Today was a red-letter day. I finally made it to the Chateau of Beloiel. Unfortunately it was closed. Or so I thought.
My friend, Kelly, and I arrived at around 12:30 to discover the gate locked and the grounds, designed by the same fellow who designed the gardens of Versailles, just out of our reach. We were lamenting our inability to enjoy them on this first sunny day in weeks when Kelly noticed a fellow walking his bicycle inside the grounds toward the gate, toward us. As he opened the gate and passed through, I spoke to him in French.
“Will the castle open today?”
He responded, thinking I was German, I suppose, in German, “In a few minutes, at one o’clock.”
I valiantly tried to respond in German, “Oh, at one!” I should tell you that my German is really terrible. Really, really TERRIBLE. It has been a very long time since I spoke any German at all, and even then in the 1970’s, it was survival German, at best.
He said, “What language…?”
A little embarrassed that my French is not as good as I want it to be, but also happy that I’m not immediately identified as American, “Anglais, ou français,” I said.
“Oh,” and he continued in English. “Yes, they open at one.”
Thus began a conversation with Prince de Ligne, descendant of the fellow who was meant to be the first King of the Belgians. He refused, for whatever reason, and was made the Field Marshal instead. Michel de Ligne, however, the very nice owner of aforementioned Chateau and gardens, is thus a Prince.
Now, I didn’t know that when we were talking. He introduced himself as Michael de Ligne, and he spent a good fifteen minutes talking with Kelly and me about travel and politics. He was thoroughly taken with Kelly, who has traveled extensively and whose dad is retired US Navy, a tug boat captain, and a former ship’s captain on the Panama Canal. He expressed his gratitude to NATO when we told him where we work, finally encouraging us to enjoy the castle and gardens, then left on his bike ride. Kelly and I decided to go grab a sandwich and hot chocolate in town while we waited for the grounds to open, and as we were leaving the café, I told the lady waiting on us in the café that we’d talked with the owner of the castle and were heading back over there. She said something about “the prince,” and I went, “WHAT? Prince? Wait…WHAT?” “Euh, oui,” she said, “he could’ve been the king of Belgium.” Oh. My. Goodness.
I turned to look at Kelly, whose French is not all that great, and I guess I looked a bit stunned, because she gave me a look as if to say, “are you alright?” I said, “She said he’s a prince.” “What?” Kelly responded. “Michael.” I said. “MICHAEL de LIGNE. He’s a prince. We met a PRINCE!” Kelly, true to form, just laughed, while my mouth hung open in amazement.
We returned to the castle to visit the grounds and found the whole place enthralling. Paintings everywhere of French and Belgian royalty, including Louis XIV, and even one of Napolean, hand dutifully tucked into his waistcoat; busts of famous historical figures (one of Voltaire!); a bed belonging to Marie Antoinette, a clock gifted by one of the Tsars. We walked the grounds and enjoyed the first sunny Belgian day in weeks. There are numerous little ponds, lots of ducks, even a mama duck and her ducklings; so adorable! The gardens are really beautiful, if a little unkempt at this time of year and after so much rain, with charming little nooks and crannies to be explored, and pretty pictures to be taken everywhere you look.
As we departed, we happened upon the prince again. We stopped, had a little conversation, and he graciously allowed us to have our photo taken with him. A gentleman, all around.
Today I met a prince. Yes, I did.