''I am Charles de Lorgeril,'' the count introduced himself at the door of the 16th-century chateau near Pleugueneuc, in Brittany. ''Welcome to the Chateau de la Bourbansais.''
We had just driven up to the chateau over a tree-lined approach road, after unhooking the chain that cordoned off the private road indicating that the ''rabble'' was not to enter.
I was still deciding if I was expected to bow and say ''sire'' when I noticed that le compte had already thrown our two garment carriers over his shoulder, taken a suitcase in each hand, and was motioning for us to follow him through the chateau's tapestry-rich great hall and up a stone stairway to the 350-franc (around $50 per night for two) apartment we had reserved in a phone call from New York only a few weeks before. When I protested that it was too much for him to carry, he laughed and said: ''It is good for le balance.''
This was the beginning of a tour to experience chateau life, ''la vie de chateau.'' It was the first stop in a motor tour of the homey (if you're used to country luxury, that is), lived-in chateaux of Brittany, the northwesternmost province of France once known as ''Little Britain,'' just across the English channel from ''Great Britain.''
A varied landscape of seaside resorts, small farms, and modest chateaux, Brittany offers the tourist who has trod the beaten paths of Paris and the Riviera another kind of France. Prices are lower (especially with the current devaluation of the franc), and chicness is minimal. And it is a paradise for backpackers and campers -- almost every town has well-situated camping grounds.
But this was not to be that kind of vacation. Although a longtime Francophile traveler, I had never visited Brittany. My traveling companion, an architect-photographer from Argentina who speaks English, French, and Spanish, and I decided to spend a few days in Paris, buy a car (to be resold at the end of the trip), then proceed to Brittany, where we would stay mainly at chateaux, with excursions to beach resorts for change of pace.
While money was not a major consideration, neither of us enjoys staying at super-deluxe, three-bellhops-per-suitcase hotels, which, despite the current devaluation and price controls in France, still cost $150, double, per day. In Brittany there are chateaux and beach resorts that cost as little as $50 double, and in some cases this even includes meals. If you are a budget traveler, there are many small hotels and boardinghouses that cost much less than half that.
Why Brittany? Well, I had always been fascinated by the knights of the Round Table, and in the sixth century King Arthur supposedly set out to find the ''holy grail'' in the forest of Broceliande in Brittany. There are so many Breton saints that almost every village has its own pardon, a day of celebration of the local saint. Until very recently many Breton women wore fancy costumes and lace headdresses. And most important for an appreciator of French cooking, Breton food is a delicious combination of a great variety of seafood, crepes, and galettes (buckwheat crepes filled with ham and cheese and other delicious items).
Why not Brittany?
When my traveling companion (Raul Ruben Nunez by name) and I decided upon the trip, our schedules called for us to depart in less than a month. The car could be arranged for easily, but usually July travel in France calls for reservations long in advance. From the French Tourist Office in Rockefeller Center, New York , I obtained several free publications, two of which proved to be invaluable: ''Chateau Accueil'' (Welcome Chateau) which lists ''bed-and-breakfast'' chateaux throughout France, in most of which the owners are in residence, and ''Relais et Chateaux,'' which lists with pictures and details many chateaux-hotels throughout France.
Since time was a problem, I simply called the chateaux and hotels I chose from these publications and from the red Michelin guide to France which I purchased. Each call cost less than $5, and in each case there was somebody at the other end who could speak at least some English -- although one time I first had to cope with an answering machine in French which taxed my limited knowledge of the language to an extreme.
One warning, learned from experience on previous trips -- always ask for exactly what you want. If you want a room with a view of the ocean, ask for it; otherwise you may find yourself in a room overlooking the parking area. If you want a room with a bath and a WC, ask for both, or you may very well get a room with a bath but the WC in the hallway.
I cannot explain how most of the chateaux and hotels were chosen -- it was mostly a matter of instinct. But the itinerary described here turned out to be almost perfect, and I would recommend it to anybody planning a motor tour of Brittany.
We arrived at our first chateau, the Chateau de la Bourbansais, in the early evening. In most of France, by the way, summer time has been arranged so that the sun sets around 11 o'clock, which assures tourists of a long day for sightseeing.
