Filling a French chateau

By Mark Hughes-Morgan, Daily Mail

Last updated at 15:02 20 October 2003


Holidaying in a private chateau is something I can heartily recommend.

It might cost a bit, but the looks you get when you tell people where you are going are priceless.

And that's before you mention the pool, the tennis court, the lake and the private cook.

Now, before you stop reading in disgust, here is some news: the idea that a holiday in a chateau or a large villa with all the trimmings is out of reach to all but the filthy rich is far from true.

If you have a big group to share the cost and you can organise the rest of the arrangements yourself, a large villa can be a reasonably priced option.

Take our own extended family holiday. It was a large affair - there were six adults (my two brothers and me with respective wives), with nine children between us (four of mine).

At ₤7,600 for two weeks (with a ₤400 deposit) at the Bourdil Blanc, just north of Bergerac in the Dordogne, that worked out at a touch more than ₤250 a head per week.

And we didn't have to pay for the tennis court, the boat on the lake, the fishing, or access to the seven acres of grounds.

When you bear in mind that the house has space for 20 or more - including a wing with its own kitchen and sitting-room that we had also booked, as well as numerous sofa beds and a dormitory in the attic that could sleep ten - the maths becomes compelling.

That makes it under ₤200 a head per week, compared to a typical price for a four-bedroom villa with pool at around ₤450 a head. Nice places with such capacity may be cheap, but ten-a-penny they are not.

The key is to book early. My sister-in-law confirmed her booking last autumn, as soon as we had all agreed we would take the plunge. Even then, we had left it too late for peak season.

Only one villa was available for a complete fortnight - and that was thanks to a cancellation.

For larger villas, France leads the way. The other favourite destinations of Spain, Portugal, Italy and Greece have fewer king-size possibilities.

France has lots of areas to choose from, but the Dordogne is a particularly good bet as it has so many chateaux, as well as a hot - but not too hot - climate and offers good value.

It is also not too far by car (12 hours from the Channel tunnel), nor by plane now that Ryanair has reinstated the cheap daily service to Bergerac.

On the way down, we were last to the chateau and this can, of course, cause major schisms:

If one room is spectacularly better than the rest, those who don't manage to get there first won't be able to take their pick.

Thankfully, the layout was democratic as well as suitable: a charming 18th/19th-century pile on three floors, the top-floor dormitory providing ample room for most of the smaller children (though requiring many fans to make it cool enough to sleep in comfortably).

The second floor had four bedrooms with pretty similar outlooks. For my 15-year old oldest son, there was the annexe with sitting room and kitchen. With each grown-up having an en-suite bathroom, family ablutions were nicely demarcated, too.

When booking with a smaller company, or privately, it pays to find out as much as you can - 'private castles' can soon turn into run-down farmhouses.

Jane Hanslip, the owner of the Bourdil Blanc, has a helpful website that includes a 3-D online tour. We booked only the house through her, making travel arrangements ourselves.

Some agencies offer flights, car hire and so on, which, with a large group, can be a bit of a trial. You will probably find it easier and cheaper for each group to make arrangements such as car hire themselves. What is included in the package can vary, too: in our case, it was electricity and taxes, a cleaner twice a week, linen and bath towels.

We also discovered at the end of the break that the daily bread delivery had been included (I would have had several extra croissants, had I known).

Another potential source of grief is the money. The dreaded kitty may be a throwback to student digs, but it is essential: if you are surprised to find yourself going away with a fridge-emptying, wine-guzzling hog, clearly you didn't know them well enough in the first place.

And if you are worrying about drinking so much less than everyone else, you might just be the problem.

The contribution for our fortnight was around ₤500 per family. Not bad for my six, I thought.

We also shared the much-vaunted private chef, the very versatile Bernadette (she also cleaned and looked after the pool). But only once.

The problem wasn't that she was expensive. She charged a fiver an hour plus raw materials, our one three-course meal for nine working out at around ₤80.

It was simply that between us we didn't mind doing stints cooking on a barbie or making an occasional salad or pasta.

The last thing to remember is that with the larger villa comes the villa owner. Some have a relaxed view on hordes taking over their home; some (as a Dordogne-based friend confirms) resent it hugely. Most are a bit of a mixture. We had our little clashes with Jane over broken kettles and our being too messy for the cleaners, about the pool electrics short-circuiting and the legality or otherwise of fireworks (why do the supermarkets sell them if they are forbidden?).

She and her charming, but wayward, black labrador puppy were very much in evidence in the pigeonnier next door.

But, frankly, when my back locked on the tennis court and I collapsed immobile in 35-degree heat in urgent need of medical attention, I was exceedingly glad of the fact.

Without her getting hold of the doctor, I would have been forced to endure a very painful holiday.

For more information about the Bourdil Blanc, go to or tel: 07768 747610.

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