As I travel around the chateaux and castles of France filming my television series Secrets d’Histoire or Le Village préféré des Français, I am struck by a curious paradox that never ceases to surprise me. French people adore their heritage and their history, and they are always prepared to go out of their way to visit an ancestral home. At the same time, though, they view these ancient buildings – however mistakenly – as the outward signs of great wealth, and as powerful symbols of the privileges that were abolished by the Revolution.
What are these privileges, exactly? The undeniable privilege of living in such historic surroundings, certainly, steeped in beauty as they are, filled with lovely furniture and works of art, and surrounded by gardens and parks of timeless splendour. But these exceptional buildings are a great responsibility, too, and as we marvel at their outward magnificence we often give little thought to all the work and sacrifice that go into their upkeep.
And yet, the families who have inherited the stewardship of these jewels of French history and architecture shoulder this burden cheerfully, without a thought for how much simpler – if more painful – it might be to give all this up, in exchange for a comfortable, centrally-heated apartment by the seaside.
The magic of what the French confusingly call la vie de château – shorthand for a life of luxury and indulgence – lies in this ambivalence. Chateaux and fortresses fire our fantasies and our imagination, but most of the visitors who marvel at their ancient walls, lofty halls, historic art collections, and immaculately tended gardens could scarcely imagine living inside their walls: they may be filled with fascination, wonder, and astonishment, but only rarely will they be filled with envy.
At the same time, one of the more intangible but nonetheless seductive charms of these ancient buildings lies in that inimitably French art de vivre that they hand down from one generation to the next, and in the perpetuation of an historic heritage that the French State on its own would struggle to preserve, were it not for those who live in them.
The Château du Lude belongs to this magic circle of ancestral houses that have retained their soul, and that remain a family home. The Nicolaÿ family are staunch defenders of this heritage, and of the necessity of protecting it for future generations. I recall my first visit to Le Lude, in the company of the late Comtesse de Paris, who was delighted to see her cousin, Princess Pia Maria d’Orléans-Bragance, a great and courageous spirit who, following the premature death of her husband, the Comte de Nicolaÿ, after just six years of marriage, was determined to preserve Le Lude while also raising her two sons. Thus it was – necessity being the mother of invention – that the first “son et lumière” (sound and light) performance in France was created. Against all the odds, Le Lude has remained a family home, open to the public and offering a warm welcome.
The most northerly of all the chateaux of the Loire, Le Lude is an historic monument that has witnessed six centuries of building and alterations. More than this, it has an atmosphere and a spirit that owe everything to the family who have made it their home for over 250 years.
Each succeeding generation has striven to make its own additions, literally or symbolically, making the house and grounds increasingly accessible to growing numbers of visitors, and bringing the glorious gardens alive—most notably through the Fête des Jardiniers, now an annual fixture in the gardening calendar, when the prestigious Prix Pierre-Joseph Redouté is awarded.
The magic spell with which the Château du Lude now enchants its visitors is testament to Comte Louis-Jean de Nicolaÿ and his wife Barbara, and to their faithful stewardship of this ancient building. They are determined to ensure that it retains all its charms as a family home while also welcoming the public.
In so doing, they also continue to pay tribute to those qualities of elegance, savoir-vivre, and refinement that are so inimitably, and I hope eternally, French. You have done an incredible job.
Barbara de Nicolaÿ on life at Le Lude...
Every home has its own family traditions and rituals, some of them dictated by the layout of the rooms. At Le Lude, it has always seemed strange to us that when you come into the house you have to walk through the dining room in order to reach the salons beyond. Once guests have been greeted by the dressed table, any element of drama or surprise is irrevocably lost, and some guests – as we can tell from their expressions – clearly think that after they have crossed the hall they are going straight to table, and hesitate when we invite them onward into the room beyond.
It must have been different in the nineteenth century, when the house was entered in a more logical fashion via the north wing. The room layout designed by the Talhouët-Roy grandparents created the effect they sought: the reaffirmation of the chateau’s social function and its historical roots, and a clear desire to distinguish themselves from those substantial modern residences that, according to Viollet-le-Duc, “perished with their owners, leaving no memories behind them.”
Picture visitors to Le Lude in 1865, say, stepping down from their carriage to be greeted in the entrance courtyard. They walk over the bridge to enter the vast great hall, under the enigmatic gaze of the angel of Le Lude, then they pass through the library, the Renaissance gallery, and an enfilade of four salons, before being ushered into the dining room, which lies, logically enough, directly beside the kitchens.
Before being seated at table and savouring their dinner, they can refresh their memories of French history by admiring the coffered ceiling and lantern in the style of Chambord, the Duc de Bouillon’s library, the fireplaces of the same workmanship as those at Blois, the ermine of Anne of Brittany, the salamander of François I, the porcupine of Louis XII, and of course the machicolations, a reminder (if one were needed) that the fortress of Le Lude stood here before the Renaissance.
Nowadays, we still eat in the dining room on a daily basis, and it is still the setting for happy family occasions, official receptions, and leisurely breakfasts, with pots of homemade jelly and copies of Le Maine libre and Le Figaro placed on the table daily, as they have been for decades.
Buy the book
From French Château Living: The Château du Lude, Flammarion 2017.
Photography © Eric Sander.
About the author
Stéphane Bern is French journalist, radio host and television presenter best known as a specialist in nobility and royalty.
Get the look
Even if funds do not stretch to a castle, you can still cherry-pick chateau style tips from the French high street. Prices and availability correct at time of going to press.
It may not be made of finest crystal but this elaborate chandelier (called a lustre in French) does the refined rusticity trick.
€159 from leroymerlin.com
Put your modern spin on heavy ‘gold’ curtains such as those as Le Lude with a lighter, more sunny pair of washed linen ones in yellow. €99.99 from www.maisonsdumonde.com. They also have cushions to match for just €19.99.
Recreate a little cosy chateau chic in your own salon with a deep red velvet sofa. Relax in style with this elegant model: ‘Lipstick’ from La Redoute: €1,229.