The auctions took place while the count who owned the castle was licking his wounds and basically just trying to stay alive in England. There was a lot of melted wax. Eventually, almost grudgingly, a farmer stepped up to buy the château before yet another candle spent itself and a cheerless thread of smoke filled the sale room. He paid a derisory 625 livres and used the castle, Gothic fireplace and all, as a rather grandiose outbuilding (even the andirons have survived, gorgeously intact). Combined with its awful condition, disaffection for the château ran so high that it brought more than 24,000 livres less than the village gristmill, which had the advantage of being revenue-producing, and only 175 livres more than the humble communal bread oven. What all this illustrates is that square footage is a contemporary obsession. A castle with a river view, even one in bad shape, at fire-sale prices—no one today could say no.
The last time the château changed hands, in 2002, it was still being abused in the same depressing fashion, this time by a grower of wine grapes. In one of those big, brave, life-changing moves that have a way of yielding a great guest experience, Virginie and Daniel Boulenger ditched their careers as auto-parts engineers (well, somebody has to do that job) to open a four-room maison d’hôtes, erase the inglorious chapters in the castle’s past, and restore its seigneurial dignity.
They accomplished this in ways that would not have occurred to your old-school fixer-upper of fortresslike medieval châteaux. Three of the guest rooms are situated off the salon, where a muscle-bound steel-and-glass staircase and bridge lead to the Boulengers’ private apartments. Furniture runs to Le Corbusier club chairs and Barcelona chairs in audacious white leather, designs whose flashing metal frames look wonderful against the matte slate and brick herringbone of the floors. Even more tonic and startling is the collection of Modern art, including one painting in Jean-Marc Dallanegra’s pressure-cooker series and a portrait by Troy Henriksen that pays homage to Jean-Michel Basquiat. Leaf-printed curtains in loosely woven linen from Robert Le Héros add softness and poetry.
Dinner is served at one table at one seating on a terrace overlooking the river under a canopy of Virginia creeper amid ad-libbed bouquets of dried grasses, wild fennel, and thistles. Daniel takes great care with the seating plan, and plates are scrupulously changed between courses, just as at a real dinner party. However good Virginie was at designing dashboards and rearview mirrors, she could not have been better at it than she is at cooking. A typical meal might begin with a cheeky "tarte Tatin" of eggplant with sun-dried tomatoes and pine nuts, then move on to a gigot de sept heures (leg of lamb cooked in a slow oven for seven hours, until it can be carved with a spoon), wheat berries, and buttered string beans from a neighbor’s garden. Roasted figs with cardamom is a popular dessert. No one turns in without a mug of house tisane, lemon verbena and star anise or linden blossom and mint.
A meal across the bridge at Le Viel Audon, 20 minutes on foot from the château, is just as satisfying, but in an utterly rustic way you would have thought lost. The hamlet is a species of cooperative where if you’re older than 6 and younger than 26 you can go to learn bread-baking, beekeeping, animal husbandry, and more. Lunch is a board piled with thick shards of ham, dried sausage, cornichons, and goat cheeses in three stages of maturity. And it wouldn’t be the Ardèche if there wasn’t caillette, a mixture of Swiss chard leaves, pork, and pig’s liver wrapped in caul fat. Just in case you haven’t had enough cheese, it appears again at dessert, freshly strained and molded, topped with chestnut cream or blackberry-and-blueberry jam.
Balazuc’s vegetation is Mediterra-nean. But as the village is only 10 miles south of "the olive line," the cutoff point for the cultivation of olive trees, no one should go expecting Provence. Balazuc has none of that region’s easy talent for voluptuousness. Pleasure has never been its own reward here, though the Boulengers are having great success swimming against time and history.
33-4/75-88-52-67; www.chateaudebalazuc.com; doubles from $151.