24-Hour Room Service: Château de Bagnols, Rhône-Alpes, France
Saturday 09 August 2008
Château de Bagnols is, to me, one of the most beautiful places on earth. It's a 13th-century chateau on an enormous scale and as such should be stiff, imposing and a little bit too grown-up. It's got a dry moat, an impressive drawbridge and the stone is a deep honey colour and about 12 metres thick. The gardens are made up of stark lines of cherry trees and there's a vast formal fountain in the middle of them. The place has such a film-like quality that it takes a couple of hours just to believe it's all real.
Men and women dressed in the most perfect white-and-pink candy-stripe uniforms sweep through the central courtyard holding towering plates of fresh eggs and small bunches of just-picked honeysuckle on their way to the bustling kitchen, or to one of the 21 bedrooms.
All this should make you feel like you're too poor, too young, too stupid and too ridiculous to be here, but instead the chateau is welcoming, warm and extremely relaxed. Even though occasionally there might be a small woman from Paris in head-to-toe Chanel cradling a small puppy called Fifi in the corner, the rest of the guests wander around in jeans and read books under the extraordinary interlinking tree canopy that hangs over one side of the castle, next to the perfect circular pool.
The restaurant is spectacular – one entire wall is a 15th-century fireplace – but the chef has suddenly got a little bit serious. The food has always been magnificent, but it's also been reasonably rustic; the kitchen staff pride themselves on using delicious local ingredients (roast chicken or steak and little boiled potatoes followed by tarte tatin). Now suddenly the mood has changed. Amuse-bouches (beetroot mousse – I am being perfectly serious, please make it stop) are now brought out and the dishes are more complicated. Curls of marinated cucumber are strewn everywhere, and although the food tasted good, it also looked liked it might have been prodded for a month. All I can say is there was a lot of foam.
Château de Bagnols, Bagnols, Rhône-Alpes, France (00 33 4 74 71 40 00; www.bagnols. com) is in the heart of Beaujolais country, which means that the hillsides are crammed with vines as far as the eye can see and it's a gastronomic paradise. If you like truly delicious food – whether it's a fancy Michelin-starred place or just a brilliant café that serves Toulouse sausages and mash – then you can find it, and all very near by.
Time from international airport/mainline rail station: It's a 45-minute drive from Lyon's airport. The hotel will send Eddie to pick you up – he's got a swish car and likes Barry Manilow and will charge you €150 (£125) each way. Or you can get a taxi from the airport for slightly less at €110 (£92).
In 1987, Lady Hamlyn happened upon the chateau, which was in total disrepair, and restored it, revealing walls and ceilings from the 15th and 16th centuries. So imagine sleeping in the best room of the Uffizi, then make-believe the bed is a canary-yellow, 18th-century four-poster. The beds are all high and stiff and draped in the finest and softest linen. And now imagine a bath that's so deep, a family of five could swim in it. Then add a couple of goblets of wine (complimentary decanters of wine are put in the room every day) and overflowing silver bowls of cherries, littered about the place. And then you can imagine what it's like staying there. It doesn't matter if it's raining or snowing or grey outside, because the bedrooms and communal areas are so breathtaking. The bedrooms have extraordinarily comfy sofas and real fires, and the walls are covered in beautiful trompe l'oeils so it feels like a privilege to sleep here.
Freebies: Decanters of wine, fresh fruit – and a massive bottle of velvety lavender bath foam with a solid silver cup for pouring, which sits next to the tub (as does shampoo and body lotion, all made from lavender and mint).
Keeping in touch: There is broadband internet connections in the bedrooms, flat-screen televisions and direct-dial phones.
THE BOTTOM LINE
Just as the chateau is special, the prices are special. The "traditional rooms" are €495 (£413) a night and one extraordinary suite costs €915 (£763), though you can get good deals and better prices mid-week. The Michelin-starred salon has a three-course €45 (£38) lunch.
I'm not paying that: The Hostellerie Sarrasine (00 33 3 85 31 02 41; www.chateauxhotels.com) near Mâcon – around 80km from Lyon – offers antique-filled doubles from €99 (£83), room only.
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