Interview: Grahame Elliott – creative writing in Paris and the Loire Valley
Welcome to the ‘MyFrenchLife™ Member Interview Series’ – interviews with savvy Francophiles from all around the world capturing their passion secrets and tips, all about their favourite places in France, from Paris to Provence.
- As you read these interviews you’ll become immersed in the individual member’s ‘French Life’.
- Learn why France is so special in their eyes & how they came to be so passionate about France.
- Discover so much more about France in the process and
- also you’ll personally benefit from the tips & discoveries these savvy Francophile frequent travellers generously share.
Introducing Grahame Elliott
Grahame Elliott is a former teacher, trained concert pianist and now fiction writer and writers’ retreat organizer, happily semi-retired in his château in the Loire Valley.
My first trip to France—becoming a Francophile
Francophilia grew on me slowly from when I undertook French lessons at high school in Mareeba, Australia, to when I packed my canvas rucksack and travelled around Europe on a Eurail Pass eight years later.
Memories of my arrival at the Gare du Nord on the Ludwig Van Beethoven Express have never left me. Paris was just waking up, the street cleaners, all in green, were sweeping footpaths and running water into gutters, the delicious smell of freshly baked croissants and baguettes wafted from boulangeries, mopeds buzzed past, and there I was, looking at words on signs and shops that were all foreign to me.
That was one of the most exciting moments of my life, and I promised myself I would return one day, and I did—in 1987 with a young Frenchman, Pierre, whom I met in Adelaide.
What I love – about France
I love France, and the reasons are numerous.
And who could not love Paris?
Two of my favourite hangouts are the Louvre and Musée D’Orsay where I often stroll along the galleries admiring many of the world’s most famous paintings such as Monet’s ‘Le Pont d’Argenteuil’ or Delacroix’s ‘Liberty Leading the People’.
Music is one of my passions so naturally the Philharmonie, Théâtre des Champs Elysées, and the Opéra de Paris, where I feel privileged to see and hear the world’s most famous artists performing, are regular events on my calendar.
For me, Ravel’s ‘La Valse’ best expresses the French passion for life.
- I admire the way they celebrate music, cinema, fashion, and food,
- AND not forgetting football.
- The ‘fête de la musique’ and
- the fête du cinéma are always a must as well as those
- long delicious gourmet Sunday lunches that last all afternoon, a perfect end to the week, especially the swig of Armagnac in the evening to help digestion along.
When I first came to France, to hear strangers wish me ‘bon appétit’ as I was munching on my tuna sandwich in the Tuileries Garden surprised me, but now, having become so familiar with this custom, I do the same.
Maybe I’m finally becoming French.
Greeting strangers is common in France, particularly in shops and cafés. In France it is unthinkable to enter a shop or café and not say ‘bonjour’, ‘au revoir’ and ‘bonne journée.
I could go on all day about my passion for French culture so to summarize the rest:
- I love the Eiffel Tower when it glitters on the hour at night,
- the Pont Neuf which is in fact the oldest bridge in Paris,
- Chanel and Dior,
- the Tour de France,
- tarte tatin,
- and most importantly, the health care system.
Am I a different person in Paris or in the Loire Valley?
If you ask me which region in France is my favourite, I will always reply, the Loire Valley. That is where I live, ensconced in my own Renaissance château, the famous Château de Détilly, noted for its long history and the princes and knights who lived there. Nevertheless, once you’ve lived in Paris, you’ll always be drawn back to it despite its polluted air and transport strikes.
I return to the metropolis for the last week of the month to catch up with my writers’ group, Paris Creative Writers (see below), and to wander around the streets gazing at the beautiful architecture, monuments, and gardens that, even after having lived here for over thirty years, never cease to fascinate me.
So am I a different person in Paris or in the Loire Valley? Not really. I think it is true that people who live in the countryside are less stressed and friendlier than those living in large cities, but at the end of the day, we are all who we are, wherever we are.
My favourite locations
There are so many locations I am constantly drawn back to, so I’ll narrow it down to the Loire Valley where magnificent châteaux dominate the landscape. Not far from Château de Détilly is the beautiful fairy-tale Château d’Ussé that inspired Charles Perrault to write ‘Sleeping Beauty’ when he was staying at Château de Villandry.
I have to say that my favourite royal château is the 14th century Chenonceau, built on a bridge over the Loire River. It is a peaceful place where one can wander through the gardens and forest tracks or sit by the river and enjoy the château’s perfect reflections.
My favourite places to eat
I must be becoming French, because here I am back on food…
One of the things that used to surprise me was how the French would drive for hours to dine at Michelin starred restaurants and there were those who would fly by helicopter to Michel Bras at ‘Laguiole‘. Then when Pierre introduced me to fancy French restaurants, I came to understand that it wasn’t just the food and wine people travelled so far for, but the complete lavish experience.
