Tuesday 28 February 2017

To Le Manoir Born

John Walshe left behind images of dank holiday homes on noisy roads and took a trip off the beaten French countryside path, where he enjoyed great food, spectacular wines at bargain prices and local culture from the comforts of a gîte

John Walshe

The rolling meadows and romantic marshlands of Poitou-Charentes in central-western France have never grabbed the limelight of neighbouring Dordogne.

They've never been able to compete with the fabled vineyards and chateaux of nearby Loire or the chic ports of the Côte d'Or.

But if you're looking for the real France, off the tourist trail but less than a five-hour drive from the ferry port of Cherbourg, you've come to the right place.

We chose a cosy gîte in a tiny hamlet for our week-long break exploring this vast landscape of endless hillsides and sleepy villages. Vinerville Bas is two miles from the local boulangerie but it is home to one of the loveliest manor houses in the region, Cognac Manoir, just a 30-minute drive from the medieval town of the same name.

We stayed in the pretty gîte in the grounds of the manor, set on gardens filled with roses, irises and cypress trees. Tastefully furnished in a French country-chic design, it sleeps four in two bedrooms and shares the pool and gardens with guests staying in the house.

The chateau and gîte are set in nine acres, and you very quickly make yourself at home. You can help yourself to the plethora of fruit in the orchard, from fig, cherry and plum trees to nectarines, walnuts and apples.

The serene scene from the rear of the property has not changed in centuries, with green pastureland stretching off into the far distance, waiting for a French impressionist to capture it in oil.

We bestirred ourselves now and then to go for a walk down country lanes surrounded by acres and acres of tall sunflowers, all standing to attention and facing in the same direction towards the source of light and heat. This is, after all, one of the sunniest regions of France.

Other days we just lazed by the pool, reading undemanding novels and sipping cool rosé.

Apart from the occasional stroll, the only other reason to tear yourself away from this haven of peace is to experience the local food. We're so obsessed with the recession in Ireland, we sometimes forget it's a worldwide phenomenon and the French have readjusted their menu prices to a degree that would make Irish restaurateurs blush. We never paid more than €70 for first-class food in charming bistros, including good local wine.

Our friendly hosts, Kathy Fortescue and Chris Roche, were happy to cook up a storm on request and even apologised for charging €30 for an excellent four-course meal preceded by a Pineau des Charentes, a regional aperitif, and topped off with an armagnac. And, of course, as much wine as we wanted.

One evening, we cooked in ourselves. We had spent the morning grocery shopping in the nearby village. France may have the second-largest economy in Europe, but as you drive through these tiny places in the middle of the day without seeing a soul you wonder where all the people have gone.

We bought a really tasty chicken; not your water-pumped creature bloated artificially to an unnatural size. The vegetables and potatoes also had that ingredient missing from so much supermarket fare in Ireland -- taste. The meal was polished off with an excellent bottle of local wine which carried an outrageous price tag of €4.

The manor house itself can also be taken on a self-catering basis, with housekeepers on site if required and a trained chef who can create everything from a buffet to a four-course dinner.

Upstairs, it sleeps eight in three double bedrooms -- two en suite and one twin. It's furnished with a mix of antiques and modern pieces against a soothing backdrop of cool white walls and grey paintwork with exposed wood and limestone tiles. An imposing oak spiral staircase rises three floors and there are chandeliers in every room.

On days off guests can relax in the bright drawing room, where huge squashy sofas and a stone fireplace create a cosy feel. In the barn, there is a table-tennis table, and amid the nine-acre garden a croquet lawn, badminton net and boules will keep you amused.

But gîtes are not for everyone. If you want your meals and entertainment served up to you, like excitement, noise and crowds and don't mind racing against the Germans to get the best poolside seat, then stay away.

Gîte holidays have waxed and waned in popularity among the Irish for the past few decades as the image of idyllic Salad days gave way to awful stories about dank houses on really busy roads with cars and lorries thundering past day and night. So be careful what you wish for: you may not get it.

In theory, gîtes are rental holiday homes and can be found in every region of France. They usually come fully furnished and well equipped, though linen is not always provided as standard so holidaymakers may have to take their own.

Traditionally, they were old farm-workers' cottages or converted outbuildings and barns near the owners' principal residence.

But, nowadays, the term 'gîte' encompasses most forms of holiday cottage and even holiday flats or apartments. From cottages and mills to villas and castles, some with their own swimming pools, they cover a multitude.

Typically, the owner lives nearby to provide help and a warm welcome to guests. In these recessionary times they are a great option for family holidays -- especially if you're sharing the cost and the driving with friends or relatives.

But do make sure you really want others to live in the same house as you for a week or two before you ask them to join you. There is nothing worse than sharing a house with stingy, hyperactive friends who can't find the switch-off button or their wallets.

If you're bringing children, go online and see what's in the area for them to do. Their idea of a good holiday may not exactly mirror yours, so everybody should have a rough idea of what to expect before they head off.

The lively seaside town of La Rochelle, with its harbourside cafés and shops, is a short drive away and a great place to take the kids, with miles of sandy beaches on nearby Ile de Ré.

The cultural hub and legendary wine town of Bordeaux is less than two hours away. Even closer is the town of Cognac, whose narrow streets are lined with half-timbered 15th-century buildings. The most famous distilleries offer tours of their chais (cellars, pronounced 'shay') and their production facilities (group visits need reservations).

The beauty of Poitou-Charentes is the diversity of things to do, but our favourite pastime was lazing by the pool and planning our next alfresco meal.

Our only whinge about dining in the late-evening sun was the midges. Still, it's a small price to pay when you're basking in gentle sunshine and Ireland is drenched in the usual summer rain.

Irish Independent

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