Prince Philippe-Maurice de Broglie has offered to pick me up in his battered Peugeot from Tours airport in the Loire. The back seats have long gone Awol and the dashboard has lost most of its dials, buttons, levers and knobs. "When I turn up at the chateau," he says, "the guests can't believe I own this. It looks great next to their Aston Martins." He is tanned, in his thirties and runs rather than walks. There are frequent shouts of "Allez" and the brakes have been fitted with a trombone, but we survive past the gates of the Château de la Bourdaisière.
The Prince and his elder brother, Prince Louis-Albert, bought the chateau 13 years ago and now run it as a hotel. (Their family pile is in Normandy, near Deauville, but Philippe wanted a little chateau to call home. "I like the quality of life," he says.) In fact, many modern aristos are taking to the hospitality trade. It may have seemed in poor taste and a bit " trade" to do so in the past, but many believe it is the only way that they can retain their castle, manoir and heirlooms. Most provide a fascinating peek into a bygone era.
Bourdaisière is a pretty, squat, 19th-century confection that hides foundations and masonry from many rebuilds, starting in the Middle Ages. It is comfortable, with a spacious living room, dining room and 11 bedrooms that are heavy on the chintz. "I run it like I feel it," Philippe says. "I would like people to feel that they are not in a common hotel. It's not a big house but it is a big atmosphere." It has all the hallmarks of a country house: framed butterflies, family portraits, violent plumbing. It also has a saucy history of housing royal and top-end mistresses and their discreet pictures can be found around the house.
The De Broglies were an old Italian family from Piedmont who were useful with their swords in the conflicts between the little Italian principalities. Then Mazarin, first minister to Louis XIII and XIV, asked them over to help France. "So as good mercenaries we came over for the gold and within a few generations held the title of marshal of France."
Come the revolution, the head of the family escaped France with the remnants of an emigrant army, fleeing to the bosom of Catherine the Great. His eldest son supported the revolution but he got the chop anyway, while the younger son miraculously missed the national razor and kept the family estate because Napoleon was keen to have his old warhorse of a father back from Russia to shore up support.
Time passed. The family dabbled in politics, tried to create a constitutional monarchy in the 1870s and the present princes' father served under De Gaulle. The title of prince is one from the Habsburgs. "Every one in the male line is a prince," he explains. There is also the French title of duc somewhere in the lineage.
The chateau has 55 hectares including a vineyard (nice drinkable white and a crémant), gardens, a 140-acre walled park, kitchen garden and woods. "We've only recently remembered that we have gardens in France. We couldn't afford to keep up the 19th-century style so I've opted for the English model - massive lawns." It is charming, with cedars, swallows and moats. At the moment A1-size pictures by Yann Arthus-Bertrand, the great nature photographer, are positioned about the grounds, forming an outdoor exhibition that will continue through the summer.
Dinner is simple and held in the garden - "my favourite dining room," says the Prince. As the light fades, I touch on the delicate subject of the revolution. "The past is the past," says the Prince. "You have to evolve with your country and your time. Things are more unstable now, no lifetime jobs. So you can't just stay in your chateau and expect the same returns that you got in the 17th century."
I lose sight of him in the darkness until a servant brings out a candelabra. The Prince smiles and talks more about his plans. He is enthusiastic, charming, jolly, slightly dogmatic and not for those looking for a turn from history because he is quite adamant. "You know what our motto is? - 'For the future'."
Chateau de la Bourdaisière (00 33 247 45 16 31, www.chateaulabourdaisière.com) offers doubles from €115 (£77), room only. For other aristocratic b&bs in the Loire contact Loire Valley Tourism (00 33 2 38 79 97 28; www.visaloire.com)
FOUR MORE ROYAL RETREATS
Chateau de Ribaute, Ribaute les Tavernes, Languedoc (00 33 4 66 83 01 66, www.chateaux-france.com/ribaute). From €89 (£64) for a double, breakfast €11 (£7.50).
Domaine Comtesse Michel de Loisy, Nuits-Saint-Georges, Burgundy (00 33 3 80 61 02 72, www.domaine-de-loisy. com). From €90 (£65) per double including breakfast.
Chateau du Bois Dousset, Lavoux, Vienne, Poitou-Charentes
(00 33 5 49 44 2026).
From €80 (£57) per double including breakfast.
Chateau de Kermezen, Pommerit, Jaudy, Brittany (00 33 2 96 91 35 75).
From €87 (£62) per double including breakfast.Reuse content