Last week I was asked by our designer to write a few words for our new brochure about the hotels we stay at. How I choose them, which are my favourites, a few words about some of the owners, etc. In trying to get a few words down, I was reminded of a conversation I’ve had so many times in France, but the best example concerns the Hotel Grand St Michel near Chateau Chambord in the Loire Valley.
This is the largest and most beautiful of all the Loire chateaux, with 365 chimneys and a grand double-helix staircase designed by Leonardo di Vinci. It lies at the heart of an old hunting park surrounded by a 32 Km wall, the longest in Europe. The park is full of wild boar and deer, and right next to the chateau is the hotel. You couldn’t imagine a finer setting. It has a slightly faded feel, but frankly it doesn’t matter. When you can sit with a pastis and watch the chateau turn gold as the sun goes down, you know you’re somewhere very special indeed. I never get tired of visiting this place, but first impressions were less auspicious.
When I approached the owner with our story, his reaction was the typical French one – he was “desolé”, but they couldn’t accommodate groups. (Have you noticed this? We Brits are sometimes sorry if we can’t help people, but the French are uniformly desolated if they can’t say “yes”. And as they hardly ever say yes, desolation must be pretty familiar to them).
I persevered and explained that we only cycle in small groups – I’ve had this conversation many, many times, it follows a very familiar pattern. Groups? No way! Small groups? Different kettle of fish. They could handle small groups, but, “desolé”, they were always full at the weekends. Who said anything about the weekend? How about Thursdays? Well, they were often full on Thursdays as well.
So, what if I call you with a booking, and if you have space on a Thursday for a small group of up to 15 people, could we stay at your lovely hotel? Desolation vanquished! “Absolutement”.
We’ve stayed there about 60 times so far, and it’s still beautiful. They serve wild boar from the estate (among other things), and after dinner we wander over to the chateau for the ‘son et lumiere’ spectacle, walking around the battlements in the dark with lanterns. What a beautiful place.
I’m sure you’ll write a lot of this off as exaggeration. In the particular case of the Hotel Grand St Michel I had a witness, Damaris O’Hanlon, and I’m sticking to my story, every word of it.