Sunday, February 21, 1999 Published at 14:19 GMT
Kosovo peace talks: Behind the scenes
Rambouillet chateau: setting for the peace talks
By Bridget Kendall in Rambouillet
You don't have to spend very long in Rambouillet, before you realise it is the kind of sleepy French town that might once have been the backdrop for a Jacques Tati film - a quaint reminder that not everywhere in Europe has been seduced by the ugly convenience of fast food and hyper malls.
But either way, there are an amazing number of luscious chocolate shops, perfume salons and small boutiques that specialise in skimpy lacy underwear.
These, it seems, are Rambouillet's priorities. At least during the most romantique and French of all saints holidays - Saint Valentine's day.
Unofficial press centre
No wonder then, that the local paper last week declared the town was under siege - invaded not just by us common or garden hacks.
Even though we are instantly recognisable in our grubby anoraks and scuffed footwear.
And even though our satellite vans and coils of cable have turned the municipal car park in front of the town hall into a zone so hazardous, that the authorities have now stationed a 24 hour guard of riot police there to monitor it.
No, the main invasion is more exotic. Since the Friday before last, this charming tourist hideaway has been seeping with Balkan intrigue. Some 50 or 60 Serb and Albanian journalists hang out at a variety of bars and cafes close to the chateau.
The favourite is a smoky joint called the Café de la Place d'Armes. 'The café on Weapons Square', I suppose would be the appropriate translation. We now call it the unofficial Kosovo press centre.
Look through the window and you'll see them sitting there, wrapped up against the cold in their leather jackets, chain smoking and sharing gossip about what might be going on behind the chateau walls.
Mobile phone is God
Every now and then, one of them will get a call on his or her portable phone and leave the café warmth to answer. The signal isn't good enough to have cell phone conversations indoors.
It doesn't matter what the weather is - snow, pouring rain, freezing cold. The mobile phone in Rambouillet is God - the key to leaks from sources inside the castle.
Indeed you only have to walk across the town square and peer through the railings and down into the chateau grounds - and as often as not, down by the lake, you'll see someone from either the Serb or Albanian delegation, confiding into their phones - a direct electronic leak to the press outside.
So much for the international mediators attempts to impose a media blackout.
Back at the café, you'll find one or two journalists sitting at the tables by the window where the light is better, hurriedly tapping out the latest scoop in Serbo-Croat or Albanian on their laptops, a café au lait pushed to one side, drunk in an impatient hurry. Not that the patron behind the bar seems to mind.
This is after all dreary February. What might have been a quiet month has turned into non-stop bar service.
From time to time the café's small beige French poodle hobbles out of its basket and jumps up onto one of the brown plastic seats, next to the man from the Yugoslav official news agency, or the journalist from the main Kosovo Albanian daily. No one takes any notice of this canine intrusion.
After a bit, the dog jumps down again, as though tired of trying to absorb the intensity of Balkan politics.
It's all very cosy, but not, say the journalists, convenient.
We had better facilities in Sarajevo during the war, complains one seasoned reporter, as he snaps shut his lap top and buttons his jacket before wending his way through the town to the cyber café, to log onto the Internet and despatch his copy. Within minutes, the latest leaks are all over Belgrade or Pristina.
Actually, of late, sources close to the delegations cooped up in the chateau have apparently been more circumspect.
As the deadline looms, the pressure is building. Sources close to negotiations say hopes are dwindling among members of the ethnic Albanian delegation that their call for a referendum on Kosovo's future status after three years will be included.
The message they say they are getting from the Americans and others is: "Sign up to what we're offering you, persuade the Kosovo Liberation Army to disarm and you'll get Nato troops instead to protect your new autonomy. You won't get a better deal than this, and if you refuse it, you'll find yourselves abandoned."
The message to the Serbs is even simpler: "Sign up or we'll bomb you. And, by the way, stop objecting to our plans to send Nato troops to Kosovo to police an accord. That is non-negotiable."
Peace or war in possibly the most inflammatory corner of the Balkans - all to be decided here.
Business as usual
And meanwhile, the good citizens of Rambouillet, oblivious of the high stakes game being played out in their chateau, go about their business.
Every morning, the men in their berets, puffing on the first Gauloise of the day, walk briskly to the boulangerie to buy French baguettes for breakfast. Every evening, as the sun goes down, elegant dames emerge to walk their small dogs - poodles and terriers who trot along the cobbled streets behind, in knitted vests to keep the winter chill out.
Or if it is particularly cold and wet, clutched to their owners' bosoms to keep their paws dry.
When life is so good to those who live here, why should the residents of Rambouillet trouble themselves about what fateful drama might unfold next week at the other end of Europe?