Fairy Tale In France
It had been more than four years since my last rendez-vous with France, and I was all too eager for a return. I closed my eyes, inhaled a long, deep breath of the fresh crisp air, and listened to the soothing, charismatic voices around me. My French speaking abilities are rusty- comparable to that of someone who has successfully completed their first week in an introductory language class. I do my best to not look lost, confused, or too touristy as I find my high-speed train from Paris to Angers St. Laud. It is surprisingly uncomplicated, and I am beginning to find comfort in my place as a lone traveler in a foreign city. For the next hour and a half, I gently rest my head against the train window to observe the beautiful French countryside, as I make my way southwest to the mystifying landscape of the Loire Valley.
Upon my arrival to Angers, I was met by a dedicated member of the Chateau de Challain family. He graciously carried my belongings, and escorted me to the automobile that would commute us to the estate I had long been awaiting. The drive was no more than forty minutes, but it felt transient, as I stared wide-eyed at a shade of green I’d never before witnessed in person. The grounds in this side of France are ethereal, offering a visual perspective I have yet to find in our beloved Central Park.
Having made the journey to Challain-la-Potherie, upon entering the property of Chateau de Challain, I was speechless. A mere product of my time, I indulged in one last guilty pleasure- I snapped an iPhone photo of my first view of the 19thcentury neo-gothic castle, with the full intention of sharing this magnificent image on my Instagram account. From there, I voluntarily went offline- the ultimate challenge for someone such as myself- and entered a habitat unlike one I know, and succumbed to another period in time.
Chateau de Challain is not quite a hotel or a venue; it is more of a luxurious home in European paradise, with magical abilities to meet every desire. Standing forty-five meters high, and sixty meters long, this gothic revival castle built in limestone holds six floors, three of which are in operating use. Completed in just six years by 1854, the construction of this chateau was a record for its time. Set along 75 acres of rolling countryside, the home was built to furnish the dream of Albert de la Rouchefoucauld and his beloved wife, Countess Ida. Fit for royalty indeed, the manor holds 365 windows and 52 fireplaces, curiously reflective of the days and weeks in the lunar calendar.
Upon their journey in 2002, Cynthia Nicholson and her family loosely entertained the idea of acquiring a castle in the French countryside. Hailing from New Jersey, it was an unfamiliar venture that fell into place, not without a great deal of hard work and dedication. After nine months of renovations by the Nicholson family, two staff members, and visiting friends whom offered their skilled hands, a castle that was previously uninhabited for twenty years had become a palatial home by August 2003.
A grand chateau indeed, complete with 13 bedrooms, of which six are suites, and the ability to comfortably accommodate 35 overnight guests, it is also a home, decorated with personal touches of its keepers, and adorned by a warm energy of the Chateau de Challain family. The Gatehouse situated on the property presents opportunity for added privacy, particularly for those seeking an extended stay. Much like an apartment of the castle, it offers separation from the rest of the estate, and self-catering is a viable option.
Cynthia Nicholson divides her time between her homes in the United States and France. A skilled coordinator whose imagination and creativity knows no bounds, she envisioned a real-life fairy tale in the chateau, and set forth to design unique, dream-like weddings for the romantic that appreciates luxury, and desires the quintessential setting for which the notion of ‘happily ever after’ was founded. Cynthia has been known to deliver so much more than a beautiful French castle wedding; she furnishes magic you never dreamed possible.
No two weddings at Chateau de Challain are alike. It is a completely customizable experience met with thoughtful designation that defines the ideal atmosphere for the wedded couple. Many New Yorkers feel limited in their plans for a destination wedding- after all, Manhattan has it all, and planning from a distance is seemingly a headache in the works. Cynthia eliminates this concern, possessing a solution for every obstacle, a world-class vendor for all needs (even those you didn’t even know you had), and best of all, an understanding and accommodating demeanor you’d seek in a friend.
Just some of the offered enhancements for a Chateau de Challain wedding include an evening fireworks show, a watercolor artist to capture the scene as it happens, horse and carriage rides, live music of nearly any genre, from the classical harp to a jazz trio, a fire show, an ice-skating rink, gymnast and dancing performers, and magicians. If you want to know what is possible, a more productive question would be what is notpossible, as the sky is the limit. Hair, make-up, nail services, massages, and facials are readily available upon request, and yet never does this cozy abode appear to be packed like a heavily staffed five-star hotel. It is actually rather quiet, intimate, and unassuming, opening itself up to weddings and elopements of all volumes and genres.
A wedding in France deserves only the finest cuisine in the world, and that is exactly what one experiences with Michelin Star Chef Michel Cudraz. Catering exclusively with Chateau de Challain for more than four years, he sources fresh regional produce to invent a special menu for each wedding that inspires and overwhelms the senses with sheer delight. A full wine cellar on-site, guests sip only the finest wines, taking advantage of the renowned grapes of the Loire Valley vineyards.
Whether a bicycle tour of the Loire Valley, a day of exploration in Angers, or regional shopping in Nantes, there are many nearby options for the explorer within. Some local highlights to visit include the Cointreau Distillery and Museum, Cathedral of Saint-Maurice, and Apocalypse Tapestry.
Overwhelmed in the best way possible by all I had to experience at Chateau de Challain during my three-night stay, it all came full-circle for me on my final day at the castle, in which I took it upon myself to lounge around the property, snapping photographs, and exploring the grounds from every angle. Eager to return to the downstairs kitchen, my favorite room in the chateau (and Cynthia’s as well), I enjoyed a light traditional French dinner. Laid out before me on a long, homey wooden table beside a lit fireplace, was a feast of cheeses, baguette, and wine. I sat for hours with Cynthia, and her best friend Bridgette whom had just arrived from Ireland with her toddler son, Finn, for a visit. Surely, I thought, these two women have known each other a lifetime. As we ate, drank, laughed, and enjoyed one another’s company, I had learned something about these two women that told me a great deal about the Chateau de Challain experience. Bridgette was one of Cynthia’s brides at the castle a few years prior. Over the course of planning her wedding, the two connected and formed a strong friendship that is sure to last a lifetime. They frequently travel to visit one another, and share a bond not unlike close sisters. For Cynthia, and everyone at Chateau de Challain, a wedding is a personal matter. It is handled and delegated with the utmost care, passion, and love. This was not merely the phenomenal castle I saw in photographs, this was truly a home filled with love, and I couldn’t imagine a more magical setting in the world to seal a lifelong bond.
A version of this story written by Samantha Sendor originally appeared in the 2014 Sophisticated Weddings.