Our apartment at the chateau consisted of a foyer, a huge bed-sitting room with fireplace, five Bergere chairs, and a huge antique Empire bed covered with a white fur throw; a second smaller bedroom; and a huge circular bathroom (the tower) fitted with beautiful new brown and beige fixtures. It was an almost unbelieveable fantasy to find ourselves in this chic modern apartment in the midst of the 16th-century grandeur. To make matters even more surreal, during the night we heard the roars of lions and the chattering of apes which, we later learned, were sheltered in the private menagerie which the count maintains to attract daytime tourists.
The next day we explored the chateau further -- the count raises hound dogs and collects antique cars. There is a manicured French garden, as well as many acres of forest land.
The chateau itself is a preservationist's dream. Built in 1583, it escaped destruction during the Revolution but was used to house members of the Brittany parliament during the 18th century. It has been renovated, remodeled, and refurbished at various periods, but now the count is attempting to return the chateau to its original glorious construction. One day, we drove to one of my favorite isolated chateaux, the Manoir de Vaumadeuc, in a town named Pleven, arriving a bit too late for lunch. We knocked at the kitchen door and persuaded the staff to prepare a lunch of fish pate, tournedos, and fresh raspberries and strawberries for us (about $12). This chateau-manoir turned out to be a perfect 16th-centqry hideaway, with superb food and gloriously gorated rooms. One room which we inspected was furnished as a library, with convertible sofa-bed and hundreds of volumes from the 15th, 16th, and 17th century on the shelves.
We spent three days at Bourbansais, with an early morning trip to nearby Mont St.-Michel and visits to the neighboring ancient towns of Dinan, Dinard, and St. Malo. After a change-of-pace stay at a beach hotel with a one-star Michelin restaurant, the Hotel de la Plage at Ste.-Anne La Palud, we headed on to our next chateau.
Tucked away in the midst of a 900-acre estate in what Figaro magazine calls ''the magic triangle of the Druids'' in a medieval town called Hennebont, we found a chateau that proved to be the high point of the voyage, the ultimate hotel-chateau, the Chateau de Locguenole. Although the chateau itself dates back to the early 19th century, it stands in the place of what has been a chateau since the 15th century, always owned by the same family.
Mme. de la Sabliere and her sister run this superb hotel-restaurant now. Michelin has placed the restaurant in the two-star category and it has been highly rated in other gourmet listings. Demi-pension (breakfast and one meal) plus room comes to 808 francs (for two) in high season, or about $120. It is probably the best luxury bargain in France.
Locguenole has a swimming pool tucked away unobtrusively behind the orangerie and miles of primitive forest trails for walking. And it is not too far away from several fascinating towns -- the medieval walled citadel of Port-Louis, the modern naval city of Lorient, and, just a bit farther off, Carnac with its prehistoric monuments.
The food is superb, the service impeccable. Before the first course arrives, guests are served an array of hors d'oeuvres including salmon souffle, tiny shrimps, steamed clams, miniature eggplant pizzas, and special raisin buns. Then , melon balls to clear the palate before the fish course, sorbet to clear the palate before the meat course, then rich chocolate truffles and lacey cookies until the dessert ''chariot'' arrives with its luscious fruit tarts, chocolate mousse, and meringue snowballs. And always huge jugs of whole fresh fruits poached in their own juices -- pears, peaches, oranges. And, of course, fresh raspberries and strawberries, covered with creme fraiche or creme chantilly or . . . well, it goes on.
In any event, after three days of incredible food, it was good that we were scheduled to move on to another beach resort, this time an island in the Atlantic, Belle Ile. One more day of Locguenole and we would have been physically incapable of moving at all. If I were forced to choose one chateau in which to stay for an entire vacation, it would be Locguenole. It would mean that I would be a much bigger person than I was when I arrived. But happier, more relaxed.
Other chateaux we found worth stopping at overnight or just visiting:
Manoir du Stang, in La Foret-Fousnant, another 16th-century chateau with fabulous medieval public rooms, authentic Breton antiques in the bedrooms, a charming French garden, a picturesque group of ponds (stangs), and acres of woodlands. The food here is fine, but no match for Locguenole.
Josselin Castle in the town of Josselin, a fine day-trip from Locguenole, has a fortified 17th-century outer side facing the road, a rebuilt 18th-century pseudo-Gothic inner side, and 19th-century Victorian interiors. Across the river, opposite the chateau-castle, is the Hotel du Chateau, where we were able to have a simple lunch of pate, broiled sardines, cheese, and tart for 55 francs apiece.
