Get a taste of the good life in the grand houses of Burgundy-franche-comté.
Mention French châteaux and most people will think immediately of the Loire Valley. But contrary to popular belief, the Loire does not have the largest number of châteaux in France. That distinction goes to BurgundyFranche-comté, where around 500 dot the landscape of green hills, vineyards, waterways and villages. Ranging from imposing fortresses to romantic Renaissance confections, in settings of manicured gardens, ancient woodlands and precipitous cliff faces, the diversity rivals the Loire Valley, too.
Many of these stately homes and castles used to be the exclusive domain of the great and the good of Europe, but nowadays just about anyone can have a château experience, whether it is sleeping in a four-poster bed, attending a masquerade in a lavish ballroom, or enjoying great food and wine at a candlelit dinner. In Burgundy-francheComté, anyone can be king – or queen – of the castle.
For art lovers… Château d’ancy-le-franc, Yonne
Set in beautiful parkland in the commune of Ancy-le-franc, east of Auxerre, the eponymous château is a jewel of the Renaissance. It was the work of Italian architect Sebastiano Serlio, who helped to design the palace of Fontainebleau, and was built in the 1540s. Serlio had been summoned to court by François I and given the task of fulfilling the king’s dream of having a real Italian castle.
Using Burgundy limestone, Serlio, a master of symmetry, created an elegant quadrangular building encircling a magnificent courtyard where statesmen used to arrive on foot. The riches continue inside, which houses the biggest collection of Renaissance murals in France.
The 17th-century aristocrat Marquise de Sévigné wrote that the château was a French building in “costume italiano”. You can see what she meant by walking through the lavish apartments, which have been decorated on different themes. From the Chambre des Arts, depicting subjects such as astrology and mathematics, to the Chambre des Fleurs displaying paintings of more than 35 floral varieties, the tour offers an insight into the past lives of the inhabitants spanning five centuries.
In addition to its Renaissance collection, the château hosts exhibitions of contemporary artists, as well as candlelit visits during the summer and Christmas antiques fairs. What will be tempting me back, however, are the cooking courses held in the old kitchens. Imagine learning how to perfect French culinary classics in a place that played host to Louis XIV. Who could resist? Open Mar-nov, excluding bank holidays, open all year for groups by appointment, guided tour €10, children (six-15) €6. Tel: (Fr) 3 86 75 14 63 chateau-ancy.com
For families… Château de Sully, Saône-et-loire
“It’s like time has stood still,” says my friend as we walk around Château de Sully, half an hour west of Beaune. In many respects, he is right. On first impressions, I suspect that the château, one of the largest in southern Burgundy, looks no different from its 16th-century heyday. The beautiful Renaissance courtyard has been left untouched; pilgrims continue to pray in the neo-gothic chapel, and a 12th-century tower still stands.
But while the Château de Sully’s heritage has been well preserved, efforts have also been made to keep it full of life, largely thanks to the owner, Amelie, Duchesse de Magenta. On a stroll around the grounds, we pass preparations for a wedding in the orangery, while the cosy salon de thé is busy with weekenders, and guided tours fill the interior. “Each of our guides likes different things about the house, whether it’s the architecture, history or rooms, so visitors always get a new experience,” she says.
Children are made particularly welcome and have their own tours, led by professional storyteller Thomas Volatier. He allows youngsters to use their imagination as they step back through the centuries. The tours often have a theme, such as pirates or princesses, and special events are organised including an Easter egg hunt and a Hallowe’en experience. Grown-ups do not miss out, as the château owns Premier Cru vineyards, and bottles of the red, white and sparkling wines are on sale in the gift shop.
As the Château de Sully is a private residence, a guided tour offers
a through-the-keyhole experience. Even the Scottish-born Amelie, who has lived here since 1985, cannot be sure what will be revealed, and confesses that she does not know how many rooms there are. “My husband used to say, ‘Where’s the fun in having a château if you already know every corner of it?’” she laughs. It seems there is a lot more to be discovered than anyone can imagine. Open Apr-nov, guided tour of the château and visit to outdoor buildings and park, €8.80, children (3-12) €4. Tel: (Fr) 3 85 82 09 86 chateaudesully.com
For luxury… Château de Vault-de-lugny, Yonne
As we drive up the grand pathway towards the château, we pass visitors reclining on the manicured lawns, sipping pre-dinner drinks in the setting sun. It is a fitting introduction to the five-star boutique hotel situated in the village of Vault-de-lugny, near Avallon, where guests can indulge in a luxurious château experience.
I am made to feel like royalty even before the door attendant has time to unload my heavy suitcase from the car. “Here is your key, Madame Burns,” says the concierge. “You are staying in la reine.” Presuming I have hit the jackpot, I cannot help but smile smugly, but my friends are getting the royal treatment, too, staying in rooms such as le prince, le roi and la princesse.
Classic in style, la reine lived up to my high expectations. Taking in the deluxe bed, candelabras, roomy bathtub, high ceilings and, best of all, a working fireplace, I was already dreading the time I would have to leave.
An open medieval fireplace is also the focus of the basement restaurant, where impeccable service and a traditional menu with unusual twists made for an evening to remember. A sumptuous meal of foie gras crème brûlée, Brittany lobster, a cheese plate (including the Burgundy speciality, Époisses) and a blackberry mousse encased in a dark chocolate shell was made all the more enjoyable as we gazed into the flickering flames.
