Friday, January 30, 2009

The Siren Calls of Chateaux Nights

During the annual Primeurs barrel tasting the first week of each April and during VinExpo every other June, hotel rooms in Bordeaux are as scarce as free samples of Chateau Le Pin, as wine writers and the wine trade flock to southwest France from the four corners of the wine bottle.

Fortunately, during these few lodging-challenged weeks, many chateaux owners, normally a somewhat private and reticent lot, drop their draw bridges and throw open their iron gates to welcome us hordes of purple-toothed eno-fans longing for a free flop. All in all, it's reminiscent of the youth hostel scene, as we rush from chateau to chateau (is my bag half-packed or half-unpacked?) for a few hours sleep; if it's Wednesday, it must be Chateau Guiraud.
There is a charm in staying for a night or two in a chateau built with stone blocks -- some were born as castles -- that were constructed before my ancestors, generations back, decided to depart England for the colonies, whose ceilings are three times my height, and which were retrofitted with electricity and plumbing perhaps three-quarters of a century ago. Air conditioning is often an open window that may not have any drapes of blinds (are there peeping Toms among the vine rows?), the loo may be down the hall, and showers often require a bit of contorting.

Not that there isn't excitement and glamour. Sometimes the room next door may be occupied by an aging Brit writer whose book you brought 20 years ago or a tales-spinning wine merchant of Hong Kong. While a chateau may only have two or three such guests, a dinner there can be a 1940s-style grand soiree with a dozen or more invitees -- some staying at other chateaux, others the people who own the chateaux next door and are sans guests -- roaring up the finely graveled driveway for an evening of foie gras, duck breast, a string quartet, and ancient vintages being brought up from the cellar. Once, in a rare rejection of Bordelaisian ethnocentrism, a host actually served a fine white Burgundy with the fish course.

In short, if you get an invite for lodging or dinner at Pontet-Canet, Issan, Grand-Mayne or Ormes de Pez, don't tic the "decline" box -- although at Ormes you may have to suffer a meal at the Cazes family's companion domaine, Chateau Cordellian-Bages. (:>)

Not that chateau living can't be strange and scary. Once, I was staying at a small country castle in Sauternes, which the family had already fled, and the caretaker had to leave for a family emergency. As the only guest, I was left to lock down the place for the night by myself. And if you think your house has a lot of creaks and thumps in the night, imagine waking up in the midnight hours to the moans and groans of a 500-year-old pile of rocks and ancient timbers. Haunted chateaux? I haven't experience those, but I've had other writers tell tales around the campfire -- I mean, fireplace -- about hearing voices and seeing things that couldn't be attributed to too much espresso and Cognac.

Which brings me to a little tale that starts off, in the Hitchcockian manner, with an innocent, bon joviale prelude. I was having a Saturday night sleepover at a Medoc chateau in April 2006 when tout le Bordeaux was crammed and atwitter in anticipation of the barrel tastings of the marvelous 2005, no doubt the first of many such vintages of the century. Dinner was spectacular -- with a blend of people from various countries, occupations, and ages -- and lasted just long enough, but not too long.

Again, I was an only guest, so the host told me before he retired to his wing of the castle that we would have breakfast around 8 in the great room -- although we would be left to our own means, as the caretaker-cum-chef had the day off.

Sunday morning awoke bright and sunny -- I had parted to drapes before crashing -- and I was in a leisurely mood as my first appointment was hours away over lunch in St.-Emilion. The shower was in my room, but the toilet was outside and a few steps down the hallway. I scratched my head and other appropriate parts and headed in that direction.


Like a flock of giant birds with terrifying cries and crashing of wings, the burlar alarm sent waves of noise bouncing off stucco walls and parquet floors. Stunned, I retreated into my bedroom and started throwing on clothes in anticipation of the arrival of the French Foreign legion or at least Margaux gendarmes. Where was my host? Maybe he wasn't in the other wing after all, but was sleeping in his private retreat elsewhere on the estate.

And, just as suddenly, the clamor stopped.

Half-dressed, I inched back toward the door. My hand emerged waving like a refugee with a white flag. Nothing. Next my head. Still nothing. A whole body, somewhat cowering. Nothing at all. Of course, by now I really needed to go to the toilet.

A half-hour later, I was dressed and refreshed. Crisis over. It was only about 7:30, so I would go into the great room and try to decipher my notes from last evening while much-needed coffee was brewing. I strode confidently into the quiet hallway, paused to look out the windows at the budding trees, then set foot inside the room where we had sipped Champagne and munched finger food a few hours ago.


The birds were back, and this time they brought with them an instant fog that came gushing out from the walls! In seconds, the room was becoming obscured. Was I now being gassed as well? I fled the hall and went rushing down the giant stones steps to the first floor and the front door -- which was barred! I had noticed when I arrived the previous afternoon this gigantic piece of metal leaning inside the entryway, but now it was firmly slid into sturdy clasps on either side of the massive doors.

Feeling like Michael York in The Three Musketeers, I fought bravely to free the bar and myself. Would there now be stag hounds outside to rip me apart, or would I merely be epee-d and foiled? The barrier was finally flung free, and I escaped into the sun and ran across the gravel, the sound of the birds flying out the door in pursuit.

About this time, the door was flung open at the end of the wing, and my host sleepily emerged in his boxered state, "What's happening?" he croaked. I quickly told him about the attack of the birds, but his eyes quickly popped open when I got to the part about fog coming out of holes in the walls.

"Oh, my god!" he shouted and disappeared, the door left ajar.

Time passed.

Over breakfast, the windows of the great room now flung open to release the last vapors of the dark cloud, he explained what had happened. The chateau had once been burgled of collectables and a few paintings, even with an alarm. So he had gone into the extreme alarm mode, installing a nontoxic gas to "blind" any returning burglars. Staying in a separate wing, he would routinely shut off the alarms in the morning before venturing into the main part of the house. And last night, after cleaning up, the caretaker -- who didn't speak English and missed that part about one guest -- had routinely alarmed the house when he departed.

My bags fully packed, I left a few minutes later, forming in my mind as I drove down D2 toward the rocade a new rule for my Guide to Being a Chateau Guest in Bordeaux. Right after Rule 6 -- "Always bring a robe in case there are no curtains" -- and Rule 7 -- "Check to see if the ghosts in residence are good or evil" -- now comes Rule 8: "Always inquire about the intricacies of the security system," even if the owner might regard you with alarm as to why you are asking!

Until the next time...

Roger Morris

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