Chateau de Teildras, Cheffes, en route back to Paris, is another 17th-century chateau with lovely antique-furnished rooms, a superb restaurant decorated with ancient tapestries, and a lovely English landscaped garden, complete with cows grazing before the huge umbrella-covered outdoor tables. Rooms around $60 double, dinner around $20 apiece. A farm on the property provides fresh produce.
Each of the chateaux described in this story turned out to be a fabulous experience in itself, possibly even more interesting than the countryside nearby. I suspect that people planning a similar trip could cull their own chateau itinerary from the two pamphlets provided by the French Tourist office and, perhaps, find it just as interesting. But those mentioned here were visited in July of this year -- and provided three delightful weeks of luxurious chateau living.
We arrived back in New York feeling as happily lightheaded as a souffle. But heavier. For a change of pace: a beach resort
Hotel de la Plage, Ste.-Anne La Palud, is a chateau-hotel right on a two-kilometer beach. The hotel boasts a one-star Michelin restaurant, also right on the beach, and rooms with views facing out to the Atlantic as well as across the beach. Double room with breakfast was 400 francs (about $55). Delicious a la carte full dinner came to around $25 per person.
Castel Clara, Belle Ile, proved to be the non-chateau find of the trip. The island lies off the Atlantic coast of Brittany, and you must write to the ferry company in Quiberon to reserve space for your car at least a week in advance. It is a 45-minute voyage across to this island, which resembles Nantucket Island before the boutiques moved in. Picturesque little fishing villages dot the island. Castel Clara proved to be a charming 10-year-old hotel overlooking a fjord (called a crique in French) and beyond that the Atlantic Ocean.
Two delicious nouvelle-style meals per day and a balconied room are yours for about $110 per day, double. There is a heated swimming pool, and a marvelous surf beach one kilometer away. It is a place to rest, loll in the sun, read, and eat ocean-fresh seafood at every meal. Prehistoric Brittany
Throughout Brittany, in unexpected places such as a private garden, a farmer's field, or a bus stop, one can see ''great stones,'' called menhirs, estimated to be between 4,000 and 5,000 years old. There are also burial crypts known as dolmen. Their origin is a mystery.
Near Carnac, a day trip away from Chateau de Locguenole, it is possible to visit a ''grand alignment'' of thousands of these megaliths, lined up for several kilometers in no particular order.
Nearby, on the island of Gavrinis, across from Larmor-Baden at the mouth of the Gulf of Morbihan, it is still possible to visit one of the most exciting prehistoric monuments in France, the Gavrinis cairn. Soon, I fear, this funeral crypt, filled with amazing geometric stone carvings dating back to 4,000 BC, will be as difficult to visit as the Lascaux caves. To get there you must catch a small boat for a 15-minute crossing to the island, on which the pyramid-like tumulus was erected. 'Leasing' a car
If you plan to rent a car in France for three weeks or more, you can save much money by ''leasing'' -- buying and reselling. It can all be arranged with Renault International in New York City or through several car renting-leasing agencies.
If you book through Air France, it has made a deal with an agency that will lease you a car below the Renault International price. However, I discovered when talking to the manager of Europe By Car in New York that he would give me a price a bit lower than the Air France package price. The cost of the Renault GTL (automatic) was $555 for three weeks, including all insurance, fees, etc. A manual transmission would lower the price by almost half. Right off the top you save the 18 percent rental tax in France.
All you do is pay the difference between the purchase price and the resale price, then sign an IOU for the rest of the purchase price. When you return the car, your IOU is automatically canceled. While you have the car you are protected by the Renault warranty, your only responsibility mainly being to bring the car in for its 1,000-kilometer checkup. Practical details:
The total mileage of our trip, from Paris through Brittany, including day trips, and back to Paris, was 2,600 kilometers. The total cost for two for the entire 25 days, including round-trip air fares, car leasing (including insurance), gasoline, hotels, meals, etc., came to $4,000. For information on leasing a car in France, contact Europe By Car, 630 Fifth Avenue, New York, N.Y. 10020; (212) 245 1713.
To facilitate making reservations at the chateaux and hotels mentioned above, the following is a list of phone numbers that can be dialed directly from the United States (first dial 011-33).
Chateau de la Bourbansais: 99 45 20 42
Manoir de Vaumadeuc: 96 84 14 67
Hotel de la Plage: 98 92 50 12
Manoir du Stang: 98 56 02 22
Chateau de Locguenole: 97 76 29 04
Castel Clara: 97 31 84 21
Chateau de Teildras: 41 42 61 08