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Just Like Royalty

You know, I've always maintained that it's good to be the Marquis, or the Vicomtesse, as I found out again last week while touring the Loire Valley in western France. And it's good to visit the Marquis and the Vicomtesse, too. I found the Marquis at his little family home, the Chateau de Brissac in the town of Brissac-Quincé, near the city of Angers. For those of you keeping score, the Marquis is the son of the Duke, and in this case, his father is one of thirteen Dukes of Brissac who can trace their genealogy back 500 years, almost of which took place in this home.

The chateau itself is seven stories high, the tallest in the Loire, with 300 rooms and a façade that was built in the 17th century in between two immense, flanking towers that were constructed in the 15th century, almost torn down, and then restored. For 8.5 Euros (about twelve dollars), you can tour the property and visit the bedroom where King Louis XIII stayed in 1620 in order to sign a peace treaty with his mother, Marie de Medicis. The room is done all in red, with huge tapestries of Alexander the Great, a red brocade canopy bed and an enormous, carved armoire. We should all have such an elegant setting to make peace treaties with our mothers.

The Marquis himself is a friendly, slight man of about forty years old who bears a resemblance to the Italian comic actor, Roberto Benigni. There were pictures of him and his wife with their four kids on a shelf in his office, and a car rental contract from Enterprise sat on his desk that displayed his last name, de Brissac, just as it would yours or mine.

"Besides the chateau, I know nothing of the world," he cheerfully announced. And indeed, the chateau was a beehive of activity. While I was there, there were tour groups coming and going, one of which included a pack of surly German teens; a business seminar was occupying several rooms; and a group of Parisian photographers and designers in cool, urban fashions drove up to begin a photo shoot. You can rent rooms in the chateau for a mere 390 Euros (about $550) a night, but it includes breakfast. And maybe you can hang out with the Marquis and his dad, the Duke.

Not far away from Chateau Brissac is a smaller, but no less beautiful estate devoted to making great wines. Here you'll find Evelyne de Jessey, the Vicomtesse de Pontbriand, who is also the owner of the Domaines du Closel – Chateau des Vaults winery in the town of Savennières. A pleasant woman in her 50s, she learned her English during a couple of years spent in Philadelphia, and now opens her home and 70-acre estate up for wine tastings, tours, or just walking the lovely paths and stopping in the garden overlooking the Loire River.

"The only place that the Chenin Blanc grape produces really good wine is the Loire," she said as we tasted her Le Clos du Papillon and La Jalousie wines. And she was right: They both had nice balances of minerals and fruits, very appealing and easy to drink, with prices that were a reasonable twenty dollars or so. It didn't hurt that the tasting room was the ballroom of the grand, stone home, with 17-century tapestries hung on the sage-colored walls. How long had they been making wines there? "I think since the Romans," she said.

And how does one become a Vicomtesse? Where could I apply? She waved her hand dismissively. "It runs in the family," she said.

Like I said, it's good to be royalty, and almost (but not quite) as good to visit them.

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