wife, instead restored it into its present elegance and quietly opened it to paying guests. The count’s wife, Marie-Christine has gorgeously decorated the bedrooms by themes — my son chose, for example, the Empire room, with a mirrored, copper bathroom that is a replica of one from the townhouse of Josephine de Beauharnais, who became Napoleon Bornaparte’s wife and empress of France — the Kergorlay family has ties to the Beauharnais. Myself, I chose a flowery bedecked room that turned out to be the Louis XVI room — Marie Antoinette was present at the wedding of a Kergorlay, who was serving in the king’s army.
The count, meanwhile, has gone on to be one of the French leader’s for the preservation of its historic properties, and president of the French Heritage Society.
Ghosts? We could have our choice of them most likely. According to the history, I read, sitting with my portraits of Louis and Marie, an early resident was with William the Conqueror, a Norman, and the last person to successfully invade Britain in 1066. During the French Revolution, another resident of the castle, Eleonnore de Faudoas, was friends with Charlotte de Corday who murdered the revolutionary leader Jean-Paul Marat with a butter knife. Three of the family were guillotined, including the charming young woman whose portrait hung outside Laura’s door. “And I liked her,” Laura said sadly.
Two young members of the family had gone to Italy on honeymoon just before the revolution, and stayed there throughout it, and so the family continued, but it was a caretaker who saved the house for them. When officials arrived to confiscate Canisy, the enterprising man got them drunk on Calvados, put them back in their coach and sent the to nearby St. Lô. Apparently before they had recovered, the Robespierre had fallen and the Terror was over.
The chateau is located almost half-way between the medieval Mont St. Michel and the beaches of the D-Day invasion. Yet, with its the 600 acres of tranquil landscape as well as the endlessly fascinating rooms, the castle could keep a visitor captivated without ever stirring beyond its gates.
Yet we had to leave: Ahead lay Paris, so my son could show it to Laura. And another royal treatment in the hidden away Victoria Palace Hotel on the Left Bank, another recommendation of our French hotelier expert, Richard Cabouret.
Then we spent our last night in Europe in a tiny, charming bed and breakfast in Bruges, a 17th convent on the canal, now owned by a Scots woman, Maggie MacMenamin and her Belgian husband, Gilbert Boydens. The Royal Stewart was a recommendation of Rick Steves, right as ever in his choices. I told Maggie we would be leaving for the airport early in the morning, so she did not have to worry about breakfast; and in the morning when we came downstairs, she had left a bag of salami sandwiches and pastries and a carton of orange juice for us to take with his. Royal treatment, indeed.
It had been a dizzying trip, this jaunt through I can’t remember now how many countries. Like the best of them the grand moments in castles and cathedrals and Alpine views were equaled by countless little ones — accidentally eating with Italian truckers near Trieste, trying to speak Slovenian to buy bread in Skofja Loka, encountering a two-man bush trimming crew shutting down the highway near Ligorno. Sitting with my sack of sandwiches in the Brussels airport ( “Mom, you look like a little old lady!”), it occurred to me again that the greatest treasure to be found in Europe are the people. From the counts and barons to the innkeepers, they are they are what draw you back again and again.
“So,” Sam said, as we were driving back from the San Francisco airport, “Where shall we go next year? Laura said she’ll come with us.”