Le Château de Codignat
(Route 2, Up the Upper Allier, Down the Upper Loire)
Price Band *****
More Château than Relais, set in beautiful hill country to the east of Clermont Ferrand, combining stage-set pageantry with the trappings of gracious living, R&C style. Try to arrive early enough and leave late enough to make the most of the stay.
Codignat is not a hotel that tries to impress by calling itself a Château, but a real castle that has turned itself in to a hotel. It was built half a millennium ago on the site of an earlier fortress, and its builders chose a hill where they would not be flooded, overlooked in the swimming pool or overrun by revolting peasants. Pushing up the long, steep drive I found myself formulating hostile thoughts, but it was hardly fair to do so. If you were building a château in the Auvergne, you would be unlikely to site it on the riverbank or in a roadside village for the convenience of cyclists.
“Can I send someone for the rest of your luggage, sir?” said a smart young woman in a shining silver trouser suit that went well with all the polished breastplates and pikestaffs hanging from the walls.
“This is all of it.” The memory of the receptionist’s horrified reaction delights me still.
Our maid in shining armour led the way up a spiral stone staircase in a round tower to a bedroom with a fleur de lys canopy, damask hangings, missals and tassels and a window seat where I could read my prayer book by the light of the moon or imagine myself in a wimple making a tapestry. It was a complete and convincing reconstruction of a medieval bedroom, in all respects but comfort, which was considerable (and most welcome). I poured myself a drink, walked up three stairs to a steaming bathroom and lay down for a soak.
Joan of Arc showed us around the other bedrooms in due course and I have taken guided tours of many historic châteaux with less splendid royal apartments.
Even so, and I hope the Château de Codignat won’t take this the wrong way, the room I liked best was the downstairs cabinet de toilette. Don’t miss it.
Codignat was our first experiment with château-hotel luxury. Dinner was excellent, the pool refreshing, but the overall experience was not entirely satisfactory. Because of our regime – not punishing, but time-consuming – we arrived in time for dinner, tired; and left after breakfast in the morning, having spent 8 out of 14 hours asleep.
Quality of sleep is important, but we could not help thinking we were making less than the most of our stay in an expensive multi-facility hotel with tennis court, swimming pool, mini-zoo and extensive parc. In future we should make an effort to arrive earlier, leave later and spend more time awake. A shorter cycling day – 60km instead of 100km – would be one way to achieve this. Another would be to stay two nights in each place.
Château de Codignat would be a fine base for excursions, and is not too far from Clermont Ferrand for a cycling day out to see the Puy de Dôme (using the new mountain railway, probably); the black cathedral and its more appealing neighbour Notre Dame du Port; and the Aventure Michelin museum (www.aventure-michelin.com).
Rooms in a more modern style are available in an annexe beside the swimming pool.
Price bands: from * (B&B for less than 50 euros per person in a shared room) to ***** (expect to pay at least 175 euros)