Among the 50,000 grands chateaux in France, a few hundred take in a small but certainly not select number of guests for bed and breakfast and - if you choose - dinner, at prices often cheaper than a standard hotel's. These chateaux are not to be confused with the 'chateau hotel' type of accommodation offered by the Chaine des Relais et Chateaux or Chateaux-Hotels Independants. Those are hotels and you are their customers. Chatelaines like Florence welcome you, according to the brochure, 'just like friends'.
Des Reaux is a moated, twin-turreted confection, with a chequered facade of white stone and pink brick and elegant mullioned windows. It was built by the Briconnet family before they built their better-known chateaux at Azay-le-Rideau and Chenonceaux. Run a little like a country house hotel, it has 16 bedrooms and three apartments, so dinner is usually for about 20 American and British guests. With such numbers, you take the rough with the smooth.
The smooth on this occasion are a couple of charming caterers from Dallas in smart blazers and loud silk ties who muck up Florence's man/woman/man seating plan. The rough is a ramshackle 250lb, 6ft 7in New Yorker called Gus, with shoes the size of Loire barges, who shambles around as if he just learnt to walk erect this morning. He is wearing jeans and a pullover across which knitted reindeer romp. He seems to know nothing at all about France.
Gus remarks only how he loves these quaint old houses. His tiny wife, who reaches his belt buckle only because his trousers are drooping, sips uncertainly at the champagne in her glass during pre-dinner drinks in a panelled apartment and explains how in the Metro her husband was mugged and she chased the mugger. She tells the story several times but seems puzzled that people find it funny.
Even though we are paying for the privilege (our rooms are between pounds 25 and pounds 50 per head, dinner is pounds 25 per head) we all treat the aristocratic Florence with a certain formality. The brochure for the chateau speaks of the great chateaux being created by women it calls 'heroines of the Loire', and Florence is ranked among them. Some guests have been known to curtsy.
Despite my best intentions I immediately find myself being obsequious. Phrases I would never normally use - such as 'how enchanting' - spring unbidden to my lips. I gush. It is therefore something of an anti-climax when Florence, her husband and her children, Angelique, Frederic and Stanislas, don't actually join us for dinner.
Florence shepherds us across the marble floor into the magnificent dining room, settles us at the long table, then closes the door behind us as she leaves. A smartly dressed Englishwoman, who is quite fortuitously placed at the head of the table, feels it incumbent upon herself to fill the void with golfing stories. As course after course goes by, however, we are reduced to worse banalities.
Chateaux in France can be anything from medieval donjons to large 19th-century country houses. The Chateau des Reaux is as you imagine the real thing to be, although it has two minor drawbacks: it is near a railway line for the occasional high-speed train, and it is only two kilometres from the Loire Valley's greatest eyesore: a nuclear power station on the banks of France's longest river - you can't actually see it, but you do see lowering clouds of what you hope is steam hanging above it. Before dinner, everyone has the same thought: avoid the lamb.
There are more than 100 chateaux to stay at in the five regions of western France (Normandy, Brittany, Western Loire, Poitou-Charentes and the Loire Valley). Prices vary, as do the facilities, but you can stay in an old house of immense character for as little as pounds 20 per head. At the Chateau de Bois-Renault we stayed for two nights with breakfast and dinner for a total of pounds 66 - although the circumstances were slightly unusual.
Bois-Renault is on the south-east fringe of the Loire Valley, set among windswept wheatfields. It is a 19th-century copy of a grand chateau with turrets, finials, and monumental timberwork. On the walls are antlers, muskets and - in the sitting room - a wonderful tapestry. A grand staircase sweeps up to the four rooms and two apartments available per night at between pounds 20 and pounds 40 per head.
We arrived in the middle of a champagne reception to celebrate the completion of the swimming pool. Because our hostess had friends staying, the only room available for us had no en suite bathroom. It was, in fact, her dayroom, hung with abstract art and lined with books and family photographs. It was so large the double bed looked like a single.
As recompense for our inconvenience we were invited to join their party for buffet dinner. Nobody except our slightly dizzy, chain-smoking hostess spoke English, so for the next three hours we battled our way through social chit-chat: I came up with verbs, my partner handled the tenses. Our hostess eventually sat with us and a small group of her friends, possibly because no one could make out what we were saying. Next day we were free to potter around the chateau at will. Early in the morning, before the sun had cleared the mist, we borrowed bikes to cycle through the countryside George Sand knew so well.
The only awkwardness came at around six in the evening when we wanted a drink but did not know how to go about getting one. Hovering seemed to do the trick, however, and dinner soon after really was en famille - with three of the family, we tucked into the leftovers from the previous night's party, washed down with generous supplies of the local wine. It was all so friendly and informal that we felt guilty not to be helping with the washing up.
Even though bed-and-breakfasting in chateaux is fun, you have to be in the mood for it. If you intend to dine there, you have to be gregarious and confident. In return you can take pleasure from staying in some very unusual and atmospheric bedrooms. Of course, authenticity can go too far - as, for example, at the Chateau de La Voute in Troo, between Tours and Chartres. A large 16th-century town house, on the edge of Troo overlooking a river valley, the chateau has only three rooms and two apartments for rent. There are canopy beds, writing desks, comfortable chairs and an abundance of knick-knacks in each room, supplied no doubt from the antique shop next door which the owner also runs.
It is beautiful but frightening, your room so cluttered that you hardly dare move in case you knock something over. When we stayed there, our awareness of being in an antique bed made for a tense night, especially when we heard two mosquitoes buzzing around us. Our muscular control as we threaded between table and chairs attempting to kill the creatures without either breaking anything or marking the wallpaper was worthy of a t'ai-chi master.
When the proprietor brought breakfast - raking the room with his eyes - he left us huddled uncomfortably on a day bed, trying to eat off a very small tray without dripping crumbs and confiture on the 18th-century rug. If you fancy sleeping in a perfectly maintained museum, this is the chateau for you.
The booklet 'Bienvenue au Chateau' has full details of all chateaux in western France which provide overnight accommodation (obtainable from the French Government Tourist Office, 178 Piccadilly, London W1V 0AL; tel 071-491 7622).
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