Monday, May 21, 2007

Logbook: Chateau d’Agel

Chateaudagel1_2Despite my early departure from Limoge last Tuesday -- I can’t believe how fast the week has flown by! -- I was unable to meet up with my good friend Mark en route as I had hoped. When I called him to say I was approaching Toulouse, he informed me that he was already well down the highway toward our mutual destination, getting ready to stop and do some shopping before going to the Chateau in Agel. I was a little disappointed about missing our connection, not just because I was looking forward to seeing him, but also because I was hoping to save him at least some of the grief I experienced when first trying to navigate French roads and French shopping. When I got to the Chateau before him, I knew my instincts had been right and could only shake my head in sympathy when he arrived three hours later and told me of his ordeal: Confusing road signs, badly posted detours, no bags at the supermarket, stores closed from twelve to two. Everything you need for getting lost, frustrated and exhausted! He was relieve he had survived it, and we were glad to see each other in person, a welcome change from our usual digital connection.

Our first order of business was to meet the owner of the Chateau and get the lay of the land. “Madame” gave us a tour of the spaces and facilities at our disposal, handed Mark “the keys to the castle” and left us to get settled in. It is impossible for me to fully describe Chateau d’Agel in words, and pictures don’t really help. Originally built in the 12th century, it was heavily damaged in one of the many “campaigns” in the region and substantially rebuilt in the 15th century. It was greatly “enhanced” in the 17th century when Madame’s family acquired it, and has been in her family ever since. The common areas on the main floor include a large sitting/living room -- lined with book shelves that contain untold numbers of volumes dating from the early 1700’s! -- a bright and comfortable salon, a formal dining room and a small but modern and very serviceable kitchen. The ceilings are at least 12 feet high, the decor and furniture are stunningly antique and there is the presence of heavy stone everywhere. One floor up the original stone spiral staircase in the main tower, you enter a huge sitting room that is surrounded by five large bedrooms and three updated bathrooms. Again, the size, volume, decor and furnishings are such that you feel like you have been transported back in time and are, in fact, in an ancient castle. Madame has done an exceptional job of retaining the “ancient atmosphere” while adding “contemporary comfort.”

When the tour was finished, Madame excused herself to her private apartment at the back of the castle then Mark and I each picked a bedroom, dumped our gear and met on the large patio for a glass of wine while waiting for others to arrive. You can imagine my delight when the very first to arrive was a big black dog! Bounding onto the patio, a beautiful, friendly, mostly Black Lab came right up to me and rolled over for a belly rub. Within seconds, Madame came running around the corner, calling her dog and apologizing for his intrusion. When she saw me on my hands and knees, smooching her dog she pretty quickly figured out that I was delighted to see him and that he was a very welcome addition to our party. Little did she know that Achilles and I would become almost inseparable over the course of the week!

Our days seemed to take on a spontaneous routine, so rather than give you a play-by-play of what happened day to day, I’ll just give you an overview of the pattern: Probably because I was the only one not jet-lagged, I was up first every morning, and enjoyed some time to have coffee and read on the patio. Shortly, “my” dog would bound around the corner of the castle and we would have a morning hug, a belly rub, a walk and a robust game of “fetch.” In due course, others would arise, get coffee and assemble on the patio where lively conversations would commence on all manner of topics. At some point, ideas for what to do that day would be put forth and groups of various sizes would head out for exploration, returning in time for wine and cheese followed by a full-group dinner at a restaurant in a near-by town. Full of food and wine, we would all return to the castle, have coffee and chat for a short while then proceed to our royal rooms at a surprisingly early hour. It goes without saying, of course, that I used every spare minute to play with Achilles!

Interwoven in this routine were a number of special, noteworthy experiences: One, of course, is the whole French dining ordeal. Even though none of us had any set schedule, place to be or things to do, we all noticed and commented on the extraordinarily slow pace of French dining. Enjoying a slower pace of life is one thing, but dining as an all day event is something else. Mark and I commented on this to some hungry new arrivals we picked around lunch time at the train station in nearby Narbonne, and we couldn’t have scripted our case better than the three hour ordeal our simple lunch turned out to be. By the time it was over, we had all laughed so hard we were crying. If you have ever dined in France, you know what I’m talking about. If you ever do, you will. Another “special” moment in the week was when Madame gave us a complete tour of the “closed” portions of the castle. It turns out that the public spaces and Madame’s apartment only comprise about half of the whole castle. The rest -- including the entire third floor, the wine cellar, the laboratory and the other towers -- are in a complete disarray, pending “rehab” as Madame’s time and money permit. She showed us artifacts from her family history, let me climb ladders up to the very top of the tower and let us look around all the nooks and crannies. It was a fabulous tour and the castle’s restoration is -- and will continue to be -- a huge undertaking. I have immense respect for her effort, stamina and commitment!

Chateaudagel2A third “moment” happened late one night after everyone had gone to bed. I was brushing my teeth when I looked out the window and saw Madame walking around outside with a flashlight. I opened the window and called down to see if she was okay. Obviously in a near-panic state, she told me that she was looking for Achilles! She had searched all over the grounds and been all over the town of Agel but couldn’t find him. I wasn’t about to go to bed when “my” dog was missing, so I went down to help her look. We decided that it was very unlikely he had wandered off because the gates were closed and he’s just not that kind of dog. We figured that he might be in one of the guest rooms and although Madame said she was okay with that and would wait until morning, I knew she wouldn’t sleep a wink with her dog missing. Since I wouldn’t sleep a wink either, I went to the second floor and cracked open bedroom doors until sure enough Achilles emerged from Inga’s room with a sleepy dog face and a wagging tail. I took him downstair to Madame who was very relieved to see him. She thanked me, apologized for the disruption and we bid each other good night. What do you think happened next? You’re right! As we parted ways, Achilles started to follow me to my room! I laughed, Achilles wagged his tail and Madame -- in a not too quiet voice -- said “Achilles!” Giving me an ever so sad puppy look, Achilles turned and walked away to join his mistress.

Such was my week at the “castle” Chateau d’Agel. It was really great to spend so much quality time with my good friend Mark and I thank him for his generous hospitality. I also very much enjoyed meeting his other guests and look forward to looking them up whenever I may be in their corner of the world. The Chateau is a wonderful place and I can strongly recommend it as an excellent place for a family reunion, business retreat or other special event. Considering how many people it can host, it also works out to be surprisingly inexpensive -- less, in fact, than hotels that aren’t nearly as nice. When you add in the benefit of having a really great dog, the experience is priceless. In a few minutes I will pack up and leave the castle, bound for Nice. I will say fond farewells to human friends and try not to cry when I bid Achilles “adieu” on The Voyage of Macgellan!

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