“I’ve been invited to a four day birthday party in a château in Burgundy,” I boasted to my friend Alexandra, as soon as the invitation arrived.
“Is it a hotel château, or just a château?” She asked.
“What’s the difference?” I answered, slightly annoyed that the mere fact of staying in a château wasn’t enough to pique her envy.
“Oh, well, if it’s not a hotel château, then you’d better hope your host has a lot of servants – otherwise it will be hell. And, frankly, it will probably be hell in any case.” Alexandra can be a little spoiled.
Over the years I have spent the occasional overnight in various French châteaux, both the hotel and the non-hotel variety, and I have to admit that as charming as several of them were, the level of discomfort (lumpy beds and rusty water in the bathrooms) made me very glad to be leaving the next day. One night in a dilapidated château with their paper-thin dividing walls is enough for anyone.
I quickly googled the Château de Vault-de-Lugny to discover that not only is it a 12th century château, complete with moat and medieval dungeon, but sure enough, it is also a hotel, with five very comforting gold stars, and restaurant with a Michelin star of its own.
A two mile back-up at the Eurotunnel due to suspended ferry crossings delayed us by several hours and it was already dark when we pulled up at the château’s gates. But had we arrived in daylight we would not have got to see the ancient stone building with its pitched roof reflected in the moat. A golf buggy, attended by helpful staff, met us and our luggage at our car and escorted us along the sensitively floodlit path, to the front door, where Sandra, with whom I had been corresponding in English via email, was there to greet us.
The kitchen had long since closed. But within a few minutes Sandra had organised an impromptu Bourgogne cheese plate: Montrachet, made by only one cheesemaker in Saint-Gengoux-le-National; Plaisir au Chablis, a semi-soft cheese hailing from Brochon and aged for 6 weeks; smooth and mushroomy Délice de Bourgogne of course, and the reddish, wet and intense Palet de Bourgogne, with delicious home baked walnut bread.
It was time to be shown to our room: ‘Le Prince’ is not the grandest of the hotel’s 16 rooms and suites. I suspect La Reine and Le Roi (to our left) may have been larger, but it occupies the floor-plan of a New York City duplex apartment and it faces out onto a vast and ancient plane tree in front of the château. The best mattresses generally come in standard sizes, and the vast four poster bed in our room, like the antique wooden beds in most old houses, was certainly not a standard size. But rather than butting two smaller mattresses together within the frame as many hoteliers seem to do, despite the uncomfortable bump at the join, the Château de Lugny’s mattresses are made to measure, firm (but not too firm) and wonderfully comfortable, and the bedding was of a high-quality linen. Le Prince’s walls are covered in damask blue silk, which hid two closets. The television, thankfully, was hidden out of view in one, and the other housed a safe and dressing area.
Up a short, silk-clad corridor, to the bathroom where I couldn’t resist running a bath. Would the water be rusty brown? It was not.
I should declare that I am neither a connoisseur of fine wine nor a big fan of the kind of French cuisine that typically garners Michelin stars. I don’t drink alcohol, and when it comes to food, I prefer mine simple and fresh. Even though the château is famous for its wine cellar, forgoing wine was relatively easy. Not so, the gastronomic lunches and dinners prepared by chef Franco Bowanee. There were to be several such events over our four-day stay, and I was dreading the heavy richness which the menus portended. In fact, I could not have been more delightfully surprised.
Perhaps it was chef Bowanee’s early years on the island of Mauritius, or his subsequent training with the legendary Paul Bocuse, but from the first taste of his morel mushrooms stuffed with wild garlic gnocchis and garden peas (all from the château’s 100 acre estate which grows 140 varieties of fruit and vegetables) it became abundantly clear that this was no standard French fare. Exquisite morsels of sea scallops followed from the bay of St Brieuc, with nori leaves and spirulina, and Fleury-la-Vallée asparagus with Aquitaine caviar. By now, like the other guests, I was in no doubt we were in for something very special.
How many Michelin starred French chefs prepare cod with satay spices, lime, and coconut chutney? Which other châteaux serve pigeon breast with garlic and soy toasted wings? The Mauritian influence was notable. So too was the singularity and freshness of each ingredient. As the hotel website describes, "Franco Bowanee’s cuisine is a poem,” and I had been dreading Burns or Byron. Instead, chef Bowanee’s cuisine is more akin to the poetry of Emily Dickinson, Robert Frost or Edna St Vincent Millay.
Fortunately, there were plenty of delightful ways to work off the calories during our stay, from strolling around the lovely grounds where white peacocks dot the landscape, to swimming in the château’s glorious indoor swimming pool under a vaulted brick roof. The château also has a stable of well-maintained mountain bikes, including a pair of Bosch electric bikes, which my partner and I took out on day trips to nearby Vezelay and Avallon.
I doubt, without the hotel’s excellent e-bikes, we would have made the several inclines to the picturesque medieval village of Vezelay, with its church of Saint-Père, a Unesco world heritage site. The road to Avallon was less hilly, and we visited the Museum of Avallonnais, the costume museum, before proceeding to Montréal with a wonderful early Gothic church and panoramic views. And, one of the best parts of every outing was coming home to the château. Because, while the the Château de Vault-de-Lugny most certainly is a hotel, it does not feel like one. The owners have created the ambience of a wonderfully well-run home, where you can come and go as you please, but the beds are always made, the flowers always fresh and the staff are more like friendly helpers than servants.
“How was your stay in France,” my friend Alexandra asked teasingly, on our return – hoping, possibly, to hear complaints about the unfriendly staff, the too rich food and uncomfortable beds.
“Simply blissful,” I replied. And I meant it.