A Country Countess Visits the City of Light
by Countess Marnie de Vanssay
Almost all our guests visiting us at Château de La Barre, our Loire Valley family home, transit through Paris. Many recommendations requested concern important sights to visit on the two hour drive west to us or back to the capital.
The obvious, Chartres Cathedral with renowned scholar, Malcolm Miller’s superb tour, is always high on everyone’s list. But for those with more time, delving into history includes continuing via Chateaudun, the stronghold fortress of Joan of Arc’s companion in arms, Jean de Dunois, to the Knight Templars’ fortress of Arville, looking exactly as it did in the Twelfth Century.
And just 15 minutes before arriving at Château de La Barre, is a hidden gem — the privately owned Montmirail castle, where King Henri II of England signed the peace treaty with Thomas à Beckett. Here our château guests can be invited to a tea reception with the present owners, Comte and Comtesse de Buffevent, in the ornate drawing rooms decorated by the Princess of Conti, Louis XIV’s daughter. Invariably, over tea, conversation drifts to Paris, and sharing ideas of what we do, buy, see, eat and where we sleep when we go to the City of Lights.
My husband Guy and I met in Paris thirty-two years ago, when I was reading Psychology at the University with his sister. On our first “date”, although we were full-fledged Parisians, we hoped onto the touristy “Bateaux Mouches” for dinner — which we have yet to take again, if just for a cruise down memory lane.
Ten years ago, when Guy’s father died, we left Paris, and our jobs in advertising and human resources, to take over the family country estate, which has been lived in by the Comtes de Vanssay for more than 600 years. Quite a heritage to maintain indeed! We then underwent (and survived!) a few years of major renovations at our Château in the Loire Valley, and over the past six years, have welcomed many wonderful guests into our now elegant Château Hotel/home.
These days, our full time presence at the Château is required during the season from Easter to All Saints Day and from Christmas to after New Year’s Eve. So trips to Paris tend to be November to March. But Paris has no season, or every season is a Paris season!
Usually we time our trips to Paris around a special concert given by our friend, the internationally renowned orchestra Director, John Nelson. Or come up to the capital for a private dinner party with our Parisian friends.
Depending upon the events chosen, and the therewith associated baggage, we either opt for the two-hour drive or hop onto the TGV fast-speed train which takes only 43 minutes from nearby Vendôme Station right into the heart of Paris at Gare Montparnasse. Paris is a city to stroll around, so The Hotel d’Orsay is our first pick, because of its prime location. After breakfast, we enjoy beginning the day with a visit to the Museum of the same name, housing one of the largest impressionist art collections of the world. Sometimes we succeed in attending noon mass at Notre Dame Cathedral, built 850 years ago this December. Then we cross the Seine back to the Quais, and after a little browsing through the stalls of the bouquinistes, savour Guy Savoy’s three star cuisine at the deliciously affordable lunch menu prices.http://www.lesbouquinistes.com/en/accueil.php
Or, we continue our walk onto the Rive Droite into the Marais if we are planning afternoon visits to either the Louvre, the Musée Camando Arts Décoratifs, the Musée Carnavalet, the Musée Picasso, or need to visit the famous auction house Hotel Drouot for a “treasure hunt” to add a specific piece of art to our château collection.
Then we enjoy lunching at the still quite unknown former house of the Fourteenth Century Alchemist, Nicolas Flamel, reputed for having turned lead into gold. http://www.auberge-nicolas-flamel.fr/ To satisfy our shopping desires, we need his secrets desperately!
Generally we prefer to remain on the Left Bank and just stroll around the Quartier Latin with its infinite number of alluring boutiques, gourmet shops, small galleries, antique stores and fabric designers. Closer to the Seine along the Quais, as well as rue Bonaparte, rue de Lille, rue Jacob, rue des St Pères, the most prestigious antique dealers rival with top fabric designers such as Nobilis for prime location. Then cross the Boulevard St Germain, down the rue du Bac, past stationery engravers, fragrant candle makers, patina silver pieces, fun party accessories, chic lampshades, embroidered linens, silk nightwear. Whatever you never knew you might someday wish to own to embellish every aspect of your home décor can be found here. Fortunately, we then pay a visit to the chapel of Our Lady of the Miraculous Medal at the end of the rue du Bac, to jar our values away from a total orgy of materialistic delights.
And just when Guy feels he has enough of the more “feminine” type of shopping, we arrive at rue de Sèvres, and he disappears into the gentleman’s paradise of Hackett, or Arnys (Oscar Wilde would have purchased his entire wardrobe here) and finally surrendering all financial common sense at Weston, the only shoe shop to have 3 to 7 widths per size, and able to supply personalities ranging from Bruce Willis to Jacques Chirac…and now my husband.
After this extravagant pilgrimage down shopper’s paradise, we head off to spend the few remaining euros in our favorite little Italian restaurant, La Locanda, on rue du Dragon, because part of the joy of being in Paris, for us, is dining someplace other than the French gourmet havens, which surround us in our Loire Valley region. For our foreign guests, however, we stick to recommending dinner in the oldest restaurant in Paris, La Petite Chaise, in existence since 1680 as a restaurant, and offering reliable quality at affordable prices.
The following morning, before catching the fast-speed train or driving back to our Château, we load up on goodies, first at the best cheese shop in the capital and in France, the supplier of the Presidential Palace of L’Elysée, on rue de Grenelle: Barthélemy , then at the Bon Marché’s food hall, as it rivals Harrods any day. Alternative to the crowded Galeries Lafayette and Printemps Haussmann, Le Bon Marché Rive Gauche is the signature of the chic and arty spirit of the area nestled between the 6th and 7th arrondissements of Paris. Very “Left Bank”, this department store has been catering to women and their husbands since 1852, date of its creation. Far from only selling fashion accessories for women, the Bon Marché has it all, for men to children, from decoration to gastronomy.
If we have opted for the train into Paris, this is invariably the time when we miss our BMW break station wagon, as we swear we will diet…after tomorrow!
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. 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 www.chateaudelabarre.com
Click on the map pins for information about locations mentioned in the article.