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Castle for a young prince

Monday November 20, 2006

Paul Myers

The young prince, as my dad dubbed him on their first meeting seven months ago, has decided to usurp the queen bees in their quest for parental attention by waking up and bellowing during huge chunks of the night. Lyrical gurgles gush from him during the day as Inès and Mimi jostle for supremacy in the drama that is the end of their two week half-term holiday.
Instead of heading back to England to see family and friends, we repair to Burgundy to stay in a colleague?s country retreat.
The house is secluded enough to harness a sense of privacy ? especially useful with the midnight screaming sessions that overshadow us - and yet near enough to a large farmhouse to assuage my city-boy trepidation about it being too remote.
The girls are instantly impressed by the small horse in the adjacent field, snorting a welcome as we get out of the car to survey our mini-break chateau.
Their joy when we open the front door to find a cosy interior complete with TV and DVD player becomes transcendent when they alight upon the boxed set of Shrek 1 and 2 on the bookcase.
Since they don't have those kind of pleasures at home in Paris, the problem becomes how to lure them away from multiple viewings of computer-generated images of medieval fantasies and into savouring the latter-day flavours of Burgundy.
Well, I know trips to wine cellars aren't going to go down like a vintage Chablis, so it has to be a nearby chateau to see how real-life characters from the middle ages lived, loved and were slaughtered before the Hollywood industrial entertainment complex repackaged the era.
Chateau de Saint Fargeau is selected for the next day because at only 15 kilometres away from the house, we'll get there before we get: "Are we there yet?"
Duly deprived of the chance to grumble about the length of the journey, the complaint comes from Inès about not being able to ride on the ponies roaming around the 14 hectare parc anglais.
As it's getting a bit fresh out in the parc, the guided tour of the chateau is welcomed from all quarters. We congregate in a suntrap in the courtyard. There are   two other couples, one with two boys and another with a dog.
The guide waves a hand out towards the parc and tells us about the dazzling array of events there when they restage jousting tournaments, cook up tasty seasonal fare and do pony rides.
But that's in July and August. For early November we have to content ourselves with moving through the building and constructing images of yesteryear in our minds.
While the young prince sleeps, my girls make me proud as they listen to the guide recount how the place was transformed from 10th-century ducal hunting lodge into 15th-century stone-walled power base for movers and shakers including Jacques Coeur, chief financer of Charles VII who as we all know kicked the English out of France after being spoken to by the maid on a mission, Joan of Arc.
Suddenly the youngest of the boys starts screaming by the window in the dining room overlooking the parc.  The elder brother is pulled away. So far so medieval.
As we move through the chateau and into the 17th century we are told about the trials and tribulations of Anne-Marie Louise d'Orleans.
AMLO had many aspirants to her hand and lands. They'd be sent reports of her pedigree recalling that she'd been baptised in the Louvre and they'd be showered with stories of her fabulous wealth.
They'd also be apprised of her alpha male connections: Louis XIV: cousin; Cardinal Richelieu: godfather.
With those kind of attributes the attendant paintings sent to suitors depicting her charms seemed a bagatelle. But they too only served to enhance her wondrousness.
But, the guide informs us, when countless panting peers turned up at her well-fortified doors they found that AMLO was no J-Lo and blanched at the actual sight of her. The paintings had been paying extravagant compliments.
 The guide rolls her eyes and shakes her head as she tells how AMLO eventually became bitter at how all these lily-livered noblemen couldn't grab a meaty piece of the action.
AMLO takes solace in her nooks and crannies and drafts in the architect Le Vau who would have done a lovely job up at her cousin's in Versailles to gild her courtyard instead.
Past the library the tour fizzles out and I'm suddenly all alone in a dank inner courtyard  with the young prince still sleeping.
I hear voices. I see rat droppings. I shiver.
Inès emerges up some stairs with the rest of the tour. She then takes it upon herself to lead me down to the tunnels that she's just visited. But we only reach half way as it starts to get dark and without her sister to berate for being scared, she thinks it best for us to return upstairs in case I get frightened.
Given what I've just seen . . . I love my daughter.
Later that evening Shrek 1's take on fire-breathing dragons and fair but accursed damsels revivifies the journey to Saint Fargeau and it's hailed as a good day out.
Shrek also appears to have summoned up the first of the young prince's nocturnal barrages.
One of Mimi's drawings the next morning is of a princess adorned in a hat as high as the castle's walls.
There's a problem with proportion, I think to myself.
But then again that's not unusual around Saint Fargeau.


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