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Chateau Owners Give A Taste Of French Country Elegance

Staying in a French chateau adds elegance and memories to one family vacation.

The best part of visiting France is getting to know the people. If you can meet the people while living in a chateau, so much the better!

One of the highlights of our family trip to Europe was the three days we spent at Chateau de Colliers, in the heart of France's famed chateau country. (Chateau means castle in French.) My husband found the privately-owned chateau in Fodor's "Bed and Breakfasts of Character and Charm in France." Chateau de Colliers has room for only about 14 guests, so we were thrilled when the fax came confirming our reservations for our family of six.

A French major in college, I welcomed the opportunity to dust the cobwebs off the language I love. During our stay, I spent an afternoon speaking in French with Marie-France de Gelis, the wife of Christian de Gelis, whose family has owned the chateau since 1779. The parents of five grown children, Christian and Marie-France opened their home to paying guests nine years ago. They both speak English, which is a help to many of their visitors.

The oldest daughter of nine children, Marie-France grew up in Paris. She met Christian when her parents bought a second home in the Loire Valley.

When they were married 29 years ago, she adamently refused to live in the country. So they lived in Orleans for a number of years. But within three days of the unexpected death of Christian's father, they moved to the chateau - and never left.

Christian and another brother purchased the 40-room home from their other siblings. "Christian is the oldest son," Marie-France said. "He adores this house. We say, in jest, that it's like a mistress for him."

On an isolated portion of the famed Loire River, the chateau is surrounded by large trees and enough land to give it total privacy; yet it is only a 10-minute walk to the small village of Muides-sur-Loire and a 10-minute drive to Chambord, the 440-room chateau of Francois I, which is set in a forest of more than 13,000 acres. The largest of all the Loire chateaux, Chambord, built in the 1500s, attracts thousands of visitors annually.

Chateau de Colliers was built in 1750 by the Chevalier de Bela for his mistress. The knight was a secret agent for Louis XV. The second owner was the Marquis de Vaudreuil, the governor of Louisiana before France sold it to the U.S. (On display in the chateau are some antlers from Louisiana.) The marquis died without having an heir, so the de Gelis family had the opportunity to buy the chateau in 1779. In 1810 the de Gelis family was named to membership in French nobility by Charles X. Counting Christian's and Marie-France's grandchildren, 11 generations of the de Gelis family have lived in the chateau.

About two dozen huge portraits of de Gelis ancestors line the walls of the formal rooms and look down - sometimes sternly, sometimes with an air of amusement - at the visitors.

Chateau de Colliers is a combination of elegance - and elbow grease. The chateau, its setting and its furnishings are fairytale like. But Christian and Marie-France do not live lives of ease. In fact, Christian, a consulting engineer, does all the maintenance and repair work at the chateau in addition to traveling in Europe and in the U.S. for his engineering work. Marie-France has only the assistance of a gardener (they grow all their own vegetables) and a housekeeper/laundress.

Every morning, Marie-France is up by 7. Her first job is going to the village for fresh bread and croissants for breakfast. Breakfasts (les petits dejeuners), which are included with the room rate, are mouth-watering: steaming cafe au lait or hot chocolate, fresh rolls and breads, succulent fresh fruit, soft-boiled eggs, wonderful cheeses, cold cereal (if requested) and orange juice. Our family of six was never able to eat even half of the food that she served.

Later in the morning Marie-France usually goes to a larger city, such as Blois, to purchase the food needed for lunch and dinner. But in addition to meal planning, food shopping and cooking (she does it all herself), her day also includes light cleaning, ironing tableclothes and tending to faxes and paperwork. She always has a portable phone at her side.

Dressed in a slim green skirt and a blouse with a bright floral pattern, Marie-France sat at my feet during much of the interview. Periodically, she jumped up to check on guests who were entering or leaving. (She seems to have a sixth sense that alerts her to any activity in or around the chateau.) She would also pop out to answer a question from the housekeeper or to look at her reservation book in her office, in response to a phone call requesting rooms. Most often her answer is, "Sorry, we are full." In general, reservations need to be made two months in advance, she said.

Her eyes are ever watchful - searching for signs of pleasure or displeasure from her guests. "I always have a little fear when we receive someone," she said. For example, she worries if the petit dejeuner is adequate.

On our last evening at Chateau de Colliers, we ate dinner with Marie-France and Christian in the formal dining room which has frescos on all four walls and the ceiling. (They are original and worth many hundreds of thousands of dollars.) We began at 8 with before dinner drinks in the salon. The meal, which Marie-France created entirely herself, started with a large tomato tart and stuffed tomatoes. The main course was guinea hen, potatoes and salsify (a long white root vegetable) with a delicious sauce. (Marie-France made french fries for Paul. We didn't ask her to, but she had noticed that he was a picky eater.) Then came the salad. The French always eat a green salad following the main course. Then came the cheese course, which included some wonderful locally made goat cheese. Dessert was raspberry mousse. Marie-France wanted to serve coffee, but it was nearly 11, and the children were practically sliding under the table.

Our stay at Chateau de Colliers was the most relaxing portion of our trip. Much of the calming effect was the constant sound of the Loire River as it flowed past the chateau. We kept our windows wide open to let in the breezes and the soothing sound of the water.

When I asked Marie-France where she and her husband go for vacation, she said they never take them. They are open year 'round, and the farthest they go is for a brief stay with family in Paris. They work very, very hard. But it is clearly a labor of love.

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