Eight visits to France in 17 years of my life. However, it was not until this very last trip with Kent, that I decided to see the French province. After a few days recovering from our long haul flight in Paris we were now at Orly ready to fly again.
A quick jaunt, a smooth one-hour flight took us from Paris to Lyon, landing at two thirty in the afternoon on the first Monday in June. Having collected our bags we headed to the arrival lobby where we spotted a well-dressed gentleman holding a sign with both hands, Château de Bagnols. ‘There he is, our driver.’ We smiled and exchanged nods as we acknowledged one another, then a few ‘Bonjour’s later we followed our French chauffeur to his black Mercedes. Right there in the airport car park, I noticed the fresh air of the Southeast of France has a slight hint of lavender.
Château De Bagnols Here We Come
Our driver hit the highway skirting past Lyon and before too long there were road signs for Champagne and Burgundy, we were excited, France was beginning to unfold herself! Our heading was North into the wine region of Beaujolais; a tiny village where this 13th-century castle lies, seemingly hidden, off the tourists’ radar.
National highways, urban; suburban to rural roads, after an hour or so we arrived in Bagnols. Motoring into this 15th-century village, we spied the remarkable castle towers rising above the lower walls. Our chauffeur buzzed an intercom beside a tall dark iron gate, it opened, the gravel crunched under the tyres and we were there. I had been to several French castles before: Château de Fontainebleau, Vaux-le-Vicomte; Saint-Germain-en-Laye, Château de Malmaison and of course, Château de Versailles! But I had never even dreamt of checking in to a Château as a guest! Well you can’t really move in to a museum, can you? And that’s why the Château de Bagnols experience is so unique that we get to reimagine what is possible, our very own ‘Château life’.
Once inside, there’s an absolute minimum of modern signage. I think this helps visitors to ‘step back in time’ as it was. While following our chauffeur and Château enabler David to the reception lobby – over a drawbridge! I couldn’t help but imagining a medieval battle scene of soldiers falling into the watery moat. I looked into the moat, ‘No water and no crocodiles!’ I joked; just nicely mown grass bed instead.
The check-in ‘lobby’ is a simple vestibule; a contrast to the grandness of the castle. There were treats freshly prepared in the kitchen. Kent and I were welcomed with a glass of champagne each before following David to our first suite, where the valets had already taken our luggage.
‘Welcome To The 13th-Century!’
Our Château Superior Suite ‘Aux Bouquets’ is on the floor above the entry to the Château. Once that door was opened, the reason for its name became apparent. Centuries old frescoes of people holding floral bouquets enlivening the walls of these sizeable and spacious rooms. Murals, heavy wooden beamed ceilings; giant carved fireplace and the period tiles, furniture… The antique velvet chair and cushion covers, the sun-filled windows… I was transported to this bygone era, a privileged life such as I had once read about in novels.
The bed room looked like a movie set from Luchino Visconti’s The Leopard! If a period piece four-poster canopy bed, draped with antique royal yellow damask and enough floor space for a retinue of servants (or maybe lovers..!!!) does not impress you, I don’t know what would? Back across the central room there’s a solid marble bathtub, the entire bathroom decadent in it’s use of marble. Did I mention the wooden commodes we christened as thrones?! Just remind me what century are we in again?
David continued walking us through each room, pointing out the facilities and light switches, here a cord there a floor switch; where to find the minibar, the pod espresso machine… I didn’t pay attention as I was in awe. Then David handed us the key right before he left, he said this with his lovely French accent: ‘Welcome to the 13th-century!’
Champagne And A Light Dinner At The 1217
The pleasantness of the summer evening was magnified on the terrace dining area, a double masonry span over the moat the lavender path on one side, Salle des Gardes (read my previous post for details) on the other. The evening at seven thirty the French summer light seemed no difference to four in the afternoon back in home in Sydney.
