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 The Luxe Life

gw PAST PERFECT:
CHÂTEAU DE BAGNOLS


BY GARY WALTHER

September 12, 2002 -- Five o'clock shadows play across the muscular facade of the Château de Bagnols. We are savoring the day's golden turn from a pair of Bentwood-style rockers on the hotel's 459-foot-long rampart, a lavender-lined carpet of grass. The sky is Beaujolais-blue, the hills across the valley are turning smoky and the only sound comes from the breeze tousling the tops of the old lime trees behind us.

"It's as though time has stopped here," my girlfriend says, almost as much to herself as to me, and for a moment I thoughtlessly assent.

But then it strikes me that what makes this 20-room château hotel in the Beaujolais so singular is not that time has stopped. Quite the opposite: It's that time has piled up here in magnificent excess. The honey-toned facade is 13th century, the wall paintings in our room are 17th, the manicured gardens below us date from the 18th and that waiter advancing toward us with a bottle of Champagne is 21st century--and just in time.

One of the top château hotels in France, Bagnols is the product of one Englishwoman's passion. Helen Hamlyn bought the property, 15 miles north of Lyon, in 1987, when it was derelict. She spent in excess of $10 million to restore it and to create what she calls "a hotel for people who don't like hotels."

The layers of history at Château de Bagnols are as thick as the down duvets Hamlyn chose for the beds--and that's the point. Hamlyn has braided the past and the present so artfully that the château's historical atmosphere and its modern amenities are perfectly at home with each other.

Take the beds, for example. They are all antique, all fit for king or cardinal--and all drawn from Hamlyn's private collection. But far from being a stickler for historical accuracy, she had some of them lengthened to accommodate the longer torso of the modern guest. In like manner she complemented the fabulous architectural details in the bedrooms--17th- and 18th-century wall paintings uncovered during the restoration, bathrooms with arrow slits in the walls--with layers of modern amenities. Swiss bed linens are embroidered with 18th- and 19th-century patterns, towels are big enough for two and there are good brass reading lamps, a rarity, especially in country hotels.

During our two-day stay we wrap ourselves in the château like it's a cashmere throw. We have Room Eight, a long, barrel-vaulted space that once housed the chapel. The king-size, four-poster bed is slotted into a space that held the altar and I can't help seeing the crimson velvet bedspread as a vestment. We breakfast late in the lime-tree grove and then settle down under the pergola in the formal garden with books to work up an appetite for lunch, which we take on the terrace. Afternoons we spend at the 42-foot diameter pool put in two years ago, concluding the day on the rampart in the rockers.

We could drive to the three-star Michelin Trois Gros in Roanne (30 miles away) for dinner, but we decide to keep it simple and stay at the château. Besides, we're drawn to the flickering-shadow ambience of the dining room. On both nights we get a table near the Gothic fireplace put in to commemorate the visit of King Charles VIII in 1490. The stonework is a virtuoso display of carving. By firelight the stone swags, ruffs and spindles look silken. The food is up to the one-star Michelin rating, although the service is not. It's lax and the waiter is graceless, a Gen-X bumpkin.

The wine list is particularly strong in single-vineyard Beaujolais. In fact, tasting through the list may be the easiest way to visit the region's best wineries, as many of them are not open to visitors or only open by appointment. (Plan a winery tour by logging on to Beaujolais Wines and then ask the hotel concierge for help in gaining entrée to specific wineries. But make sure you keep checking back. When I was there, a couple said the concierge had dropped the ball on getting them the appointments they requested.)

The second morning we explore the hopscotch of little villages in the immediate vicinity. In tiny Thieze, the next village over from Bagnols, roses the size of tea saucers garland the front stairs of the houses. Farther on in Oingt (pronounced ou-wah) we find the Boulangerie Alliance Girasole, where a pallet of bread is just coming out of the 100-year-old oven, the secret to the loaf's exquisite taste. And, in Ville-sur-Jarnioux, a pair of witches'-cap towers peeping up over the trees leads us to the derelict Château Jarnioux. I can't help wondering if it's a Bagnols in waiting. The countryside in between is almost all vineyards, which look as though they've been hand-stitched into the flanks and withers of the hills.

By noon we're happily back at the château, basking in the past-perfect surroundings. Late that afternoon we take a valedictory stroll through the garden, stopping at the fountain where the allées cross to gaze up at the prospect. The yew hedges run arrow-straight up to the rampart wall, a pair of evergreen topiary cones flank the terrace and the chateau crouches behind the 20-foot-deep dry moat.

"What a glorious piece of set design," I murmur. To which my girlfriend answers, "I give it the Oscar."

Room Rates: $310 to $930 a night. Reservations are available by phone (011-33-474-71-4000), fax (011-33-474-71-4049) or E-mail. For a virtual tour of the hotel's fabulous bedrooms log on to Bagnols.com.

CANAPES
Starting in 2003 Silversea Cruises will allow passengers to custom design a cruise by offering several embarkation and debarkation ports on a given voyage. ... Budget of Beverly Hills now offers the 2003 Mercedes-Benz 500 SL at $450 per day. ... In December, AmanResorts will open Amansara, a 12-suite property near Angkor Wat, Cambodia.



This column originally appeared at JoeSentMe.com.

Copyright © 1993-2004 by Gary Walther. All rights reserved.