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Open Features: Le Repas

Derek McQueen tells of a terrible French meal and a wonderful chateau.

It was the worst meal we had ever had in France. Unacceptable anywhere, come to that. The Chateau de Montreuil-Bellay didn’t open to the public until 2pm. It looked stunning in the early November sunshine, a superb 15th century fortress of towers, and huge, turreted walls. Columns of honey coloured stone chimneys confirm the 500 years the Chateau has been lived in. How fortunate that we could visit here; we had after all come to the Loire Valley looking for vineyards offering wine tasting.

A light lunch in the cafe across the road would be perfect to take us to 2pm.

The woman with appalling hair in grey, unwashed, multiple strands, looked like the owner. She seemed disorganised but eventually took our order. We were a party of five; three French and two English.
Louise helped us with the menu.

"Deux croques monsieur, s'il vous plais. Deux salad de tomates et
un Salade de poisson. Merci madame."

So far so bon. Then came the wait. After twenty minutes a second woman appeared from the street apparently to assist the struggling proprieteur.

After fifty minutes, le 'repas' arrived. Somehow I knew it would be appalling and it was. France's reputation took a lurch.

"The Chateau will be better," Anne said. We were on a bit of a downer after the Cafe Bleu.

The guides were delightful, as young French girls tend to be.

"The Chateau as we see it today was constructed between the thirteenth and fifteenth centuries," Yvette lisped.

"The end of the Hundred Years War was brought about by the truce in 1475 signed between Edward IV and Louis XI in Picquingy. This put an end to English influence in French architecture and the design of the Chateau evolved in its own distinctive manner."

It was part fortress and part country seat both on the grandest of scales.

As well as the extensive and quite superb formal gardens, overlooking the river, we were taken through a number
of exquisite chambers furnished in the grand manner.

" Zis is the salle de musique," Yvette advised the group. A blue, picture lined, room with chandelier and a huge stone fireplace, had a harp as its focal point. It had been recently lived in that was certain.

"The bureau was designed by the famous cabinet maker Boulle in 1650 and decorated with tortoise-shell and inlays of copper," Yvette went on.

We were shown the Caves where George Grandmaison, the then owner of the chateau, founded a Wine Brotherhood known as 'Les Sacavins'. This was to protect and promote the wines of Anjou.
The sacavin was a barrel holding two or three litres and the workers each had a sacavin as their daily wine ration while working in the vineyards. Some slung the barrel from their neck while they worked.

There are many impressive rooms in the Chateau but we were most intrigued by the Chambre de la Duchesse.

"This lady, Anne, Duchesse of Longueville, was in the Chateau in this chamber in 1648 or thereabouts. She was in custody here for almost three years for her involvement in the Fronde and kept within Chateau boundaries. La Fronde was the name given to the series of civil wars in France between 1648 and1653 during the minority of Louis XIV. The Fronde is the name for a 'sling' of a children’s game, played in the streets of Paris in defiance of civil authorities. At its simplest, the Fronde was an attempt to check the growing power of Royal government."

The Duchesse was a keen horsewoman and was badly missing her riding. In desperation she persuaded a groom to bring a horse, any horse, into the huge Main Entrance Hall of the Chateau. A wide stone staircase, with a cobbled floor, wound three levels to the top of the Chateau. Anne decided to ride the unlucky horse up the staircase, a foolish and quite risky thing to do.

Amazingly the Duchesse made it to the top but by this time the horse was terrified and refused to go back down. Eventually a groom blindfolded the petrified creature and led it slowly down
to the bottom where it collapsed and died.

"Zere is a ghost of this orse," the young guide informed us. "It is never seen but on stormy nights we can hear it whinnying in terror.

We just had time for the wine tasting.


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