The XXIst century had only just begun when Guy and I plunged into a 6 century old time tunnel, as the family property fell into our hands like a hot potato upon the death of my father in law.
The dream of many mid career managers of “changing their parachute” came true overnight, larger than life. But, as we made our way down the familiar estate drive one cold March afternoon, to find no heating, gutter pipes leaking and ceilings collapsing, apprehension and anxiety could be read all over our foreheads!
Guy had just lost his job following a takeover of his advertising agency, and Ariba, the internet company I was recruiting for, had starting laying off over half of their European executives.
What to do? Would we be the generation to fail the “Noblesse Oblige” values of our ancestors, and sell 600 years of unbroken lineage? But how could we possibly maintain 100 acres parkland and 40 rooms, not to mention the “nombreuses dépendances”, ie chapel, stables, cottage, gate house, laundry house, and orangerie? Our last penny would disappear on the full time salary for a gatekeeper while we would be riding rodeo in the fickle employment market, already then starting to show its first signs of impending doom for the over forties.
During a Spring break 2002 in Great Britain, relaxing at a couple Wolsey Lodges, (elegant “Gentleman’s homes opened to welcoming guests in the tradition of Cardinal Wolsey) an idea started germinating…
Hundreds of kilos of sandstone, plaster, pipes, limestone, mortar, primer, grout and paint….four solid Makita sanding machines, two power drills, 200 rolls of wall paper, 500 metres of designer fabrics not to mention the tens of thousands of Euros for plumbing, electricity and carpentry, plus far too many bottles of wine and almost a divorce later, we were ready to welcome our first guests, taking over the entire chateau for the week of the famed Le Mans race in June.
Exhausted, yes, but proud also, feeling like Olympic runners passing on the torch to yet another generation, a link in the chain, maintaining the 600 year old family chateau, also part of the regional heritage of Western France, and a witness to an elegant European lifestyle of bygone times.
Proud also because we feel we are living our conviction that values and heritage are important, and that a generation without identity and history is a generation without a future.
Many aspects of the renovation proved particularly interesting. Whilest building the bar in the oldest room of the chateau, we uncovered an entire indoor window, accessing a 20m deep well! During the 100 years war access to indoor water supply was essential, as this region, part of the Plantagenêt Crown of England was devastated (Henri II was born in Le Mans and Anjou-Maine only became part of the Kingdom of France as late as 1426).
Other finds came from rummaging through the chateau archives, which comprise documents from the XVth century to WW2. Contrary to common belief that the Lord of the Manor was a wealthy, distant tyrant ruling over his serfs, they describe all the inhabitants without distinction gathering around the monumental fireplace of the fireplace room, called “la pièce à feu”, as well as the items, all simple, being passed down in the family : pewter plates, straw mattresses and linen dresses.
A number of fairly improbable items, stored in attic boxes, even provided surprisingly lucrative sources of renovation financing via eBay, the XXIst century meeting the XIXth: photographs of popes on their deathbed, communion cards with St Lucy bearing her breasts on a platter, wild boar trotters transformed into silver candlesticks, broken telephone sets from the XIXth century…
Marriages were arranged, but the letters between the IVth Marquis de Vanssay and his parents in law, describing his love for their daughter, in 1778, show a depth of feeling and respect that no Hollywood romance comes close to. Guests enjoy reading these while sitting in the XVIIIth century ornate Grand Salon, where all the furnishings were especially crafted some 250 years for Charles de Vanssay’s wedding. What a perfect surrounding in which to host a wedding or renewal of wedding vows, as below:
The farewell to the last guest of the season ushers in the beginning of a new renovation project. The maintenance of a chateau is an ongoing, never ending affair, a love and hate relationship!
The tedious, repetitive sanding and painting, fortunately paves the way to the creative, decorative choice of fabrics or the completion, this Spring, of the restoration of the family chapel, the walls of which are currently being primed to carry three gigantic paintings of the Nativity, the Resurrection and Pentecost executed by a Cambodian/French artist, depicting the exuberance and joy of true spirituality whilst keeping to the colour tones of the original stainglass windows.
Although our memory is often drawn into the past, our hands need to be responding to the present, while our eyes focus on the future.
It is in this that our 20 years of experience in marketing, communication, sales and PR comes in handy, analysing: Where do our clients come from? How can we draw them to our region and chateau? What makes Château de la Barre unique? What special events should we stage, with the former middle class traveler having become poorer, but an entire new class of almost “indecent” spenders having emerged? We have just quoted for a couple flying in by private jet, renting the entire chateau exclusively for two days, with a top notch chef, a Bentley 1953, a trio of harpist, violinist and flute and helicopter visits of neighboring chateaux, just for a wedding anniversary…And will be welcoming a small group later this year for a high end “etiquette” weekend.
Our learning curve with internet communication is also constantly evolving, moving from traditional email contacts with editors of glossy magazines to designing websites and coming to grips with the rapidly changing social media through twitter, LinkedIn, google +, Pinterest and now our own blog.
Our approach has to be simultaneously constantly innovating and yet still steeped in 600 years of tradition. Today we are moving past being just a luxury accommodation for travelers discovering the Loire Valley, to communicating our “brand identity”, our specificity, which lies in sharing the exclusive experience of French elegance, history and joie de vivre.
In an increasingly impersonal world, Château de la Barre offers a private estate where clients become guests and often friends, taking time to reconnect with family in exclusive surroundings. It is about relationships, those built between our clients travelling here with their friends. But also those built between our clients/guests and us. And those built between our staff and our clients. (one look at our chauffeur, David’s, guestbook speaks volumes. And those built between us and the many regional suppliers we work with, from our cleaning lady and gardener to the cheese farm, to romantic gardens, golf clubs, other chateaux, the local tourist board, restaurants, shops, concert pianists, hot air Montgolfier balloon pilots, stone masons giving lessons in medieval techniques and so many more.
Relationships, in France, generally originate around the dinner table. Sharing a meal creates a bond, be it our cheerful English breakfast or the very formal Grand Siècle Dinner, or just tea under the centennial elm trees.
We feel we have gone the full circle, from our very individualistic careers “yuppie style” to the joy of working together and supporting each other in a region where our good fortune helps others who in turn help us. A system of Noblesse Oblige some people might call antiquated and better replaced by norms and regulations… But do these actually foster personal relationships, dynamic enterprise and respect human dignity ? What if work were made for man and not the reverse?
Life at Château de la Barre allows our guests to escape into this bygone era, travelling in time to when the rhythm of the days was slower, graciousness ruled conversation and French elegance or “art de vivre” was the reference. Here guests can reflect on the lives and deeds that now belong to history, and savor the present, in surroundings preserved for their appreciation and enjoyment—today and hopefully for another 600 years!