|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
|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.
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
|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
|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
This charming server was emblematic of the
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.
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
|“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.”
Managed and marketed by Rocco
69620 Bagnols, France
Phone: +33 4 74 71