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Chateau De Bagnols in Beaujolais
Where the Past is as Real as the Present

Myrna Katz Frommer and Harvey Frommer

From the city of Villefrance, less than an hour’s drive northwest of Lyon, you plunge into the heart of the Beaujolais countryside. Narrow roads wind off a two-lane highway open to a wide rolling landscape. In the distance, visions of villages rise up. Church spires, walls, and towers of stones are all of a golden hue, a consequence of the iron-rich soil, and in the late afternoon sun they positively glow.

One of the roads stops at Bagnols, a little village of houses clustered down turning lanes, a small church, market, restaurant, post office, and set apart behind stone walls, an imposing chateau. At once  medieval castle, renaissance palace, bourgeoisie manor and 21st century hotel and restaurant, it is a place where past and present blend so effortlessly, one can easily lose his sense of time.

Built beside an enclosed yard shaded by ancient oaks, the rectangular-shaped stone castle sits on a knoll looking out onto carefully tended lawns and gardens, hedges of yews surrounding a grove of cherry trees, an avenue of lime trees bordering a romantic dining terrace, and a swimming pool overlooking a panorama of vineyards that stops at the foothills of distant mountains. Within are twenty four guest rooms/suites, accessed via original and highly irregular castle steps (or, for the less hardy, an inconspicuously located elevator). Another seven rooms are located in the adjacent structure facing the yard (at one time they were stables) beside a huge banquet hall that was once a functioning winery. All are furnished with authentic 17th and 18th century antique pieces, original works of art, and luxurious fabrics. There is a vast kitchen in the castle beneath a ceiling painted with swirls, a massive dining room, an elegant library, and as one would expect of any medieval castle, a drawbridge straddling a moat that in time gone by, horse-drawn carriages would cross to enter the long narrow courtyard at the castle’s center. Today it is a less chivalric but equally impressive entrance to a splendid and singular hotel.

A splendid entrance to a singular hotel - click to enlarge
A splendid entrance to a singular hotel
The history of the Château from its medieval origins through the present is a reflection of the larger history of Beaujolais. It evolved from 13th century defense fortress when the region was situated at the very edge of France to palatial 16th and 17th century manor house belonging to rich merchants from a Lyon that had become the banking capital of France and silk capital of the world. Over the centuries, successive owners added embellishments: large windows cut into exterior walls (previously the only lookouts had been narrow slits in the castle’s towers designed to spot approaching attackers), expanded residential quarters, mullioned windows along the walls of the inner court, trompe-l’oeil decorations, wall paintings.

In its long life as stately mansion, the Château had two staircases, one leading to private another to ceremonial rooms, a vaulted loggia, an Italian arcade overlooking the inner court, rooms filled with extravagant furnishings and tapestries from Flanders and Rouen, and a collection of paintings reportedly the most extensive and of the highest quality of any French provincial chateau.

All guest rooms are furnished with exquisite antiques and luxurious fabrics - click to enlarge
All guest rooms are furnished with exquisite antiques and luxurious fabrics
Such opulence fell out of favor in the wake of the French Revolution, however, and the property lapsed into obscurity. For many years, the Château was a working farm and profitable vineyard. But through the 19th and 20th centuries, rooms were divided, treasures sold or stored away. By the time of the Second World War when works of art from local museums were sequestered within its walls to keep them from the occupying Germans, the building was showing signs of neglect. More than forty years after the war’s end, it was in a ruinous state when an English couple happened upon it.

Appreciative of the Château’s past and at the same time able to envision its future, Lord Paul and Lady Helen Hamlyn purchased the property in 1987 and began an extensive and exacting restoration project that involved 400 artisans and lasted four years. Everything was renovated, yet nothing was changed. The plan was to make of the decrepit structure a hotel with all manner of modern conveniences and, at the same time, retain and restore its many historic and artistic features. Theirs was an adventure filled with surprises like the discovery of precious 16th and 17th wall paintings hidden behind non-descript wood paneling.

Lady Hamlyn’s credo of paying the greatest attention to even the smallest detail is apparent in the huge, high-ceilinged dining hall that positively gleams from a great array of silver candelabras and accessories. The white tablecloths made by the old Irish firm Lidell are embroidered with designs that echo themes from the paintings on the walls. The blue and white china made by Raynaud, one of the traditional manufacturers in Limoges, bears an apt heraldic design. Glasses made by Hartzviller in Alsace are copies of 18th century originals. Chairs are covered in silk made by Prelle of Lyon.

