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February 09, 2009
Traveling through southwest France, I chanced upon a château-guesthouse, 20 minutes from Carcassonne, Europe’s largest fortified citadel. The experience was emblematic of the new, borderless Europe. In the heart of Cathar France, rich in medieval lore and legend, a talented young Dutch couple have transformed an 18th century manor house into an idyllic retreat.
At the Château de Villeréglan, in the sleepy hamlet of St. Martin de Villeréglan, the attention to service and detail is worthy of a five-star Parisian hotel but at a fraction of the cost. Who says you need to be as rich as Croesus to live well? All it takes is a little insider knowledge to stretch those euros.
Our hostess, Isabelle Harmeijer, an elegant woman in her early thirties, showed us to our beautifully appointed rooms. Back in Holland, Isabelle was an interior designer so her talent and impeccable eye are manifest everywhere.
As for Isabelle’s husband Mischa, a tall handsome man, he is busily preparing the night's meal. Formerly a heating and cooling contractor, Mischa spent a year rewiring, re-plumbing, and revamping the château. With the help of one Dutch friend and a couple of French tradesmen, the Harmeijers completed all the renovations themselves, escaping Peter Mayle's notorious fate in A Year in Provence.
In the dining room, Isabelle has set a couple of deep armchairs by a roaring fire where she serves us an excellent and complimentary Blanquette (the world's first sparking wine) from the nearby town of Limoux.
Dinner is a dream of perfectly executed simplicity: pork chop with potato, pear and endive, a garden salad, and petit fours for dessert. Mischa cooks; Isabelle serves. He zigs; she zags. With the food, the wine, our hosts, and the ambience, the charm quotient runs very high indeed.
Perhaps you know a surprising little inn to recommend?