Chateau de Brissac, Loire Valley — Times are hard for the 20-century aristocratic "chatelain" in France. To combat crippling taxes, high heating bills, and soaring renovation costs, the Marquis de Cosse de Brissac and his family have been forced to open their vast 18th-century chateau to the general public.
But like hundreds of other noble families among the owners of France's 2,500 chateaux, 1,400 of them still in private hands, the Brissacs represent a new breed of modern chateau proprietors who have geared themselves to specialized tourism. They have turned chateau-living into an everyday business with style.
"People like to dream, and there is a certain aura about having a candle-lit dinner in the fashion of the 19th-century nobility," said the marquis, who lives with his wife and five children in their Loire Valley country domain in western France."If well done we can answer these dreams."
Over five years ago, the marquis and his energetic wife began hosting regal receptions for visiting Americans or Germans. The receptions ranged from elaborate afternoon teas to sumptuous dinners. The Brissacs hold three to four receptions a month costing up to 5,000 francs ($1,200) for 400 guests in their 32- meter-long guards room with its 16th-century Flemish tapestries and Renaissance furniture.
Some 20,000 tourists visit the chateau and its grounds every year. Moreover, the Brissacs have started arranging exclusive fashion and gastronomic soirees for visiting well-to-do Arabs.
Similarly, numerous other noble families are taking advantage of the mounting interest in chateaux among tourists as well as business people of organizations.
One of the best-known families to have made their lives business are the Breteuils, who run their chateau outside Paris as an undisguised center with class for gala dinners, Japanese weddings, and receptions.
Increasing numbers of chatelains are also establishing highly commercial wildlife parks as sources of income. One example is the Count and Countess Charles Rene de Montmartre who have transported lions, tigers, and elephants to their sprawling oak and chestnut tree-lined Chateau de St. Vrain near Fontainebleau for the enjoyment of carloads of tourists from both home and abroad.
Others, to make the management of their often cumbersome estates more economic, have turned their homes into quality restaurants, hotels, and conference centers. Many of these exclusive establishments are listed in the authoritive Guide Relais et Chateaux and are ideal for casual motoring travelers who care about staying in beautiful and well-catered surroundings.
But even more innovative type of quality chateau tourism which would appeal to foreigners curious to learn more about France is offered by Tourism France Internationan (TFI)
A subsidary of Air France and the Club Mediterranee, TFI has organized a system whereby foreigners may live as room and board guests with families in over 100 chateaux and domains around France. Called "Open Doors to France," the plan expects tourists to spend a minimum of three nights at 149 francs ($37) per night for two persons, a sum that includes all comforts.
The guest may opt to join in family activities and meals or explore the countryside on his own. "We are trying to offer foreigners the chance of a privileged style of living while visiting France," explained Francois de Testa, head of TFI.
Not only does TFI help the tourist choose his chateau according to location and beauty, but also according to his interests. The hosts may be sculptors, musicians, teachers, and each listing in the TFI guidebook gives a brief of the family's history and hobbies. By joining TFI the host families have also promised to help guests in acquanting themselves with the areas they are visiting.
It is only recently that the French have begun to seriously consider their chateaux and important basis for both specialized and popular forms of tourism.
The chateaux of the Loire have, of course, always been on regular tourist itineraries. But the majority of France's country manors tend to be neglected by the ordinary tourist because they lie off the beaten track or lack promotion. A distressing number of chateaux, over 500, are also in ruins or falling apart because of insufficient interest and funds.
"It is a great shame to see how we are ignoring this particular aspect of our heritage," said Prince Beauveau-Craon, president of the Demeure Historique, an organization designed to help chateau owners protect their patrimony while at the same time trying to inspire them with new ideas for the management of their estates. "We are trying to encourage the use of chateaux as accessible places of culture open to tourism. I think it is important to have living chateaux rather than dusty museums."
The Demeure Historique, which serves on an advisory basis to the Ministry of Culture and Communications as well as to TFI, is also trying to get the government to take a greater interest in the preservation of chateaux. "We want them to reduce our taxes so that we can play a more contributory role in tourism ," explained Mr. Beauveau-Craon.
With the yearly maintenance of a chateau ranging from 300,000 francs ($75,000 ) to 1 million francs ($250,000), 470 owners have opened their estates to tourists but still find it difficult to make important renovations without state relief.
In an effort to heighten tourist awareness of not only its chateaux but also what the country has to offer in general, the Ministry of Culture and Communications has just launched a massive and highly elaborate cultural and historical program for 1980, marking France's "Year of National Heritage."
Rated the world's third largest tourist nation after the United States and Italy, France now is trying to open up its varied cultural wealth in a more selective manner.
Since 1963 when 13.4 million foreigners crossed its borders, the number of tourists has doubled. In 1978, 26.8 million tourists, mainly German, Belgian, Dutch, and British but also 882,000 Americans visited the country. From them, France earned $5.9 billion in revenue, equivalent to 5.5 percent of its gross national product.
But the great majority of these tourists tend to use France as a means of getting to Europe's other Mediterranean holiday resorst such as Spain, Italy, or Greece during the lemming-like summer migrations to the south. Or, the tourists concentrate on the more popular Riviera, Perigord, and Paris areas.
"Many of them show absolutely no interest in cultural monuments or historical towns if they must go out of their way," said a tourist office spokeswoman in Paris. "As a result much of France is never really seen by visitors."
France's "Year of National Heritage" is therefore an attempt to stimulate the public from both home and abroad to move out into the more neglected provinces to experience what there is to offer. And there is a great deal.
Working together with French radio and television, various cultural organization as well as French railways and Air France, every French province ranging from Burgundy to the Pyrenees has adopted a multitude of renovation projects of chateaux, museums, churches, and monuments. A vast variety of heritage exhibitions, concerts, and folk festivals from the Lorraine to Corisca also have been scheduled.
In an effort to combine it all, to give the meandering tourist a way of seeing out-of-the- way chateaux and taking in the local festivals and exhibitions, the Demeure Historique has mapped out itineraries -- taking the touring visitor through little-known regions of an historic nation.