Kent dressed for the occasion putting on his recent purchase, a Parisian beige linen suite. Guided by the sommelier we began our first meal at the Château with French champagne. Bubbles, the view of the Beaujolais countryside and lavender scented air; an ancient and magnificent castle. This moment was like a picture I’d love to frame to cherish forever.
For my first meal I ordered L’Assiette “Terroir” the local food selection for dinner. It turned out to be similar to an antipasto but with a French twist – pâté. Kent liked the idea of risotto, well he’s always wondering how his own risotto efforts stack up! Asparagus was Risotto of the day. I had a spoonful or two of Kent’s Asparagus and Michelin-starred rice dish and it was pretty delicious, creamy with the right bite. I was mesmerised by the theatre of the place, and after our first experience we were looking forward to return for more appetising local food.
‘1217’ the restaurant of Château de Bagnols is our first one-Michelin-star dinning experience. That year is also the founding year of the Château and from where the restaurant takes its name.
A Twilight Stroll Down The Village Of Bagnols
People watching or shopping? Well Château de Bagnols may not be for you. However if it’s constant noise or city commotion you seek to get away from – especially at night, you have come to the right place. Kent and I couldn’t wait till the next morning to greet this golden-stone village of Bagnols; we decided to take a twilight stroll about town after dinner.
Bagnols is tiny and literally lies nestled outside the castle walls. It was so quiet that we could hear our own footsteps. Yes there’s a shop, a café and a bar but they were not open. This is not a 24-hour town not even 9-to-5! There’s a stillness in the air I rarely experience in city living. Cars, sirens and ‘post-pub parting people’ are familiar noises at night where we live.., for once I didn’t miss the conveniences of urban life. Strolling up the hill via the main street (there is only one) – looking back on the old houses, shaped against the deep blue twilight, they became like papercut shadow images before my eyes…
Breakfast At The Inner Courtyard
You might be surprised to hear that we found it a little cool for outdoor breakfast in the morning, considering it was the beginning of summer. Perhaps that explains why everybody (well, almost) took their breakfast in the inner courtyard.
Each time we try a new hotel, getting his coffee ‘right’ in the morning has been a barometer of service for Kent, and has often been a bit of a challenge – even though he says he’s not fussy! It’s the milk versus coffee – the right ratios and strength and of course temperature. Our waitress was very helpful, patient, and after a few attempts, Kent was happy with his café au lait at last. There are both cold and hot buffets to choose from: home-made yogurt, fruits; nuts, cereals; cheese, pastries; ham and saucisson, bacon; sausages, boiled or scrambled eggs; roasted potatoes, pancakes… Country fresh and as good a quality food as one expects in a 5-star hotel. We both enjoyed the small roasted tomatoes the most. ‘These French tomatoes.., how do they pack in so much flavour?!!’
A Shopping Trip To Le Bois-d’Oingt
As glamorous as staying at a (remote..) castle may seem, we are not really up for only eating and drinking in the hotel at hotel prices. Kent was already on top of this, and on our very first morning announced: ‘We need to stock up, I mean we are here for 12 days!’ He had done his Google maps homework and the nearby town Le Bois-d’Oingt apparently ‘has everything we need’. ‘It has supermarkets, ATM machines and it’s about 3km from here.’ Kent continued. He was right, we need wine, bread and cheese. In fact, I needed a variety of food for styling a ‘feast table’ for a photoshoot idea I’d had in mind since checking in.
While it might be a 5-minute drive, travelling medieval pilgrim style as we did it took us about 90-minutes to cover the distance. The above photo, lovely dry wall covered with lichen and flowers a pretty stone shed in the field. This picture was taken on a side road before we took on the main motorway where there is no real footpath. It’s road and a barrier, or hacking along the verge on the other side. You either walk on the edge of the road or it’s the brush.
