A few years ago, when my husband and I were touring France, a happy accident took us to a place of pure magic.
Our trip, which would take us by car right through France, starting in Normandy and ending in Provence, was to include a few days in the Loire Valley, taking in a château or two. As it was late September, we thought we would avoid the usual hordes of tourists who flock to that part of France in high season. But when we walked through the gardens of Chenonceaux, the most beautiful of the châteaux in the Loire Valley, we realised how wrong we were. We had to practically elbow ourselves into the château, and push through the throngs in order to go from room to room. It didn’t take us long to change our plans and we decided to head further south, down the less popular departmental roads. We travelled through Tours toward Châteauroux, having no idea where we were going to end up but that was part of the fun.
South of Châteauroux, we took the D943 toward La Chatre. This road led us through an area of France called Le Berry, less known than the Loire Valley and therefore, in my view, much more attractive. There are châteaux here too, less imposing and not so impeccably restored, which only adds to their charm. The rolling countryside has kept its old fashioned atmosphere and the little towns and villages don’t appear to have changed much in the past 150 years or so.
I read in the guidebook that Le Berry is the birthplace of George Sand, the nineteenth century author, of whom it is said that she used to dress up as a man in order to shock society. I later learned that she was just being practical as trousers are much more comfortable when walking or riding in the country. She is also rumoured to have counted some famous authors and composers among her lovers, such as Alfred de Musset, Franz Liszt and Frederic Chopin. Her home was Nohant, a small château south of Chatearoux, on the outskirts of Saint-Chartier, a sleepy village on the shores of the river Indre. We decided to stay the night there and visit the château the next day.
The late autumn sunshine and still air added to the romance of the countryside. As we drove in through the gates of Château de la Vallée Bleue, the hotel we had come across in the hotel guide (another happy accident), I felt as if we had been transported back in time. This house is not really a château but a big manor house, former residence of George Sand’s doctor. The hotel, lovingly restored to its former nineteenth century glory, has 8 comfortable bedrooms furnished with antiques of that period. We dined to the sounds of Chopin softly wafting through the hi-fi system and looked forward to our ‘rendezvous’ with Georges Sand the following morning.
The mist lay in grey veils across the fields and woods as we made our way to Nohant. When we arrived at the castle, we found a small group of locals waiting for the first guided tour to start. We were the only foreign tourists and we chatted to the other visitors who told us that, even though they were from the area, they had never visited the château and were looking forward to it as much as we were.
The tour guide arrived and we entered the château. What followed was an hour or so in a most magical place. Georges Sand, whose real name was Aurore Dupin, was the sole heiress to the château, the origins of which date back to the 15th century. It was rebuilt and extended through the years and is, in its present form, exactly as it was in the mid nineteenth century when Georges Sand lived there. She was a remarkable woman and counted among her houseguests the crème de la crème of writers, composers and artists of her period. Her dinner table would host such names as Franz Liszt, the authors Alfred de Musset and Alexandre Dumas and the painter Delacroix. Chopin wrote most of his music here and his bedroom and study exude his presence.
Georges Sand spent an extraordinary amount of effort and money to make her château the most up to date and comfortable house in France. The kitchens are remarkably modern and there is also a theatre where she and her guests would be entertained with puppets made by her son Maurice. The bedrooms were furnished and decorated with exquisite taste and the beautiful garden reminded me of the one described in my favourite childhood book ‘The Secret Garden’.
The visit was drawing to a close. The last room was the drawing room. There was a piano which, to our disappointment, was not the one Franz Liszt used, but a later copy. The tour guide invited anyone who could, to play a tune. A lady in the group reluctantly admitted she could play ‘but was a bit rusty’. She sat down at the piano and launched into a piece by Franz Liszt. Rusty she may have been, but to my untrained ears, the music was wonderful and as I looked out through the open window, into the pale sun shining through the mist floating around trees and shrubs, time stood still. For just a moment, I felt the presence of all those who had lived and loved and played there once upon a time.
My memory of this visit was so vivid that I promised myself to set a novel in this part of France, and it was fulfilled in ‘Finding Margo’.
I would thoroughly recommend a visit to this area of France and especially the Château de Nohant . The hotel is nearby and can be found on their website: http://www.chateauvalleebleue.com/.
Do go to Nohant on a late spring or autumn morning and maybe, if there is a piano player in your midst, you might also conjure up the spirit of George Sand.