The largest gothic fireplace in Europe - click to enlarge
The largest gothic fireplace in Europe

Paintings of the four seasons are framed by trompe l’oeil columns so convincing one would swear they were three dimensional. And the fireplace at the far end of the room takes one’s breath away. Built in honor of Charles VIII on the occasion of his visit to the Château in 1490, it is the largest gothic fireplace in all of Europe.

The aura is one of grandeur, yet the experience of dining at the Château is relaxed and infused with warmth, a consequence of the delightful staff who are, to a man and woman, informed, enthusiastic, unobtrusive yet always at the ready to refill a glass, clear a dish, replenish one’s bread dish with irresistible corn bread or  crisp country rolls dotted with a little square of white flour.

Creators of the Château’s exceptional cuisine - click to enlarge
Creators of the Château’s exceptional cuisine
This charming server was emblematic of the dining roomg’s enthusiastic and capable staff - click to enlarge
This charming server was emblematic of the dining
room's enthusiastic and capable staff

The classic French menu of this one-star Michelin restaurant opens with a statement that the preparations are made with the best products obtained directly from market gardens, fish purveyors and breeders of the region. And it does not disappoint. Every course is like an act in a show expertly performed by three servers: one holds the tray, while the other two place the dish before a pair of diners at exactly the same moment. A rectangle of duck foie gras is served with chopped pistachio nuts on top and fresh figs on the side. Ravioli is filled with seasonal mushrooms. Turbot that comes with escarole and cauliflower  arrives in a pot. The lid is lifted, and a wonderful aroma of thyme and rosemary is released. Scallops are served on a heraldic spear accompanied by a frothy arrangement of watercress. Selections from an elaborate cheese board are followed by marvelous desserts: tiramisu with espresso, mango with passion sauce and ice cream, Mandarin plum tart with bananas, grapes and pears, a honeycombed cracker made of spun sugar and bound with honey. By any measure, this was a superb autumnal repast accompanied, as one might expect, by a bottle of fresh and young Beaujolais.

Perhaps it is because the Beaujolais countryside is so reminiscent of Tuscany that it came as no surprise to learn the general manager of the Château de Bagnols is a Tuscan native. After working in Parisian hotels for many years, Franco Mora decided to take on a very different kind of challenge when he moved to Bagnols in December, 2003. “Being here is like being at home,” he told us.

The Château’s general manager Franco Mora - click to enlarge
The Château’s general manager Franco Mora
“I knew about the place before I came here,” he added. “We would suggest it to our guests in Paris. So when Lady Hamlyn contacted me, I was interested in coming down.

“I discovered the Château’s guests are mainly people from the States, England, Belgium but not local people. So I decided to have a cocktail party for about 300 local people, an open house. That was a real Italian touch – the hospitality.

“Our restaurant has become a destination restaurant for people in the area,” Franco Mora says. “But thus far, Bagnols is a stop in the center of the country for visitors to France. We hope to make the Château a destination, a stop in and of itself.”

Château de Bagnols
Managed and marketed by Rocco Forte Hotels
69620 Bagnols, France

Phone: +33 4 74 71 40 00
Email: info@bangols

Photos by Harvey Frommer

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About the Authors:  Myrna Katz Frommer and Harvey Frommer are a wife and husband team who successfully bridge the worlds of popular culture and traditional scholarship. Co-authors of the critically acclaimed interactive oral histories It Happened in the Catskills, It Happened in Brooklyn, Growing Up Jewish in America, It Happened on Broadway, It Happened in Manhattan, It Happened in Miami. They teach what they practice as professors at Dartmouth College.

They are also travel writers who specialize in luxury properties and fine dining as well as cultural history and Jewish history and heritage in the United States, Europe, and the Caribbean. More about these authors.

You can contact the Frommers at: 

Email: myrna.frommer@Dartmouth.EDU
Email: harvey.frommer@Dartmouth.EDU

This Article is Copyright © 1995 - 2012 by Harvey and Myrna Frommer.  All rights reserved worldwide.


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