CHÂTEAU EX­PE­RI­ENCES

Get a taste of the good life in the grand houses of Bur­gundy-franche-comté.

France - - Contents - as Ca­tri­ona Burns dis­cov­ers

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

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