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Once Upon a Time in the Chateau de Montmelas

Once upon a time there was a fairy princess who lived in a castle high up on a hilltop overlooking plains and mountains and vineyards. She wore a long burgundy gown made of satin, with billowing sleeves, her brown hair cascading down her back and a long, magic cape.

Well, almost.

She does live in a castle, it is surrounded by vineyards and mountains, but she is a countess, not a princess, and she only dresses up once a year when the Chateau de Montmelas – one of the most famous wine estates of the Beaujolais – has its annual children’s party.

Chateau de Montmelas

Overlooking the Beaujolais vineyards on a beautiful autumn day

“You may think the French Revolution did away with all these social classes, but it hasn’t,” said Delphine, Countess d’Harcourt, waving across the valley below. “There is still a difference between the ‘chatelains’ and the people of the village, but our family has always worked hard to narrow that gap.”

Delphine married into the Harcourt family and into French nobility, a role that fits her well but doesn’t seem to have gone to her head. In the region she’s known as the ‘Communications Countess’ because her job is to promote the castle and the wine it produces.

Chateau de Montmelas

View from the chateau, with the Alps far in the distance

“It’s impossible to maintain a place like this without major investment, and the money has to come from somewhere. We sell wine, we organize visits, we host theater festivals and we get a bit of help from the government,” she said. Weddings and parties are organized in the courtyard, some of the dependencies have been turned into rental apartments, and a one of the towers is now a gîte, a rural vacation rental. It is all strictly controlled and there are rules and constraints, because the chateau is protected by the state.

She wasn’t able to tell me how much it cost to heat it every year, but judging by the drafty facade, the chilly wind and the size of the building, it certainly wouldn’t be cheap.

Chateau de Montmelas

Chateau de Montmelas

The Chateau de Montmelas has been in the same family for nearly 500 years, often handed down from mother to daughter (which explains why the family name changed frequently from one generation to the next). A former garrison, it dates back to the 10th century and has been transformed through the years. As was the fashion in the 19th century, medieval features were actually added, making the château look older: in a way, history was augmented after the fact.

I didn’t have a chance to visit the interior but I did ask Delphine about some of the family lore.

The lore and legends of Montmelas

“The family has always been close to the villagers, so when the French Revolution did away with much of the aristocracy, this castle was spared because the villagers protected it – that’s not what happened to most of the others,” she said.

Chateau de Montmelas motto

Sans Rien Feindre – the family’s motto, Don’t Pretend

And then there’s the family motto, ‘Don’t pretend.’ It was apparently engraved in the bedrooms on some of the headboards, a fitting bit of advice.

Another legend: the Germans tried to requisition the chateau’s copper roofing during World War II but the diminutive Countess of Chabannes, who then owned the estate, told them with great aplomb: “It’s not copper, it’s zinc!” And they went away.

What’s fun about this particular chateau is its living, breathing history. A family aunt lives here (Delphine, her husband and four children live a few kilometers down the road) so it isn’t just a museum but someone’s home.

Chateau de Montmelas

Left, grape juice produced from the chateau’s vineyards; right, Countess Delphine d’Harcourt

Today it is owned by 32 cousins, all of whom gather once a year for ‘garden duty’ – the huge gardens require plenty of upkeep and give everyone a chance to get together.

Delphine may not have been to the manor born, but when she dons her billowy robes for the children of the village each year, she is certain to be every inch a princess.

Sorry, a countess.

Chateau de Montmelas old drawing

The chateau, as imagined by an architect during the 17th century

Chateau de Montmelas in autumn

The Château de Montmelas today

Things every Woman on the Road should know

  • You can visit the Château de Montmelas at 11am the first Saturday of every month.
  • The estate produces a Beaujolais Villages red (Gamay grape) and white (Chardonnay) on its 54-hectare vineyard. And if you don’t drink (I don’t) they turn those yummy red grapes into some pretty amazing grape juice.
  • The wines are bottled under the label “Marquis de Montmelas” and have been produced here since 1566.
  • The nearest town is Villefranche-sur-Saône, and Lyon is half an hour’s drive away.

All photos by Anne Sterck

{ 6 comments… add one }
  • Kristin Henning November 16, 2013, 11:49 am

    Thanks for adding this story to the History link-up. It’s beautifully written, and I appreciate both the history of the edifice and the anecdotes about their livelihood and relations with the village. I wonder how you met up with the countess? When I was lots younger, two friends and I bumped into a countess on Isola D’Elba, and ended up having lunch with her. Such fun memories.

    • Leyla Giray Alyanak November 16, 2013, 12:36 pm

      Thanks for the nice words, Kristin! There was no merit in meeting her – I was introduced by local tourism officials because the chateau is encouraging visitors – and Delphine speaks excellent English and was curious about an English-language blog in France…

  • Suzanne Fluhr November 30, 2013, 10:51 pm

    I admit that I sometimes scoff at the notion of blood line aristocrats, but your post points out that from an historical preservation perspective, they do actually provide a public service—-not that I’m likely to start curtsying any time soon.

    • Leyla Giray Alyanak December 1, 2013, 5:35 am

      Exactly, and although it does help preserve their heritage as well, I’m not sure I’d like visitors roaming through my garden and snapping pictures of my house…

  • Madeleine Wilks March 24, 2014, 3:27 pm

    I stayed here a couple of times, once when I did a French exchange in the 1980s with one of the d’Harcourt girls. My mother knew of the family in the 1950s when she lived near Vichy as an au pair, in another chateau.

    • Leyla Giray Alyanak March 26, 2014, 10:15 pm

      What a small world – how wonderful to bring back memories!

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