The road to riches

Ten centuries of castles await travellers on the ch�teaux trail in southern Burgundy. Lynn McBride sets off to discover their grandeur, their gardens and their ghosts

Ten centuries of castles await travellers on the ch�teaux trail in southern Burgundy. Lynn McBride sets off to discover their grandeur, their gardens and their ghostsWhat is it exactly about ch�teaux that is so alluring? Is it their magnificent size, the spirits of feudal lords lurking about the dim halls, the dazzling gardens and settings or the opportunity to take a backward peek into the lifestyles of the rich and famous? Whatever the reason, if you’re easily seduced by the romance of towers and turrets, then the Loire Valley probably comes to mind. Surprisingly, it’s not the Loire Valley but Burgundy that boasts more castles than any other region in France. In fact it’s impossible to take even a short drive through the countryside without tripping over one. Though many are private, in southern Burgundy you can follow the route of royalty along a special ch�teaux road.Southern Burgundy, with its lush rolling hills of pastures, vineyards and forests, makes the perfect setting for the great variety of ch�teaux that reign over this pretty corner of France and it offers visitors everything from rustic medieval to polished 19th-century style. To make it easier to find those ch�teaux that have been restored by their impassioned owners and opened to the public, the d�partement of Sa�ne-et-Loire created La Route des Ch�teaux en Bourgogne du Sud with 16 ch�teaux open for tours. Following the route also offers the opportunity to sip a few of those sumptuous white Burgundies the d�partement is known for, and to discover one of France’s most impressive culinary regions.The route begins just south of Beaune, Burgundy’s wine capital, and continues south of M�con. Ch�teaux are grouped, conveniently, around three towns on the River Sa�ne, and are mostly west of the A6. Eight are clustered around Chalon-sur-Sa�ne, a pretty town about 20 minutes south of Beaune. There are four accessible from Tournus, home of the Saint Philibert Abbey Church, and four more centered around M�con. The nearby historic town of Cluny is also a possible home base for exploring this last group.Gilded and grandFor a sampler of this menu of ch�teaux in Bourgogne du Sud, we’ll start with one for those who like their castles gilded and grand: Ch�teau de Cormatin, in the town of Cormatin between Tournus and Cluny. This late Renaissance-era ch�teau was the residence of the Marquis de Huxelles and was built between 1606 and 1625. It is known for its vast gardens and its opulent Louis XIII interiors; the best still surviving in France. With luck you will see the ch�telain striding about the grounds with his dog, and he frequently conducts the tours of the interiors himself. Here, in the painted motifs, the carved gilded ceilings and the embellished portraits, you will find all the indulgences of royalty and their preoccupations; cherubs, mythical goddesses, shields and swords, serpents, mermaids and flowers, in addition to other symbols of fecundity and grace, heaven and hell. Elaborate furnishings and art from the period are truly evocative of the style of aristocratic life in the 17th century. The opulent boudoir, where Madame formerly received her guests at a table by her canopied, gilded bed, is most intriguing. In this royal bedroom you may sense the spirit of Alphonse de Lamartine, the famous French poet who in his youth began a notorious love affair at the ch�teau with the daughter of the Baron of Cormatin, which was to haunt him throughout this life. “I spent hours of youth that made this castle at once dear and sad to my memory,” he repined.The extensive gardens are formal but fanciful, and include playful topiaries, statues and fountains. Lamartine’s lover, Nina, called the castle “my enchanted island”, since it seems to float in its moat in the centre of the gardens. The focal point of the formal garden is a small, domed temple that doubles as a decidedly elegant residence for nesting parakeets, found at the centre of a box labyrinth. From the top of this aviary one can survey the castle with its surrounding moat, the swans on the River Grosne, and the children happily lost in the maze. The most intimate garden is the potager, composed of parterres spilling over with vegetables, herbs, roses, and flowers of every kind. The potager is behind a large outbuilding with arched doors now called l’orangerie, which in season becomes a tearoom with views of the garden for visitors. In summer the ch�teau hosts theatre and outdoor concerts, a lavish experience in this sublime setting. While Ch�teau de Cormatin was built to impress, Berz�-le-Ch�tel, a medieval fortification, was built in a commanding location in the hills between M�con and Cluny for a more practical reason: to defend the surrounding region. It’s hard not to be impressed, however, by the sheer size of the structure, with its 13 towers. A charter dating from 991AD first mentions the ch�teau. In the early 1200s the Sire Hugues of Berz� transformed the castle into a fortified town to protect the Abbey of Cluny. Because it escaped renovation during the Renaissance after centuries of siege, Berz� retains its military feel. The arrow slits, later enlarged for cannons, are only one reminder of its early role. The castle was in ruins for nearly two centuries until 1817 when it was taken over by the Count de Thy de Milly and restored. The count’s ancestors retain ownership to this day.Flore the dog greets you at the entrance, and the countess and ch�telaine, matriarch of her large family, is in residence in the living quarters year-round. Only the grounds and a few of the towers of this walled fortress are open to tours, but that should not deter you from a visit to the compound inside the castle walls, which is the size of a small village. The original chapel is on view, as is the oubliette, a dungeon where, as the name implies, prisoners were dumped and forgotten. The views of the Valley Lamartine alone are worth the price of a ticket, and the pristine gardens make a fine tour. There is an orchard, an impressive vegetable garden on the lower level and, in the formal French garden, giant topiaries in the shape of chess pawns to remind visitors that the game was played here, even in medieval times. You may encounter the grandson of the countess, sporting boots and a suntan, who reigns over the gardens.Ch�teau de Pierreclos, stunning with its colourful glazed-tile roof and expansive views, provides an altogether different experience. Located between M�con and Cluny, the castle is ancient – the site where it was built in the 12th century was previously a pagan burial ground. The interiors are rustic, restored in a basic fashion and mostly unadorned, giving it an authentic feel. The kitchens and bakery are stocked with tools of the trade and feature enormous fireplaces and bread ovens. To truly be transported back in time, catch the medieval festival held here in August.Within the ramparts is a tall thin church which in fact has lost its nave, a casualty of battle. A large grassy terrace overlooks the surrounding hillsides of pastures and vineyards. The whole effect is one of peace and harmony, and the tables on the shady terrace beg for une petite pause with a cool drink. If that doesn’t quench your thirst, it’s time to descend into the caves. There are enormous vaulted cellars under the ch�teau, where owner Monsieur Picault will offer a taste of Domaine de Ch�teau Pierreclos, the white Burgundy that the family makes sur place. Other M�connais wines are available for tasting as well.One advantage of a trip to Burgundy is that it’s possible to visit here even in July and August without having to make your way through hordes of tourists. The atmosphere is pleasantly lively without being crowded, a rare thing for France during les vacances. The summer weather is generally fine, and cooler than the south of France. And this being Burgundy, there’s sure to be some fine wine and dining to refresh you after your journey back to the centuries where royals preened and majesty prevailed.