- My favourite restaurant is by far Michel Guérard’s ‘Les Prés d’Eugénie’ in a tiny village in the Landes, ‘Eugénie-les-Bains’, named after Napoleon III’s wife.
Les Près d’Eugénie
334 rue René Vielle,
- Closer to home in the Centre Val-Loire, we don’t have restaurants as posh as that, but there is a one-star restaurant in Saumur, Restaurant Le Gambetta.
12 rue Gambetta,
- I also love pizza, and just down the road from Château de Détilly is L’Héroz’o where they make the best pizza ever.
1 rue Paul Langevin,
- And at Chinon my favourite restaurant is ‘La Part Des Anges’, a small restaurant run by Hervé and Virginie.
Les Près d’Eugénie
334 rue René Vielle,
- For bread and cakes, I shop at the boulangerie in Beaumont-en-Véron where Monsieur and Madame Nalin are up at four in the morning baking the best baguettes, viennoiseries and brioche I’ve ever tasted. They now bake for our château.
Boulangerie Nalin Philippe,
12 rue du 8 Mai 1945,
- Another of Château de Détilly’s suppliers is ‘Mille et une confitures’, a business created by Laurent Dutheil who has created seventy different types of jam flavours
Mille et une confitures,
20 rue Marceau,
- Often I like to simply find a calm picnic spot by the Loire River with friends, a bottle or two of wine, and baguette sandwiches.
- Recently I discovered Loire Winery Tours that was started up by Keith and Linda Mills who have taken some of our guests on tours of local wineries in their Citroën ‘deux chevaux‘, picnic included.
- And what better place to have lunch but on our own terrace at the château?
My best purchase ever?
Need one ask me what my best purchase ever was?
There is only one answer to that— Château de Détilly, a Renaissance château seven kilometres from Chinon in the heart of the Loire Valley.
It was never our intention to buy a château, believe it or not. Our hearts were set on living in a maison de maïtre in Périgord, but as we all know, our destinies can change at any moment.
Château de Détilly happened to be on the market right when we wanted to buy a property, and although it was love at first sight, it was not an easy ride.
Running a château has its challenges, and Château de Détilly, with a personality of its own, is no exception. It has intrigue and secrets that been gathering since it came into existence since the 10th century when a villa was built on the site for the Archbishop of Tours.
Then in the 14th century, the de Valori de Rustichelli family moved here from Florence, probably to escape the Medicis and Borgias. In 1562, the start of the religious wars, the fortress that had been built on the site was destroyed by the Huguenots and later rebuilt, which is the château one sees today.
During the second world war, Jean Worms, aka Germinal, a famous resistance fighter bought Détilly, and in 1991 Alfred Sirven, infamous top executive of the Elf oil company purchased it.
Our biggest challenge, though, was getting our bed and breakfast business shipshape in three weeks which meant:
- organizing the linen service,
- learning how to clean a 12.5 metre swimming pool,
- figuring out which of the multitude of locks the hundreds of keys fitted,
- Karchering, and,
- weeding the rose garden that has 3 000 rose bushes,
- tidying up the orchard and park,
- replacing broken outdoor umbrellas and
- filling the fuel tank.
- We have been blessed, however, that Véronique, our caretaker/ housekeeper, who has worked at the château for fifteen years, was keen to stay on.
Although I love gardens, I’ve never been much of a gardener.
When I first saw the park, rose garden (2 000sq metres), and the orchard, I was overwhelmed with awe.
I am now overwhelmed with pruning, dealing with bugs, and weeding, not to mention replacing dead rose bushes and pulling out blackberry bushes. Nevertheless, I’ve discovered a passion I never knew I had, and am now looking forward to spring when the fruit trees and roses will be in bloom. The nursery owner and I have become great friends.
Chateau de Détilly: let’s go back to my first impressions
When Pierre and I were taken on a guided tour of the château, I had no idea what to expect, especially after the number of disappointing properties we’d already visited.
The realtor showed us the way into the château via the kitchen and the first thing I saw helped me make up my mind that this is the one. Right there opposite us was a La Cornue stove. For me that was special as I had taught English to the CEO and owner of La Cornue and jokingly told him I would, one day, own one.
The rest of the château took my breath away as I had never imagined it would be so luxuriously decorated with floors of marble, oak, and slate, oil paintings, and Baccarat crystal chandeliers.
Being still a child at heart, I asked if there was a secret room because I’d read that many châteaux had one, or at very least, a secret passageway. It turned out that there is a secret room at the top of the tower. Since we moved into Détilly on July 1st last year, the château has given up many of its secrets, but there are sure to be a lot more. Château de Détilly has not disappointed us.
I feel extremely humbled knowing that in the past, the property was once the home of Italian princes, French knights, lords and marquises, and a famous second world war resistance fighter.
My most recent challenge: Ramsès
And… my most recent challenge—the arrival of our almost four-month-old Irish Wolfhound, Ramsès—quite a handful.
