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Yacking It Up at La Cellette

The last time trekking down to visit our friend Audrey about three years ago, who is the “Châtelaine” of the tiny town of Celles in the Dordogne, we took the TGV to Angoulême and back, missing seeing the countryside on route. Instead on this trip, a rental car provided the freedom to take in a few sights going and coming.

Celles is one of those tiny hamlets that our Michelin “Routier” didn’t have space to include, but it’s a stop between the towns of Verteillac and Ribérac southeast of Angoulême near the western border of the region of Aquataine. I don’t expect you to know where any of that is, as we didn’t either…at least not until we followed the route ourselves.

Leaving Paris, we chose to take advantage of Autoroute until Blois (Audrey calls it “Bee-loh-is,” but to say it correctly, you must end the word by opening your mouth really wide like a blow fish), then picking up the roads that skirt the edge of the Loire River until the city of Tours. The view of the city and castle at Blois is worth a stop and a photo op. Just before arriving at Amboise, where there is yet another photo op of its castle, we pulled into La Calonnière Restaurant Troglodyte for what we hoped would be a “local,” not touristy experience.

It was more than one might have bargained for — a restaurant in a cave, cool, damp and smelling musty, a dozen or more beefy men having drinks at the bar, one waitress serving up “plats du jour” and definitely, no Anglos…except us. It won’t make the Michelin Guide, but it will make the list of nutty French adventures.

From Poitiers, we veered off once again to pick up the “N” (national) and “D” (departmental) roads to see more of the countryside and villages and less of the main highways to arrive in Celles. We made a point to pass through the tiny village of Montbron where author of “Never Tell Your Name” (/parlerparis/l) j2999ie Levy Martin’s parents stayed relatively safe in the Non-Occupied Zone of France during World War II by keeping a low profile and concealing their identity from both Nazis and French collaborators. This decision added at least two hours to our trip, but they were the finest two hours of the day as the pristine scenery of La France Profonde is storybook picturesque.

One question pondered along route is why so many of the names of the towns end in “ac” (“ack”), affectionately chuckled over as “yack, yack, yack” as we dared not blink an eye going through the small quiet villages, with their stone houses, blue-painted shutters and tree-lined entry roads, almost entirely void of humans. We learned that the suffix “ac” comes from the Latin “acer,” originally meaning a field, later more generally a place, hence village names sprung up such as Verteillac, Ribérac and others like Bergerac (of Cyrano fame).

Audrey’s château, “La Cellette,” of the more than 1000 that occupy the Dordogne, could easily be the department’s most beautifully renovated castle. A permanent resident of Dallas, Texas, she purchased the 15th-century castle nine years ago with the dream that her large family living on both the east and west coasts would convene there. Their busy lives prevent them from filling the nine bedrooms (each with its own bathroom en suite) as often as she would like, so when it’s not in use, it’s rented to vacationers. (See the offering at /parlerparis/apartments/rentals/cellette.html) It’s also on the market for sale at a mere 1.7 million euros — a steal after all Audrey did to turn it into the height of taste and luxury.

This coming week’s French Property Insider will feature La Cellette in great detail. It would be virtually impossible to describe it as such in this limited time and space, but I’ll tell you this — the moment you drive through the sea-green iron gates and park on the circular drive, with the lawn and swimming pool to one side, a guest cottage and “orangerie” to the other, pale pink roses trellised on the rails of the double stairs leading to the “back” entry (the kitchen), you feel as if you have turned back in time and you’re part of the royal party.

The family who built the château was Dulau d’Allemans, whose name is identified in the letterpress edition of the papers of George Washington. With a master architect from the region who fully understood the character of the house and whose investigative powers led him to find the hidden massive stone fireplaces and secret stairwells, he and Audrey, who invested five times the price she paid, restored the 15th-century manor into a 21st-century splendor. No accoutrement of luxury was spared and her decorating talent has outdone itself. The lucky buyers won’t have to change a single thing.

We spent Saturday exploring the immediately adjacent villages, stopping in Ribérac to purchase shoes at our favorite shoe stores — each of us taking home four pairs of the comfortable kinds that you can’t find in Paris nor as inexpensively. For dinner we dined on a gourmet “repas” at Château le Mas de Montet in Petit-Bersac, owned and run by two British gentlemen, Chef Richard Stimson and hotelier John Ridley, who gave up their boring London professions to life in the Dordogne hosting vacationers at their hotel/restaurant in a superbly restored Renaissance-style château. It was just recently elected to the prestigious “Toques du Périgord” for its excellent cuisine. (http://www.lemasdemontet.com/, http://www.toques-perigord.com/)

The slow route home Sunday took us on the “N” roads in the misty rain under dark clouds through Chartres where we missed visiting the cathedral by one minute, but filled up on hot “soupe de poisson” and café crème. The traffic continued to pile up at the pay station on the A11 inching forward to pay the tolls and glide into Paris to return the rental car to the Gare de Lyon. It was to be expected after a long holiday weekend to have to fight our way back into the city.

It’s always a debate, whether to drive or take the train on weekends like this. The cost is about the same, considering car rental, gas and tolls, but no doubt, one trades the speed and ease of train travel for freedom to explore the back roads where much of the French actually reside and create “La Vie Française.”

A la prochaine…

Adrian Leeds
Editor, Parler Paris

P.S. If you’re seriously interested in learning more about purchasing La Cellette, email us at [email protected]

P.P.S. The Leeds Marais two-bedroom apartment in the heart of “le Marais” is available in its entirety July 5 – 16, 2007. For Summer rentals, check this and other vacation apartment specials at /parlerparis/apartments/

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