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March 30, 2010

Perfect Weekend: Brittany

Château charmant

The smart set knows that the place to go to flee the frenzy of Paris for a weekend is Château de La Ballue, 200 miles from the city, deep in the rural tranquillity of Brittany's Ille-et-Vilaine region. In fact, this slightly eccentric and deeply luxurious hotel, built in 1620, has long welcomed the right people. Victor Hugo began one of his last works, Quatrevingt-treize, when he was a guest in 1836. Balzac dropped by, as did the poet Alfred de Musset and, more recently, the American painter Robert Rauschenberg.

The château's current owners, Alain Schrotter and Marie-France Barrère, are art dealers and former Parisian publishers. They restored the mansion in 1995, decorating the salon, bar, and five bedrooms in the guest wing in a perfect Old World meets New World style: plenty of flounced toile and claw-and-ball feet tempered with tailored slipcovers and angular side chairs. (On our visit, a recording of Satie's Gymnopédies was playing. "No other music seems appropriate," Schrotter says. "Only Baroque music and the moderns fit La Ballue.") The room to get is the sunny suite overlooking the château's stunningly restored Mannerist garden. Looking as though it were landscaped by an inspired Edward Scissorhands, with contemporary sculpture dotting the grounds, the garden is officially recognized by France as a national treasure. Indeed, there are few like it anywhere.

As in the best hotels with rooms numbering in the single digits, one of La Ballue's joys is personal attention from the owners. Schrotter and Barrère cook a fantastic breakfast each morning—flaky croissants, jam, and pots of homemade yogurt—and if you ask in advance, they'll make you dinner using 17th-century recipes. At the very least, request that Schrotter, an accomplished bartender, mix you a parraude, a blend of crème de menthe and Pernod. Sounds awful, tastes great. Rates, $230-$310. In Bazouges la Pérouse; 33-2/99-97-47-86; www.la-ballue.com.


Around La Ballue

The castle of CHATEAUBRIAND, father of French romanticism, is eight miles north in Combourg.

About 12 miles north of La Ballue, at the top of MONT-SAINT-MICHEL, is the famous 1,000-year-old abbey. The climb is only for the hardy—and it's best done off season when the crowds are few.

The snug fishing village of CANCALE, west of Mont-Saint-Michel, is, not surprisingly, the best place to try Brittany's Cancale oysters. But don't ignore the scallops, either. All the village restaurants prepare them in proper local fashion—with crème fraîche.

Just outside Cancale, a seven-mile clifftop path leads around the POINTE DU GROUIN, with magnificent views of the sea and the rugged Breton coast. Seabirds in the thousands whirl around their rookeries on the nearby Ile des Landes. Bring binoculars.