Thankfully, the château provides plenty of energetic activities to burn off the calories without having to set foot in a gym. Guests can go mountain biking in the Morvan regional park, kayak down the Cure Valley, hike through vineyards or play tennis in a woodland court. If you want to take it easier, you can fish for trout, see the château from above in a hot-air balloon or ride in a horse-drawn
carriage through the grounds. Intent on living in the lap of luxury during my stay, I took it even easier, taking a dip in the heated swimming pool and retiring early to my king-sized bed where I dozed off to the sound of a crackling fire. Doubles from €175, menu gourmand from €69. Tel: (Fr) 3 86 34 07 86 www.lugny.fr
For medieval history… Château de Joux, Doubs
As I approach the Château de Joux in La Cluse-et-mijoux near the Swiss border, the weather is grey and gloomy. “Grim weather for a grim building,” says a companion as we silently trudge up the hill to the fort. Although no one relishes getting soaked, the downpour is a fitting backdrop against which to hear haunting tales of battle, conquest and heartache from the château’s 1,000-year history.
Standing on a rocky promontory, the fortress overlooks the Cluse de Pontarlier valley, which once formed part of an important trade route. Being in such a strategic position meant the castle was fought over by the French, Swiss, Spanish and Burgundians before finally returning to French control in 1678.
Perhaps the most spine-tingling part of the visit was hearing the legend of Berthe de Joux in the dungeon where she is believed to have been incarcerated for cheating on her Crusader husband. The fortress also acted as a prison, and we all got goose bumps visiting the cells of some of the convicts, especially that of Toussaint Louverture, leader of the Haitian Revolution, who died here in 1803. Open Apr-nov, guided tours €7.50, children (six-14) €4.50. Tel: (Fr) 3 81 69 47 95 chateaudejoux.com
Château de Couches, Saône-et-loire
For more history-filled tales, head to the Château de Couches in the commune of the same name near Chalons-sur-saône. The former fortress of the Dukes of Burgundy dates from the 11th century and includes a later dungeon and outer walls.
Visitors are invited to dress up in period costume, and on selected days, the château holds medieval pageants, with music, falconry displays and combat re-enactments. You can also stay in the charming three-room chambre d’hôte, which is decorated in the Louis XIII style. Open Apr-nov, doubles from €190 including a tour, wine tasting and breakfast; guided visit €7, children (four-14) €4. Tel: (Fr) 3 85 45 57 99 chateaudecouches.com
Situated in the village of Rully on the Route des Grands Crus, the four-star Château Saint-michel is ideal for oenophiles exploring Burgundy’s famous vineyards. The 19th-century building features sumptuous furniture, bountiful gilding, marble floors and a showstopping staircase. The hotel’s old-world charm blends smoothly with contemporary comforts, which you will find in the sophisticated, spacious bedrooms complete with huge beds, widescreen TVS and romantic balconies.
A slice of château extravagance is served up with dinner, too. Showing us around the grand rooms and hallways, the owner Mark de Vries ended the informal tour by saying: “Now the question is, where you’ll be having dinner,” before opening a set of double doors to reveal a candle-lit banqueting table worthy of Downton Abbey. Over a meal of charcuterie followed by pike in a cream of tomato sauce, I realised that the location was not the only reason that it appealed to wine-lovers.
Connoisseur or not, everyone could learn something about the local vins from sommelier Matthieu, who was on-hand to advise, inform and ensure that everyone’s glass was topped up. Doubles from €119. Tel: (Fr) 3 85 87 22 97 relaisdusilence.com
For magical grounds… Château d’arlay, Jura
Although the present Château d’arlay dates from 1774, the first castle was built in the 13th century. It is still a family-run estate, which is a source of pride for the owners, Alain and Anne de Laguiche. “The château has never been bought or sold since the Middle Ages,” Alain says.
Wine production from what is the oldest château vineyard in France provides most of the income, just one of many titbits visitors will discover while chatting to Alain and sampling some of the estate’s wine in the tasting rooms.
The present château, built in 1774 on the site of a convent, is a treasure trove of Restoration period furniture, which fills the ornately decorated rooms. One of my favourites was the chambre de la princesse decorated from 1820-1830 and covered in flower-printed wallpaper. Another was the charming library, where Anne pointed out two false bookshelves that were concealing chimneys.
But it is the grounds that are perhaps most special; eight hectares of woodland where you could while away afternoons walking among centuries-old trees. You will find a bowling green, outdoor theatre, sheep holding, as well as remains of the 13th-century castle and an old church that overlook the vineyards.
“You need time to visit d’arlay,” says Anne. “We advise a minimum of two hours.” I would say that would be cutting it fine to see all that the château has to offer. Open May-oct, guided tours €6, children (six-12) €5. Tel: (Fr) 3 84 85 04 22 chateau-arlay.com
CLOCKWISE FROM ABOVE: The Chambre du Roi at the Château de Vault-de-lugny; The exterior of the château in autumn; The Château de Couches; The Château de Joux on its rocky promontory
ABOVE: The new east garden at the Château d’ancy-le-franc and (BELOW LEFT) the Chambre des Arts; (BELOW) The north facade of the Château de Sully
ABOVE: The Château Saint-michel and (BELOW) stained-glass windows in the chapel; (BELOW RIGHT) Part of the gardens at the Château d’arlay