Fontenaille Revisited

“Fontenaille, or Chateau de Fontenaille, is the name of my friend’s chateau in France, where I stayed for ten days between a pilgrimage with the Jesuit priest and a retreat in Plum Village. I had meant to share with you this scenic place, its history and environment, the serene atmosphere, the vast expanse of nothingness or green fields, the country life, the architecture of the chateau, the private chapel, the swan lake which was so named because it was home to two swans until they died, not of natural causes, and after which was frequented by wild ducks, and so on, all within only 11 hectares of land. I had taken pictures and made some notes. It would have made good reading if I had written on it shortly after I came back.”

I have just given you an excerpt of my Letter No. 78 uploaded on 7 April 2007. I had wanted to write a letter when I was there in August 2006, which turned out to be another unfinished letter. Now, fast forward seven years, there have been a few changes in my life, and my friend has decided to stay in her chateau for good, as opposed to travelling between there and London and Hong Kong. She has acquired more land around the chateau which now sits on some 40 hectares. In the meantime, I lost the notes and the pictures I took in 2006 when the hard disc of the laptop (an HP Compaq) failed to function. My friend has since largely renovated the interior of the chateau and built up other areas, so that it looks rather different from the time I last visited it.

When I was there in 2006, my friend had acquired the place for just about two years. She was busy shipping her collections – antiques, furniture, paintings, tapestries, artifacts and personal effects – from London, China, Hong Kong and elsewhere to her estate. Some rooms in the chateau became temporary warehouse while other rooms were being renovated by workmen and artisans, some hired from Hong Kong. She had acquired the place to build it to be her dreamland or pure land mainly for herself and her lovely daughter who was then reading fashion design in London. It is to be a place where she would find peace of mind and tranquility, where she would meditate for days if she chooses to, where she would keep the beautiful things she has collected over the years, where she would plant the trees and flowers she likes and watch them grow, and above all, a place where she would spend time with her best friends and loved ones.

My mind boggles at the inestimable amount of work she had to handle single-handedly over the last few years. I introduced her to Su when she was in Hong Kong and they became very good friends, so that it did not take Su long to accept an invitation to stay in her chateau when the opportunity arises.

The opportunity arises when we decided to take a side trip to France after my visit to London for the Centenary Celebrations of The Operatives. We arrived some ten days ago. It was raining and somewhat cool. She came in a Volkswagen camping van which was an addition from 2006 when she came in a two-seater Mercedes to pick me up, also at the train station in Laval, from where she drove about 40 km to take us to her chateau.

It is clear that she had spent much time and efforts to restore the place, probably beyond its former splendor. What she has accomplished is certainly awesome. I would not go into details on the number of rooms and their interior décor, lest this becomes a catalogue of antiques and period furniture, and besides I am not an expert in these matters. Suffice it to say that the principal building is a three storey structure with a basement built about 150 years ago. The ground floor houses the main dining room, a main reception room, a living room, a library and some other rooms. There is a wooden spiral staircase with handrails supported by antique and dated iron grilles with period engraving which runs up to the top floor through the middle floor with a landing on each. My friend uses the middle floor as the main living quarter for herself and her daughter. Her study could easily be the best room in the house, with a commanding view of the front lawn beautifully maintained with lush green grass and the swan lake beyond that.

We spent the evening, and indeed the following few days, slowly and leisurely, eating and drinking whenever we felt like it and sleeping in between. There is so much to explore, indoor and outdoor; and every frame through the viewfinder can turn into a great picture. Su took many photos with her Canon and I followed her with my Nikon. In between, we spent a bit of time at the basement which houses the kitchen, and I became an expert in keeping the log fire burning. There is plenty of firewood within the chateau and plenty more outside, so much so that my friend is thinking of using them for general heating.

Much as we would like to stay within the estate, we need to make our way to a nearby city called La Rochelle, some 450 km south west from the chateau. The need was actually precipitated by an earlier decision of Su who had booked dinner, while in Hong Kong, at Christopher Coutanceau, a two-star Michelin restaurant featuring seafood and molecular cooking. So on the third morning, we packed the camping van and a few things for a short visit. We had also booked accommodation at Accostage Hotel for one evening. The hotel was well chosen, only a few minutes to the restaurant, but it was fully booked for the rest of the week because of some show jumping event organized by Red Bull, so that we needed to check out anyway the following day. We arrived in good time and had a great evening in the restaurant, savoring its tasting menu and desserts. The restaurant gave us very good seats and treated us like big spenders.

We checked out the next day after a light breakfast at a café facing the sea. It was time to explore the city, beginning with its markets. Somehow, we missed the main market on our first walkabout and ended up walking the parks, including a bird park with a collection of at least ten pairs of peacocks and peahens. The peacocks took their turn to spread their feathers at us as the ladies clicked their cameras. It was then lunch time and we stopped at a Bistro and had a long and very full lunch. Somehow, the couple at the next table took interest in us and befriended us. They were called Etinenne (also known as Steve) and Nicol. They lived in Paris but kept a family home at Ars on Ile de Re which is very close to La Rochelle. We got their telephone numbers just in case we would venture there; which we did indeed the following day. But let me finish the day before I came to that. We did some shopping and by the time we found the markets, they were about to close. We did some more shopping before we ran into a Henri IV Hotel and checked in for the evening. We did not think too much of the place which was rather noisy and apparently frequented mainly by youths, but it was not cheap.

The next day, we decided to catch up with our Oysters Program. We hit the market early, found the best bargains and ate to our hearts’ content. We have never had such good, juicy and tasting oysters and for so cheap. We ate at a shop next to the market, and while eating and drinking, Su noticed that the street we were on was actually featured in her guide book as one with a very good restaurants with the same name as the street. The ladies spared no time to hunt for the restaurant and came back with a late booking for the same evening. After the oyster lunch, we made way to Ile de Re which is famous for producing oysters. This is like a small island connected to La Rochelle and is a very flat place with not much distinguishing features. The two most significant townships are St Martin and La Flotte both of which are tourist sites featuring artificial moorings for small boats and pleasure crafts and selling the local produce – fleur de sel – sea salt selling at a premium. From here, we made contact with our new made friends, Steve and Nicol. Steve asked us to meet him at the local church, which could easily be over 400 years old, but Steve made it sound older. The couple lives in a rather picturesque and tasteful house with interior décor built up over the years. Its main entrance however is self effacing and almost unnoticeable. We had Chinese tea, over which we learnt that they have three children which have given them nine grandchildren. There was a picture – obviously taken by professionals – of all nine of them in such a happy and jolly mood that would make every man and woman want to have grandchildren. The couple had lots of business through their children in China, mainly in Shanghai, involving cosmetics with active ingredients.

We went back to La Rochelle to make our dinner appointment at Thiers temps; but before so doing, managed to book ourselves accommodation for the evening at a Best Western hotel named Champlain, which Su described as the best of the three we had used in La Rochelle.

I would sign off here before this letter gets too long; and I hope to talk to you again very soon.

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