The sleepy town of Chalabre is a four-hour drive from Barcelona, an 80-minute trek from Toulouse or less than an hour from the preserved mediaeval marvel that is Carcassone. Our destination is Chateau Terre Blanche, newly renovated and reopened in the European summer of 2015.
The chateau is castellated with an imposing entrance and a travertine balustrade stairway to the chateau proper. It was originally built for the mistress of a German baron and his bust is sculpted into a stone windowsill. There are “grand” and “blue” salons, a library, a pool and terrace ideal for pre-dinner canapés, drinks and chat. A rooftop lookout delivers a glorious 360-degree view of the village and surrounds, and in season, guests are free to pick fruit from the many trees in the expansive gardens.
A Moroccan-themed bathroom has been converted into a stylish Morrocan themed gymnasium/ massage room. The rich, intricate patterns of the wallpaper, the voluminous curtains, antique furniture and soft furnishings collude to create an atmosphere of elegant stateliness. Four ample guest rooms have ensuites with minimalist top-of-the-line finishes. Each room is unique, with views to the Pyrenees – and total privacy.
Guests have the option of self-catering, or the services of Michelin-starred chef Jean Marc Boyer and his seasonal menus. He also offers a cooking master class for six. Also available if required are British-trained butlers, a chauffeur, nannies, or a concierge/chef/valet/tour guide combo in the person of Angus Longstaff, a French-trained chef who has worked for five-star establishments in Paris.
Angus’ personally tailored local food and wine tours are informative, and fun. He will also make arrangements for any of your other touring wants. It is so enjoyable going with him to the local village market at Mirepoix, buying fresh produce – escargot, cheeses I’ve never seen before, salamis, hams and other smoked delights, seafood, vegetables, bread. These markets have been here from time immemorial.
It is equally fascinating to watch Angus and Jean prepare and cook the meals. I am allowed to help listen and learn, glass of wine in hand, before enjoying a sumptuous dinner.
Nothing in Chalalabre is more than a few minutes’ walk from anything else with the shops, petanque piste, (you can have a go with the Chateau Terre Blanche boules set), river, and boulangeries with their smell and taste of fresh-baked baguettes all beckoning. Take a languid walk in the late afternoon on a country lane – the disused chemin de fer (railway line) is now a 40km walking trail.
If you want to explore further afield, the area is steeped in the history of the Cathars (Gnostic Christians who thrived between the 12th and 14th centuries) and several Cathar castles are nearby, around Narbonne and Montsegur. Visit a vineyard, take a bicycle tour from Chalabre up into the Pyrenees, or join a Canal du Midi tour, boarding a barge at Carcassonne. It’s a pleasant, meandering drive to Niaux to see the extraordinary prehistoric cave paintings. If you don’t want to hire a car, transport can easily be arranged through the chateau.
Chateau Terre Blanche is just perfect to enjoy that relaxing, authentic French village experience. Time has stood still in Chalabre, and it is wonderful! It is a very special location for three or four couples to enjoy time together. You will leave relaxed and stimulated, your palate better informed – and, if you are very careful, only a kilo or two heavier!