Culture

France's best château stays

The country's timeworn castles, abbeys and manors are being given luxury makeovers

  • France practically teems with centuries-old landmark buildings that have been given a second lease on life as spectacular hotels. In their hallowed rooms, you get creature comforts with a side of quintessential French savoir faire. The five-star Château de la Messardière is two kilometres away from Saint-Tropez, by the azure waters of the Mediterranean Sea. Built in the 19th century, it was a wedding gift to the French cavalry officer Henry Brisson de la Messardière and his artist wife Louise Dupuy-d’Angeac. After he died in the (Roaring) ’20s, Louise pretty much ran the place into the the ground by renting it out to be a venue of dance and debauchery. It finally became a Mediterranean-style luxury hotel in 1989, after the de la Messardière family was forced to vacate the premises when the structure threatened to collapse. The star feature? Fine dining restaurant, L’Acacia, which offers sweeping blue views of the Pampelonne Bay and classic French food made modern courtesy chef Pierrick Berthier, a legend in these parts. 

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  • Lead you to the wine? Bordeaux, naturally. Try Bernard Magrez and Michelin-star chef Joël Robuchon’s 18th-century mansion, La Grande Maison. They offer a princely experience — Napoleon III-style interiors made by French craftsmen, along with Hermès-sponsored bath and beauty — with the added bonus of a vineyard that produces four of the country’s Grands Crus Classés (the highest qualification for regional wines). It was here that Léon Duguit, the prominent lawyer who built the manor, would host parties for intellectuals from across the globe. Robuchon, who abandoned early religious vocation for French gastronomy, leads you to sin with his signature caviar jelly and crispy truffle tart with smoked bacon. The snoring food coma that follows is decidedly un-French.

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  • If you like your fairy tales French and sweetly decrepit, you cannot miss the family-run 18th-century Domaine de la Baume, an hour’s drive from the Riviera, on the outskirts of the Verdon Gorges. Before it opened in 2013 as a 15-room Maisons & Hotel Sibuet hideaway, it was the home of Expressionist painter Bernard Buffet for the last 20 years of his life. The hotel is an ode to Provençal soul because of all the history it has amassed in its previous lives as a sheepfold, then the homestead of French nobility for centuries before being partly destroyed by a fire in the early ’80s. The main apricot-hued stone country house with blue shutters nestles in acres of olive groves and manicured gardens punctuated by a tiny chapel. You could curl up in a bergère armchair, gaze upon miles of unruly greenery and try to forget that the Beckhams might be on holiday at their chateau nearby.

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  • If you’re bent on a castle, the genuine article, with turrets and moats and what have you, drive two hours away to Château de la Treyne by the idyllic Dordogne river in southwestern France. The 14th-century castle swapped hands countless times, housing kings and knights, as well as French writer André Chamson, former custodian of the Louvre’s Egyptian Antiquities art collection, a part of which was temporarily stored at the chateau. In 1982 it was snapped up by its current owners and converted into a hotel surrounded by cedar gardens and a private forest. The inhouse Michelin-star chef Stéphane Andrieux serves tasty odes to local classics — cut into foie gras done four ways and the succulent Quercy lamb cutlets — in a venue that opens onto a terrace that appears to hang precariously over the Dordogne river. (Don’t look down!)

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  • For a more sombre turn of events, pick the 12th-century Fontevraud Abbey in the romantic Loire region. Design duo Patrick Jouin and Sanjit Manku have rehauled the drab hotel of this former cloister, which has also spent time as the burial site of Richard I, ‘Lionheart King of England’, a hospice for lepers and later a prison hospital during the French Revolution. Keeping in line with its monastic history, the interiors are designed for the modern ascetic — minimal, super-luxe and washed with neutral beiges, greiges and eggshell blue. Case in point: the old chapel with vaulted ceilings, which is also a very cool iBar.

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  • Push your liver at Relais & Châteaux’s Les Crayères in Reims in the Champagne-Ardenne region. Sip on world-class bubbly in the cellars of this stylish late-19th-century manor built for her daughter by champagne icon Louise Pommery. Les Crayères was the residence of her descendants and the meeting place for the local bourgeoisie for almost a century before it turned opulent hotel in 1983. By now, you know a Michelin-star restaurant is par for the course and Le Parc, with its unrivalled Wagyu beef and lengthy wine list, will not disappoint. They’ll have to call security to prise you away once your holiday is done. 

    You may also want to read: Sussanne Khan's favourite design hotels

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