Pierre and I have always been dog people, so when we bought Détilly, we knew this was the place for a large dog. Having always been fascinated by Irish wolfhounds, we contacted a breeder near Rouen. Choosing which puppy out of a litter of thirteen was a challenge as I believe an animal must do the choosing.
There had been a lot of rain the day before we arrived, so the puppy enclosure was muddy, the sort that oozes through one’s toes or cakes onto ones’ boots. The puppies were two months old, and already nearly the size of adult labradors. Imagine thirteen of them rolling about in the mud, having a great time playing.
While Pierre was chatting to the breeder, Monsieur Montfort, I waited for a puppy to choose me, but they were all happily playing with each other, so I was becoming anxious. Then the unexpected happened. The only pale puppy of the litter broke away from the rest, trotted up to me, and looked up with his big inquisitive, brown eyes. When I was able to get Pierre’s attention, I said, “He’s the one”.
It turned out that all of the other puppies had been reserved anyway, but Ramsès had just become available after being considered by the breeders to keep for themselves. The pick of the bunch in fact – lucky us!
At first, we wanted to call him Ulysse, but Monsieur Monfort informed us politely that this is the year of the ‘R’. So Ramsès it is. He is now four months old, and loves living at Détilly, having his tummy rubbed, and going for rides in the car.
Most notable experiences
To speak of my most notable experience, of which there are many, I would have to go back to my Paris days. Two wonderful experiences spring to mind:
Firstly Bastille Day 1989 when France celebrated its 200-year anniversary of the revolution. I will never forget the dense crowds of excited spectators and how we squeezed to the front to watch Jessye Norman pass by on the back of a truck, singing the Marseillaise.
The second memorable experience was also Bastille Day when I was at a party at the Australian Embassy, situated so close to the Eiffel Tower, you can almost touch it. The fireworks were right overhead and seemed to go on forever. Vive la France! At Chinon, the Bastille Day fireworks take place at the fortress and I am looking forward to being there next year.
Another memorable experience was when I played the piano for the Australian ambassador and his wife in a private soirée in 1995 when the country was paralysed by transport strikes for three weeks.
- On the day of my rehearsal, I had to drive through Paris via the Etoile in the ice and snow.
- ‘Quelle horreur’, as the Parisiens were saying over and over. ‘C’est pas possible!’ ‘N’importe quoi!’
- There were makeshift car parks at intersections, people hitchhiking, many on roller skates and skateboards then on my way home, I realized I was driving in the wrong direction and got stuck in traffic at the Gare Saint Lazare.
- I have never driven in Paris since!
Most notable exhibitions
When in Paris, one should take in an exhibition or two.
In 2017, Pierre and I went to the Dior Exhibition—twice.
Every year I go to an exhibition at the Porte de Versailles.
Two exhibitions that I deem outstanding were the Titanic exhibition where one could almost smell the paint drying on the new ship, and Tutankhamon.
In 2019 I trotted along to see the Tutankhamun exhibition again at the Parc de la Villette, and was pleasantly surprised to see many more original items instead of replicas.
Tips and what I’d like to share
Newcomers to France will quickly discover that a typical conversation starts with ‘‘Bonjour. Ca va?” and often includes ‘C’est pas normal’. ‘C’est normal’. ‘N’importe quoi.’ ‘Oh la la.’
Good conversation topics often involve food and wine. Ask the French when it is correct to ‘tutoyer’ or ‘vouvoyer’, and you’ll have an animated discussion.
- In France, never turn a baguette upside down, or else you’ll have bad luck. Oh la la!
- Never cut salad. C’est pas normal!
- There are 14 ghost metro stations in Paris. N’importe quoi!
- Finally, the thing I admire about the French is their general ‘live life to the fullest’ mindset. C’est la vie!
And… to learn more about Grahame
- Château de Détilly BnB (Facebook Private Group) will keep you up-to-date with activity at the château. It’s ‘friends of the château’ where you can share your Loire Valley holiday experiences and photos.
- Paris Creative Writers (Facebook Group) is a group for writers to share posts. You don’t have to live in Paris to be a member
- If you are a writer and would like to join my Meetup groups, ‘Paris Creative Writers’, ‘Loire Valley Creative Writers’ and ‘Château de Détilly Writers’ Retreats’, you are more than welcome.
Thank you Grahame for sharing such a wonderful story! There are many MyFrenchLife members who’d happily step in your shoes given even half a chance.
Are you salivating? What a dream French Life! If you have any comments or questions for Grahame please leave them below.
All images by Grahame Elliott
Chateau de Détilly website: www.chateau-detilly.fr
Read more MyFrenchLife member interviews of inspiring Francophiles
1. Keith Van Sickle
2. Ray Johnstone
3. Henrie Richer
4. Janet Hulstrand
5. Virginia Jones
6. Gina Hunt
7. Jane S. Gabin
8. Susan Kiernan-Lewis
9. Elisabeth Sauvage-Callaghan
10. Grahame Elliott – This one