Romance has always been one of the best things about travel. Special places, beautiful experiences and the stories behind them. In south Burgundy lies one of these special places—Chateau de Varennes. The romance in this place is clear: a historical chateau surrounded by fields and forests, exquisitely landscaped grounds, a private chapel, luxurious classical interiors and service that leaves you wanting for nothing.
The Tale of the Chateau
The story behind Chateau de Varennes is just as captivating. It started over 400 years ago, in 1601, when an Italian aristocratic family living in nearby Tuscany fled Italy to avoid persecution. They ran to Burgundy where they bought land in Varennes. On the land they built a fortress, and over time, as the political situation settled, the fortress was replaced with more elegant buildings. Two smaller properties in the adjoining village were also part of the estate, as was a big farm. In the 18th century, the family moved to Paris but kept the Chateau as a summer home.
More upheaval was to besiege Chateau de Varennes. As the French Revolution gained momentum, trouble brewed all over France and a riot broke out near the Chateau in May 1789. To calm the situation, Napoleon arrived on the scene with a small detachment of troops. Things continued to escalate however and in July that year the Revolution exploded, forcing the family of the Chateau to flee yet again, this time to Switzerland. When the Revolution ended, the family returned, only to find their precious Chateau in pieces. Bit by bit they set about rebuilding the Chateau, using compensation from the newly installed French government, and were able to not only restore the old buildings to their former glory but also build a new and spectacular Orangery—which is now the big reception hall. The chapel though, where many weddings at the Chateau are now held, was not rebuilt for about another hundred years.
Peace reigned during all that time, and longer, but strife reared its head again at the Chateau when World War II broke out in Europe. The invading German Army seized the Chateau and used it as headquarters for a short while, and the family relocated to Paris. When the war ended, the family reclaimed the Chateau but ceased to look after it, preferring to focus on their lives in Paris. Gradually, the Chateau declined. Servants dwindled, land was left fallow and the building fell into disrepair.
Nevertheless, the Chateau—and the two properties associated with it—remained in the family, and is the only example in France of three estates being kept by the same family for over 400 years.
Restored to a New Glory
Fast forward to 2009. Aymeric de Truchis de Varennes, a young scion of the family, inherits the Chateau. He works in technology companies and his wife Sonia works in media and was doing her MBA in Singapore. She invites her classmates to the Chateau and they are swept away. The Chateau is a dream, they tell Aymeric and Sonia, which should be shared.
And the couple eventually decided to do that. The next two years are spent refurbishing the Chateau, turning it from a faded grand residence into a modern luxury hotel. The couple call on leading architect French-Lebanese Fabrice Bejjani to remodel the interiors and top landscaping firm Loup & Co. to design the grounds. “The philosophy of the renovation project was to keep what was worth keeping, such as beautiful historic features like the elegant classical buildings or the boxwood gardens, and to add a few contemporary features to create a timeless elegant look,” says Sonia. “We did not want to add designer pieces that would fall out of fashion in 10 years, we wanted a decor that would stand the test of time. That is why we invested in high quality materials like marble in the bathrooms, but cut in a very modern way to avoid the staid look which is often seen in the old palace hotels.”
Combining the Chateau’s mainly French 18th century classical style with contemporary touches, is the Chateau style that makes it timeless while allowing it to retain its historical legacy. “The beautiful historical lounges and dining rooms were slightly renovated while all the bedrooms and bathrooms were fully remodelled,” continues Sonia. “We wanted to keep the period furniture because they are all unique pieces that were made or purchased only for the Chateau. But they were revamped with luxurious home furnishings showcasing modern patterns.”
To create an identity for each room while preserving an overall harmony throughout the Chateau, Bejjani used subtle, neutral shades in each room highlighted by vibrantly coloured or patterned home furnishings. And with the smart use of lighting, accessories and comfortable furniture, Bejjani fashioned a property that was luxurious and grand—with huge spaces and high ceilings—and cosy and family-like at the same time.
“The remodelling of the outdoor spaces was no less tricky; the gardens looked like a battlefield. Our landscapist suggested removing everything from the former gardens except for the orchard, the vegetable patch and the historic box hedges that are now used to structure the new areas. New ranges of flowers and trees were planted and three big terraces were created: a pool terrace for lounging by the pool, a dining area for daytime meals under a huge shade sail and finally a cocktail terrace without any shade for evening meals. The challenge was to create these different living areas that would not seem lost in the immensity of the outdoor spaces.”
As with any top luxury hospitality property, the Chateau’s service is as refined and sophisticated as its setting. Staff on site include a resident chef, concierge, housekeeper, maids, gardeners, chauffeurs and event planners. Together they look after guests and offer everything from ubiquitous services like a 24-hour concierge to special activities like clay pigeon shooting and wine tastings, to customized events that could include Michelin-star chefs and fireworks. And their discerning guests expect nothing less.
“The Chateau is mostly rented exclusively and used as a peaceful retreat for celebrities and affluent people who come with their own helicopters or private jets. We cannot reveal their names in order to preserve their privacy, but we can say that the cousin of the owners is the popular French singer-songwriter and fashion model, Zazie,” says Sonia.
Ultimately, Chateau de Varenne is about a special and inimitable experience that goes beyond what money can provide. “Money cannot buy history,” she concludes. “And today luxury is no more about buying another handbag. It’s about having the exclusive use of a unique space and being pampered by attentive staff who will address all your wishes.”
Address: 2 Grande Rue, 71270 Varennes-su-le-Doubs, France
Tel: +33 03 85 76 21 45
Getting there: The closest airports are Lyon (1.5 hours away) and Geneva (2 hours) away. From Paris, the Chateau is also 3 hours away from Paris by high-speed TGV and 3.5 hours by road.
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This article was first published in Tatler Homes