Well travel is about new experiences, isn’t it? Fortunately we were not in any hurry at all. Vineyards, green hills and beautiful red poppies were an encouragement for us to take our time take in the views and take more photos. Personally I don’t recall having ever seen poppies before, they are so beautiful! Every now and then Kent would look back to check on me and warn: ‘Watch out! There is a truck coming behind you.’ And so finally climbing up the hill, we made it to Le Bois-d’Oingt!
We Made It! And Tuesday’s Market Awaits
‘Look! there’s a market!’ We couldn’t believe our luck, and Kent could hardly believe this traditional French market was real. But first, we needed coffee! We found a classic small French bar; greeted with ‘Bonjour’ as we entered by the couple who were surely the proprietors. ‘Bonjour Madame, je voudrais deux café express s’il vous plait.’ I tentatively asked. Our strong coffee came with a glass of water each, perfect! I managed to communicate with Madame and Monsieur with my very very limited French and when asked if the market is here daily, Madame told me it’s only on ‘Mardi et Mercredi’ (Tuesday and Wednesday).
This lovely French couple were very surprised to find out that we travelled to town from Bagnols on foot. But then we understood why they gave us that look as if it’s unheard of – there’s NO footpath! Before we headed back to the market, Kent asked if he could take a portrait of them in front of their bar. Our hosts struck a pose, not quite sure what to make of all this, but I’m so glad they gave us this souvenir of our first day.
Stocking Up Before The Summer Storm
Bread, cheese; saucisson, cherries; tomatoes, strawberries; baguette, raspberry tart; one by one we were filling up our shopping bags. Champagne, wine, Ricard pastis and also, last but not least, Kent insisted it was essential – a saucisson and bread cutter, because ‘the hotel will never lend us a sharp kitchen knife’. A very French Opinel Carbone folding knife which Kent especially looked for by himself and somehow acquired, new, in the market with virtually no French language skills at all – apparently he even debated the difference between stainless and carbon steel (in French) and insisted on the sharper carbon version that can rust! Well it must be the international language of men and their tools!
Voilà! We had completed our shopping for the day. The storm clouds were getting darker and lower, we had everything we needed but we had failed to find a taxi and the rain started pouring down. The lady from the pastry shop told us that we must book a taxi otherwise there’s none to be had. I did spot one but the driver refused our overtures and poor French…
The Brasserie Des Sports
We looked for a shelter and saw a nearby pub, the Brasserie des Sports seemed to be a good idea. When we walked in, the cosy place was almost fully seated by elderly locals with baskets and boxes of market shopping. Gentlemen were having beer and playing cards with their mates; while ladies enjoyed chatting with their friends. I was amused by what was happening in front of me. ‘I envy these people. I fantasise having a life in a charming village like this!’ And I said as much to Kent.
Having ordered drinks we pondered the problem of how to return to the Château, I came up with a simple idea: ‘Why don’t we ask the barman if he could call a taxi to pick us up here?’ This young barman was very kind, and spoke English much better than our French, we were in business. ‘Your taxi is driving up from Lyon, it will take one hour.’ Said our new best friend. Well it took a little longer.., one hour and 45 minutes later, we finally had our taxi. We found out that our driver went on to accept another job while he was on his way up for us; however, with an honest taxi fare of €8, we were very thankful.
Back To The Château
The storm had passed by the time Château staff delivered the tableware I had asked for. Kent carefully cut the saucisson and bread with his sharp new ‘kitchen’ knife and our late lunch was ready. ‘I’ll leave the raspberry tart for the shoot later.’ I informed Kent. So stay tuned for our upcoming Château foodie fashion story, designed by yours truly.
I Wouldn’t Change A Thing
So, that’s how our first 24 hours at Château de Bagnols unfolded, which was also our first day in France province Lyonnais. A series of firsts: first Michelin-starred dinning, first solid marble bath; first time seeing poppies and first shopping experience at a French country market, all remembered and treasured; but also the unexpected situations such as walking in the brush on the verge to avoid cars and being pleasantly stuck with card-playing locals in a French sports bar, have helped shaped me into the traveller I am today.