David Calling

Summer in France

I’ve just been in France, in Auvergne, a land which has something immemorial about it, with its long mountainous vistas, castles, and Romanesque churches. The fields were rich with wheat and sunflowers. I went for a special occasion. Longtime friends own the chateau of Parentignat, which has been called the Versailles of Auvergne, and they were giving a party to celebrate that forebears of theirs had built this house in 1707 and descendants of the same family have therefore lived there for three centuries.
The house is in a whitish local stone, an immense block with 15 windows along the principal façade, matching Mansard windows in the roof, cupolas at either end, and an orangery and stables flanking it. You can only gasp at the magnificence. The rear facade has French windows at ground level, giving on to a terrace, ornamental water, and an English park of ancient oaks stretching away into the distance.
At a concert in the orangery, an American pianist originally from Baltimore played Chopin, a piece of calm rhapsody by Mompou, and then jolly twentieth century things like the Charleston rag, and a spirited Portuguese lady sang some fados. Some three hundred guests in black ties sat down to dine in the several state rooms. On the walls are paintings by the great French artists of the 17th century, Rigaud, Largilliere, Lorrain, Desportes – portraits of splendidly arrayed soldiers and cardinals, and of course pink-cheeked wives, and in some cases mistresses, in silks and satins. Afterwards there were fireworks in the park, the illuminations reflected in the ornamental water, and finally a ball. When Parentignat was still relatively new, Lord Chesterfield, that supreme arbiter of elegance, was writing that a Frenchman with a fund of virtue, learning, and good sense is “the perfection of human nature.” We’ll be seeing if Monsieur Sarkozy is capable of living up to such standards.

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