Design doyenne to the stars reviews Château de Bagnols.
For more than a decade, I had dreamt of the Château de Bagnols. When I was editor of Elle Decoration, I saw incredible pictures that lodged in my imagination, images from childhood: Beauty and the Beast, Bluebeard’s Castle, The Princess and the Pea… The extravagant interiors looked about as far from the idea of a boutique hotel, and from the modern design that filled the pages of my magazine, as was possible. Intensely beautiful, the pictures that struck me most were of its beds, which simply beggared belief – insane four-posters piled high with mattresses and hung with heavy red-brocade drapes or antique silks. This was the stuff of the films – of Peter Greenaway and Luchino Visconti. However, it was a dream, and I never went.
Now, finally, invited to review the hotel with my husband, it was time to visit Bagnols in the heart of Beaujolais. Would I be horribly disappointed? Were those pictures a stylised sham? As we arrived in the village of Bagnols, 12 miles from Lyons, and spied the extraordinary castle walls, the answer was, clearly, no. This is a really staggering building in a tiny village, its historic might absolutely apparent. Complete with moat, drawbridge and towers in the honey-coloured stone called pierre dorée, the schoolbook stronghold is punctured by neat, cruciform arrow holes. (You might call it a hole-istic experience, perhaps, to be the recipient of an arrow from one of those.)
The interior of the château does not disappoint. It is the brainchild of a truly cultured woman, Lady Helen Hamlyn, who also owns the house by architects Mendelsohn and Chermayeff in Old Church Street, London – one of England’s first modernist houses. The rooms in both the original 13th-century castle and the ‘new’ (ie: 15th-century) block are beautiful. Our bed was as sublime as I had hoped, decorated with fragile antique textiles and made up with tactile Swiss bedlinen (which you can buy, too). Next to the bed, the water tumblers were made of silver, giving us a visceral introduction to what it must have been to be a French aristocrat. The bathroom was grand, too, with an antique marble bath and local products including a really, really strong lavender bath foam – the type that works against typhoid and tigers. We also had a huge sitting room, filled with bleeding-heart-coloured sofas, and another tiny room covered with early frescoes. It blows your mind.
The kitchens are central to the building and, thanks to a clever sleight of design, you walk through them on your way to anywhere, past the teeming, steaming theatre of food preparation. The grounds are lovely, with dense borders of lavender and a formal garden where we took drinks before dinner. The swimming pool is round, with grass growing right up to its edge. Alas, all this whimsy and wonder has to fit into a 21st-century reality, and the food and service at Bagnols are of a very French kind, rather than tallying, to my mind, with the beyond-beautiful environment. The human contact is formal and, operationally, the hotel deals in star ratings and status rather than princesses and peas.
The Château de Bagnols is certainly the most beautiful hotel I have ever stayed in. To have a heavenly time, order room service (after all, how often do you have your own four-poster?). The rooms are so exquisite it is mad not to stay in for the evening and do your own variation on ‘You be Louis and I’ll be Marie Antoinette.’ Just don’t lose your head. We also dined in the very grand Salle des Gardes, where we had cherry clafoutisfor pudding; in contrast, we lunched under the trees, on goat’s cheese and red wine.
During the day, go out and explore, do your own thing; the château has bicycles you can go off on, for picnics and jaunts. We made use of their nicely produced book of trips that you can enjoy by bike or car, which took us to just the sort of places we love. We spent a morning at an over-the-top food market at Villefranche, where we did the rounds of the vast quantities of local produce, buying huge bags and bundles to take home, including an array of fresh goat’s cheese and a sausage called Jésus (the old ladies laughed when I asked them why, leaving me none the wiser), as well ogling as all those great, artistically ordered piles of fruit and vegetables.
Hanging out in yeasty cellars and debating the relative values of 2004 and 2002 is very much our idea of fun, so we also enjoyed a visit to a much-awarded local winemaker, Alain Chatoux, who makes Beaujolais and some very decent white. If you think there is no significant difference between men and women, you might think again after a session of wine-tasting. Down in Mr Chatroux’s chilly cave, we noted that Mr Smith preferred the powerful kick of a 2003 or a 2005 vintage, while Mrs Smith put her money on the lighter, chillable 2002 or 2004. An interesting experiment, and not one without its non-scientific compensations.
For a change of aesthetic, we drove an hour to see the modernist convent La Tourette by Le Corbusier. One of his last works, it is a building that expresses the interior life of man, and embodies his search for intensity and soul. Built around the progress of the sun, the building allows light to enter the building in many different ways. Slits of light accompany you down corridors; you enter a chapel through a transformational wall of light; and altars are dramatically lit with wizard fingers of light. It is incredibly moving. We weren’t sure how to follow that, except by plunging back into the brocade-draped, fresco-covered, sumptuous worldliness of our quarters at Château de Bagnols – from the sublime to the luxurious, you might say.
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