Chateau le Val, in Brix, Normandy. Photos by Paul Shoul and Max Hartshorne.
Living Like Royalty in a Chateau in Brix, Normandy
Normandy is famous for two great invasions: June 1944 and September 1066. After enjoying the many D-day tourism activities this region has become famous for, we headed west to the Department of Manche, Basse Normandy, which means ‘the sleeve,’ named after the French name for the English Channel.
This western half of the Normandy peninsula is dotted with lovely beach towns like Granville and Carteret, and is full of fields, sweeping beaches and surging tides, but not that many people.
Beach, Beach and Seafood
Here the name of the game is beach, ocean, seafood and of course, great castles and well preserved Medieval buildings.
In Bricquebec, one such castle remains standing that was built in the 11th century! Though many of the buildings here were destroyed by both Allied and German bombs during World War 11, this castle was unscathed, as was the place we’d bed down for the night….Chateau le Val.
The Chateau goes back to the 16th century, co-owner Frans Tijssen told us, as we enjoyed an al fresco lunch in front of the big steps that lead into the castle.
He and his business partner Karin, originally from Holland, came to Normandy in the late ’90s for a holiday. They ended up loving it here especially the climate, which some say is bad but is definitely an improvement over the Dutch lowlands.
“We can sleep 25 people for a wedding or a reunion,” Karin told us. There are separate apartments including a two-bedroom unit with its own kitchen, so it’s perfect for a large group who want to do some of their own cooking to save.
“Besides, out here in the French countryside, there aren’t a lot of choices for restaurants. The whole places goes for $4500 weekly or about $1500 per night.
“The chateau was occupied by German officers during the war,” Frans said. “it was used as a barracks. Right down the road there is a silo that was used to fire V-2 rockets at England.”
What we loved about staying at the chateau were the spacious grounds, which include a horse-filled paddock a pond, and a trail that leads out to beautiful fields.
The owners also have a pair of ‘wolf dogs,’ friendly beasts who live in a cage but are docile and friendly despite their uncanny resemblance to wild wolves.
Empty for Five Years
The property used to total 2500 acres in the 1860s. It took hundreds of hours of labor to renovate the walls, modernize the many large windows, and install a modern heating system.
One interesting building just in front of the chateau is a dove covey, a round building which was once filled with doves, each in their own little nest in wall-mounted cubbies. A thousand doves once called the cute round building their home.
Festive country weddings are held at the Chateau, the owners have a collection of knight gear like swords, shields and maces that add to the authenticity of the place.
Over a salad of olives, grilled sausages, green salad and fresh pate, Karin and Frans shared their story of renovation… on a royal scale! Today many of their visitors are from the Netherlands, The UK, and mainland Europe, not as many French vacation in Normandy.
Every time I travel, I make it a point to seek out interesting local people who I can interview and ask questions about my destination. On this trip I met a man with one of the greenest thumbs I’ve ever seen… Alain Travert.
He had a heart operation and it forced him to retire. He now maintains a garden of immense variety, and immaculately free of weeds. He grafts shoots from one apple tree into another, and trains the plants to grow in grotesque geometric directions.
In the garden he keeps a bread oven, that he heats up with logs and inserts bread dough. He makes a lot of bread, but not money. He gives it away, like much of the prolific produce he grows in the garden.
At the end of our visit, he brought out a bottle of a mysterious elixir called 44. He said to make it you take a bottle of calvados, mix in 44 oranges and 44 coffee beans, and let it ferment for three years.
This pale yellow liquid is 44, and it’s quite strong and sweet tasting. Travert said he rarely ever leaves La Manche, and is nearly self sufficient with his Edenlike garden and bread baking. It’s a good life here in Normandy.
Barneville Road Trip
We lazed around the chateau on a hot day in June, and enjoyed being inside the thick walls, which keep the temperatures nice and cool. After relaxing, we were ready for a little road trip, so we ventured down to the beach villages of Barneville and Carteret.
Here there are tides that rival the great levels found in Newfoundland…boats are left leaning on their sides, beached until the next tide comes in.
Along the coast at Barneville, there is an elegant old fashioned hotel The Hotel des Isles, on Boulevard Maritime.where we spent a few nights.
It’s whitewashed and has the feel of an inn on Cape Cod or Nantucket in Massachusetts. The pricey restaurant brings in big crowds and there’s a pool tucked away behind the wood fence.
At the wharf in Carteret, we walked way, way out to the end along a high edge where fishing boats come in and dump their fish. The big tides require very tall quays, and at high tide the boats come in to load bait or sell more valuable dorade, tuna or smaller sardines.
Dining in Normandy has its own charm, the biggest question is how the people eat so much delicious cheese and aren’t fat. Some say the answer is reservatrol, the compound found in red wine.
The Norman cheese selection includes Camembert, the leader, Pont Leveque, soft-ripened with a washed rind, Livarot, unpasteurized cow’s millk cheese and Neufchatel, sold heart-shaped.
In our travels here we learned another important term: a good drink. It’s not just a drink, but a good one, a special one, that connects you to friends through conversation and drink.
Our guide also told us about the Norman Hole… it’s when you’re having a big dinner and you stop and take a shot of Calvados…BANG right down the hatch…then resume your meal. You gotta fill the Norman hole, I guess.
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