By Hilary Prendini Toffoli
Photographs by Franz Lauinger
“It was beautiful, basically intact. Though it needed a bit of work, it was perfect for a small hotel. I immediately began to visualise the tapestries and gilded mirrors I’d hang on the walls, and already I could see people having breakfast under the pergola and playing boulesin the garden.”
Lanie van Reenen was on holiday in France when she came across the pretty chateau. Known as the Maison Rose because of its deep rose pink façade, it had been built in 1883 by Gabriel Charles Sallandrouze for his large family. He was one of the tapestry manufacturers who’d kept the art alive in Aubusson through the difficult years of the Empire.
His lovely chateau stands on a hill opposite the rose garden he created and the family’s 12th century stone chapel, which contains his tomb and marble bust. A glorious example of Belle Époque architecture, the chateau has gold-green embossed damask wallpaper still in perfect condition on the walls, and beautiful old French oak in the magnificent stairway and herringbone-style floors.
As soon as Lanie walked inside, past the stained glass Aubusson dragon and billiard cues still on the wall, she knew she was going to buy it. This was more than just the impulsive dream of a South African looking for a new challenge away from the problems of home. Aubusson is a unique and special little town. It’s in the Limousin area in the centre of France, the bit the French call la France Profonde, deeply rural. A place where creamy white Charolais cattle outnumber people, and emerald green meadows alternate with heart-lifting sweeps of yellow sunflowers, a forgotten region the French write off the way South Africans write off the Free State.
But it’s one of France’s last hidden gems, totally unspoilt, with few tourists. The diners packing the high street restaurants are not people who ask for bangers and mash. They’re people who know and love their culinary tradition. The food is uniformly good, with set menus costing little more than a meal in a better South African restaurant.
Even though they’re a million miles from Paris, these are people who glory in the finer things. (And if you want to know why, get hold of Jean DeJean’s riveting account of how Louis Quatorze set out to make himself and his country the centre of all things stylish in her book The Essence of Style.)
Many are moving to the cities in search of better jobs and schools, however. In their place are coming the foreigners and the young urban French, their heads filled with the intoxicating fantasy of owning a chateau that’s going cheap.
A chateau is a castle in the English-language sense of the word only when it has fortifications. Most of the chateaux in France are what English speakers would call manor houses or palatial country residences. Even though societies like Vieilles Batiments de France exist to help with the restoration projects, and expert artisans abound, the process of upgrading these gems entails haemorrhaging of hard-won euros, plus nerves shredded by the convolutions of French bureaucracy.
It’s a battle for which you need the kind of stamina and courage of those with pioneer blood in their veins, which leads us to one of the curious ironies of this story. In Aubusson the tapestry industry was established in the l5th century by Flemish immigrants whose Protestant descendants later fled to places like South Africa. Now those Huguenots are back—in the shape of a beautiful boeremeisie from Cape Town.
Fortunately the French government is helping Lanie finance the restoration with her partners back home. They include Cape architect Wynand Wilsenach, who’s done the chateau revamp and managed to retain the original feel while adding modern en suite bathrooms to each of the 10 spacious bedrooms.
And Lanie’s décor is equally sensitive. She’s found old share certificates of the Sallandrouze family and had them translated into a charming fabric design for her dining room chairs. She’s had period furniture made in North Africa and upholstered in a range of gloriously luxurious fabrics that are contemporary yet timeless, giving the rooms a freshness in no way at odds with the chateau’s elegant past. And of course she’s hung tapestries.
The revamp took three years. She finally opened Hotel Chateau Sallandrouze in August 2008, including a public restaurant run by a creative and energetic young Paris-trained chef from Aubusson. One of Regis Fleury’s delicious treats I tasted was rare duck breasts—slightly charred and served with a speciality of the region, a melting potato pie with a crisp pastry top.
Thanks to its elegant ambience, the hotel is all set to become a destination that’s sought after by both French and foreign tourists. Though her main market is Europe, Lanie is sure South Africans will visit.
“It’s the nuuskierigheid thing,” this spunky blonde mother-of-three tells me with a dimpled grin. “They’re curious about what other South Africans are doing abroad. And they’re proud when they see what you’re achieving. Also there’s the comfort factor, the familiarity of being with someone who speaks your language. A lot of people just want someone to take care of them. And it’s not as if they’re coming to a South African environment. My house is very French.”
Founded by the Romans on two rivers below what are now the last forested hills in the region, Aubusson was a thriving hub of the tapestry industry in its heyday. Noblemen used to hang these images of maidens and unicorns on their chateau walls to keep out the winter drafts, and then roll them up when they moved for the summer.
Aubusson is still a class act. Behind the lichen-covered stone walls of its narrow winding streets, among the charcuteries, boulangeries and patisseries you find in every French town, are shops, museums and factories dedicated to the tricky art of tapestry-weaving, both ancient and modern.
In a factory that has made tapestries for the White House and the Sultan of Brunei, you can watch a woman painstakingly restoring a masterpiece 42 metres square that dates back to Napoleon. She’s been at it for nearly two years. And a shop that belongs to the third cousin of ex-President Chirac—a treasure trove on the bridge leading to the old tapestry quarter—sells original old tapestry designs on cardboard.
You’ll find more to see than just tapestries. The weekly fresh-produce markets are always fun, and so are the brocantes—the flea markets that take place in different villages every Sunday, where people sell things like their family silver and monogrammed linen.
The forests are great for hiking and biking, and you can take a picnic basket to Ile de Vassivière, or drive out to Charroux, near Vichy. It’s described by tourism signs as ‘the most beautiful mediaeval village in France’. Among the cobbled streets you’ll find France’s finest mustard factory, a three-storey Clock Museum and Madame Bernadette’s tea garden, whose huge selection includes tea from Afrique du Sud.
Boussac is about an hour away. There Lucien and Bernadette Blondeau have spent four decades restoring and furnishing the 15th century castle built by Joan of Arc’s friend, Jean de Brosse. The Blondeaus are chateau fanatics. They owned the Maison Rose before they sold it to Lanie, and they’re thrilled with what she’s done with it.
Visit the Hotel Chateau Sallandrouze online at www.sallandrouze.com.