Hotel Finds: Loire's Best-Kept Secret (until now!) Hideaway

by Countess Marnie de Vanssay

TCO reveals the most refined, secret location for an exclusive 3-day wedding house party in true Downton Abbey-style.

Envision flames crackling in a majestic fireplace, mellow candlelight reflecting on delicate crystal Champagne flutes, a purple velvet bottle of Claret accompanying savoury meats en sauce, ornate bone china and heavy silver resting on crisp embroidered damask linen -- in short, the most refined and romantic Valentine setting to “pop the question”!

And then muse away together about when, where, how and with whom to celebrate the memorable event...

After discarding the usual Country Club wedding with hundreds of “must include” guests and acquaintances, then ruling out the trendy but solitary faraway island found on the cover of every glitzy travel brochure, you come to wish your family owned a stately manor, a Downton Abbey-type of place, to which you could convey parents and closest friends for three days of elegant festivities, travelling back into time and stepping into the exclusive world of French aristocracy.

Previous guests at Château de la Barre, a private estate less than two hours west of Paris, did just this.

Having spent a long weekend at the Château shortly after meeting each other, the day they became engaged, they phoned up Count & Countess de Vanssay, who had in the meantime become their friends Guy and Marnie: “Could you by any chance host our wedding for us over three days in October? Be a sort of Maggie Smith character as in Downton Abbey? There will be both our parents, our siblings and about twelve very close friends.”

We (Count & Countess de Vanssay aka Guy & Marnie) of course agreed. So, all twelve of the Château’s luxurious en-suite rooms and suites, each gilded with sumptuous designer fabrics, fine XVIIIth Century antiques, tapestries and paintings were reserved for the grand date.

Invitations bearing the Château family crest were quickly dispatched, in the style of those sent out for Kate and William’s wedding the same year -- or at least a very close approximation. A few phone calls later, a menu worthy of “Babette’s Feast” was drawn up with the Château’s top chef. Bookings were secured for the many onsite activities and the countdown began with house staff busy polishing oak parquet floors, intricate bronze handles, and all the antique silver. The gardener went into overdrive to ensure the vast flower garden was at its prime.

D-Day Minus-3: Some shopping addicts hit Paris for a quick splurge. D-Day Minus-1, Friday: All the wedding party met up at the fast-speed train station for a 43 minute trip down to Vendôme, a quaint little city along the Loir. Then off to the top-secret location, Château de la Barre, where everyone was welcomed by us -- Comte & Comtesse de Vanssay, the 20th generation in our ancestral home, the walls of which have seen many a family gathering!

The weather that weekend was blissful, a balmy Indian Summer. Afternoon tea was served under the Centennial Elm trees, along with fresh cider from the Château orchard. At 4:00 p.m. the “stag” party headed off to the famous 24 Hours Le Mans Race Track for a competition, driving eight different Porsches under the mythical Dunlop Tire logo. The “hens” opted for a foie gras cooking course with (much!) wine tasting.

At dusk, all congregated for a stroll around the magnificently restored Medieval Plantagenet city, followed by a visit to the cathedral where Henri II married Alienor of Aquitaine more than 800 years ago, and finally, a gourmet dinner in a XVth Century oak-beamed auberge, just before the magical light show onto the Gallo Roman walls began.

D-Day, Saturday: A leisurely brunch was served, then once the hairdressers arrived, all disappeared into their respective rooms while tables were cleared, deliveries were receptioned and more bouquets set up.

3:00 p.m. saw this most elegant group make their way to the newly renovated family chapel for a blessing. The bride and groom glided down the little isle to kneel on the prayer benches in front of the alter, as Nancy, the bridesmaid -- who is also a soprano opera singer -- broke out into an angelic rendition of Schubert’s “Ave Maria.” Light streamed though the stain glass windows as they exchanged their vows.

During the short walk back to the Château everyone’s gait lightened as the first notes of “Hello Dolly” sifted out into the air from the Château reception rooms. The groom’s parents had met during the original musical!

A lively champagne cocktail ensued, to further tunes played by the Jazz orchestra from the trendy band of Club de la Huchette, in Paris’ Latin Quarter.

Cameras were flashing as the bride and groom kissed underneath the portrait of the Marquis de Vanssay, who had been married in these very rooms in 1778. Actually all the furniture of the ornate Grand Salon had been crafted especially for his wedding and has never left the Château since!

To the call of “Les mariés sont servis”, bride and groom led the way into the XVIIth Century grand dining hall, mellow golden Sauternes glistened in the candlelight through thick cut crystal amidst an abundance of white lilies with an intoxicating fragrance. Laughter and joy mingled until the wee hours of the morning, accentuated by witty speeches and the rhythm of cheerful favourite songs requested and danced to by all.

Sunday, everyone decided to embark on a cultural sightseeing excursion to the romantic and famous Château de Chenonceau, known as the Castle of the Six Queens, with a visit to Leonardo da Vinci’s home on the way. Also on the agenda, tea in the “most English of French Gardens”, hosted by the owner/sister-in-law to former French President Giscard d’Estaing, grande dame and famous horticulturist.

The farewell dinner was an informal and relaxed impromptu Mediterranean couscous, with Count & Countess disguised in Djellabas, an amusing sendoff for the bride and groom’s departure to Morocco for their honeymoon! But rest assured, we managed to avoid the belly dancing!

In the morning, we all saw the bride and groom off early to catch their flight, then some guests lingered on for another two days of aristocratic R&R -- simply enjoying the bucolic scenery, the Medieval villages and discovering the well-hidden gourmet auberges France is famous for.

The Comte & Comtesse, however, had little rest, since everything needed to be geared up for another couple, older this time, who had requested a similar scenario, but to celebrate their 25th wedding anniversary with a renewal of vows.

Marnie de Vanssay and her husband Guy are officially known as Comte and Comtesse de Vanssay. Their Château de La Barre, which has been in the family for over 600 years, is located in the Loire Valley on a 100-acre park, with gardens, a family chapel, and Sixteenth Century fortifications.

At Château de La Barre, Marnie and Guy will not only welcome you as family friends, but assist you in planning your visit -- or wedding! Activities include: tours of Loire wineries, excursions to Renaissance castles and the Plantagenet City of Le Mans, or balloon flights departing from the Château park. Twice weekly, Guy and Marnie host a Grand Siècle Dinner with all the family silver and crystal. For more information, visit

Countess de Vanssay shares her favorite spots in Paris for art, shopping and dining in a previous issue of TCO.