intoHistory, geschiedenis beleven in authentieke logies
Lost in a deep green valley in Burgundy, who expects to come across the majestic frontage of Ménessaire castle, with its beautiful imitation brick façade? Four towers with pencil-sharp roofs and stripes of yellow tiles lend an unexpected dignity to this fortified aristocratic residence in the country. Now fully restored, it serves as a setting for events and stays in history.
© Château de Ménessaire
What did it look like, this old fortified house of the Lords of Ménessaire, which stood proudly dominating this land of pastures and Celtic forests since the 11th century? Did it have a traditional medieval “motte” (area of high ground surrounded by a moat), or perhaps it already boasted a stone keep? Few reminders of this era remain but it is known that Guillaume de Ménessaire left for the second crusade, preached by Bernard of Clairvaux in Vézelay in 1146.
The construction of the castle itself, with its moats and four corner turrets took place in the 13th century. The site was carefully chosen, being at the foot of the village, near various sources and sheltered from prevailing winds. The sturdy bastion entrance, visible on the north flank with its gateway once protected by a drawbridge, gives us a good idea of its defences.
In 1414 the property passed into the hands of the de Clugny family in the middle of the Hundred Years War. This was a particularly troubled period because in 1444 the castle fell victim to the “écorcheurs”, one of those bands of mercenaries who offered their services to the highest bidder and resorted to pillage whenever they felt out of work. This fortified castle was apparently also razed several years later by the troops of Louis XI, at that time at war with the Burgundians.
Nicolas de Fussey
Once more ravaged by fire in 1560, the ruined building was finally rebuilt and transformed into a stately home in the 17th century. The Lord of Ménessaire Nicolas de Fussey, chamberlain to the Duke of Lorraine, Lieutenant of the King’s armies and Governor of Roussillon, obtained for his land the status of a marquisate from King Louis XIV. His new castle reflected all the prestige incumbent on such a status.
Sold as a public property at the French Revolution, the site was once again engulfed in flames in 1801. Reduced to ruins, it was finally bought in 1972 by Bernard Mainçon. An interior designer and passionate about the region and its cultural heritage, he took up the challenge of returning the castle to its former glory.
© Bernard Mainçon
After several decades of restoration work (under the aegis of the architect of Historic Monuments), the participation of the Compagnons du Devoir and many restoration training camps manned by volunteers, the buildings finally came back as large as life, in keeping with the rules and regulations. This approach, backed by “Le Morvan F.E.O.D.A.L.” Association (set up by Bernard Mainçon), was awarded the “Chefs d’oeuvre en peril” (masterpieces in peril) prize in 1977.
Take the time to look closely at the red façades of the castle, inspired by those in the Place Royale in Paris (now the Place des Vosges): the bricks you think you see are an illusion; they are just painted on the rendered surface. In a region where building stone is plentiful, brick walls are a luxury, hence the need for a lime coating. This surface, whose composition it has been possible to reconstitute after much research, comprises hydraulic lime, air lime and river sand, using cow hair as a binder. The mineral pigments (coloured earth) are applied with a brush to the coating while it is still damp.
What strikes you most about Ménessaire castle is the richness of the painted décor in the bedrooms and salons. The 17th century so-called “French” ceilings, aligned with numerous close fitting beams, are festooned with garlands, stylised flowers, portraits in medallions and heraldic symbols. These motifs spill over onto the walls, window frames and mantelpieces. They are not all authentic (the castle was severely damaged), but the reconstruction work is a faithful recreation, inspired by the period decorations which have survived.
Louis XV Salon © Château de Ménessaire
Other rooms reflect a later décor, such as the reception room with its oak-panelled walls, doors and bedroom partitions, exquisitely painted with colourful landscapes. The paintings, sculptures and furniture are a harmonious mix of different styles. There are even a few contemporary creations among them …
Ménessaire castle is surely worth a visit (despite its remote location), and a perfect place to find “historic” guest accommodation. I have rarely stayed in such an inspirational setting! Both the blue and the green room are delightfully furnished in olde worlde style, under a ceiling whose beams are painted with delicate coloured garlands. The lime wash walls (very smooth to the touch) are decorated with imitation (perfectly regular) stone blocks round the windows. The parquet, canopied bed, period furniture and panels painted with genre scenes bestow these rooms with tremendous charm.
More amazing still is the “Weddings” bedroom, listed as a historical monument, with its majestic mantelpiece decorated with flowers, forest of painted ceiling beams, parquet floor with alternating dark and light boards and four-poster bed. Only the marquise and her servant by the fireside are missing… The bathroom is also quite remarkable with its ochre-coloured tomette flooring, old zinc bath (with incorporated heating system). However you will seek in vain for air conditioning, television, telephone or mini-bar: this is castle living in all its lavish simplicity.
Two “apartments” have been set up in the towers for longer stays. Organised on two floors, there is a small living room, a dining room cum kitchen, a bedroom and bathroom. Although the setting is genuinely historical (13th century) and the décor refined, the furniture is more functional.
Old frameword of the castle
A stay in Ménessaire castle also means enjoying the hospitality of Bernard Mainçon, Chevalier des Arts et des Lettres, the craftsman behind its restoration. Erudite, creative and persistent, this exceptional, plain speaking châtelain will reveal some of the secrets of this fortified residence as he knows every stone. He will suggest some original activities to do in the vicinity, as well as restaurants offering the most authentic Burgundian cuisine. To find him, don’t be afraid to go into the castle courtyard, open the entrance gate (discreet) and knock on the door to the right, next to the staircase.
Le Château de Thil © Perceval Verdon
Apart from the Parc naturel du Morvan, whose physical characteristics and traditions are put under the microscope in seven maisons à thème, various age-old constructions will plunge you into the history of the region: the Château de Thil, with its 12th century cellar and 25 metre high watchtower, the Basilique Saint-Andoche in Saulieu, one of the most famous Romanesque churches in Burgundy, and of course the beautiful Basilique romane de Vezelay.
Gallo-Roman oppidum of Bibracte
Another favourite of mine was obviously the archeological site of Bibracte (Mont Beuvray), ancient oppidum of Gaul, then Gallo-Roman, whose emblematic museum brings back to life Celtic civilization in all its forms.
To fully appreciate the period atmosphere of Ménessaire castle, do not hesitate to enhance your stay by reading a few books (nothing beats a good historical novel to bring old stones back to life). Listening to some period music may also be a good way to transport you back in time… A few suggestions:
Books to be devoured in situ
Period music to be enjoyed on location
I enjoyed my stay at Ménessaire Castle, where history is everywhere to "seize". First, because the site differs very much from a traditional accommodation, where everything is sweetened to correspond to the standards of international hotel industry. Here, you can experience castle life for real, in much of its practical aspects, far from the usual tourist facilities. Above all, I have rarely seen such authentic and refined rooms for such an affordable price.
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