Truffle Hunting in the Tuscan Hills
The thrill is in both the treasure and the chase.
The newly renovated, five-star Le Grand Contrôle hotel offers a truly superlative, insider experience of the famous Palace.
IT’S NOT ALWAYS logical, what becomes a memory. The rationale of those that stick can be opaque, like the stubbornly persistent but completely unremarkable recollection of standing on a corner waiting for a bus as a child, the kind of thing that makes one wonder, Why did my brain decide, out of all the moments I have lived, to hold onto this one? But other moments, even as they are happening, register as so superlative that it feels unquestionable they will stay lodged forever in your brain.
That was the experience I had while standing completely alone in the Hall of Mirrors at Versailles. The Palace was closed to visitors, but I was on a private, after-hours tour. The rest of the small group I was with had moved on to the next room, and I was alone in the famous gallery of Louis XIV, turning slowly in circles. The only reflection visible in the hundreds of mirrors lining the walls was my own.
I was able to have this wildly privileged experience because I was a guest for the night at Le Grand Contrôle. The five-star hotel is located on the grounds of the Palace, housed in a seventeenth-century building that was home to the minister of finance (before, of course, the revolution). In its latest incarnation, it is the sixth property of the Airelles hotel group, founded by French media entrepreneur Stéphane Courbit. Following a substantial renovation, it was due to debut in 2020; pushed back for obvious reasons, it finally opened its doors in the summer of 2021.
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The four-year renovation clearly spared no expense. The new parts of the hotel must be extensive — just the ones guests can see include an entire subterranean floor with a Valmont spa and an indoor swimming pool, accessible by elevator — but they manage to blend so seamlessly with the historical parts as to be nearly indistinguishable. Of course the swimming pool couldn’t be original, but it still accomplishes the trick of feeling like it could be.
Historical accuracy is clearly a tentpole for the property. The men on the hotel staff are dressed in embroidered vests and breeches with thick, old-fashioned white tights; dinner in the Alain Ducasse restaurant includes a menu inspired by period recipes and what can only be called dinner theater, each course served with bugle-playing and stomping courtiers performing with suitably ceremonial pomp. For the interiors, designer Christophe Tollemer drew his inspiration from the Palace archives. My room, off the sitting area on the second floor, had a bed so big that after seeing it, I must admit to finding Marie Antoinette’s slightly less impressive than I might have otherwise. In true period style, everything that can be gilded is, from the mirrors to the frames on the paintings to the sparkling crystal chandelier. But the real showstoppers, at least in my room, were the fabrics, created for the property by Maison Pierre Frey. A single motif upholsters the bed curtains, wall coverings, chairs, footstools, and drapes. All the modern amenities, from the lush, modern bathrooms (with heated toilet seats) hidden behind trompe l’oeil doors to the iPad used to contact the staff, are tucked away to preserve the historical effect. The effect manages to be both cozy and grand, nimbly straddling the eighteenth and twenty-first centuries — a true balancing act.
The surroundings are beautiful and sumptuous, no question. The food is excellent. But they actually aren’t the best thing about the hotel. The experience is.
When I complimented Julien Révah, the hotel’s general manager, on the service his team provides, he looked slightly embarrassed. “Thank you,” he deferred, “but we can always do better.” The team’s commitment to always doing better was on display in every interaction I had with them. A forgotten bathing suit while packing? When I returned to my room, I found two size options waiting for me to try on. The pool closes after dinner, the butler told me, but they could open it again. What time would I like to take a private swim? When one is visiting a hotel as an editor, it’s always a question as to whether the level of service reflects the reality that one is writing an article, but I overhear the team interacting with every customer with the same level of attentiveness. Visiting this property, I had the unusual experience of feeling like the personal guest of a very, very good host.
I spent a single night at the property; chatting with other guests, that doesn’t seem unusual. A short trip from Paris, visiting Versailles is often undertaken as a day trip, but Le Grand Contrôle offers a tempting solution for skipping the lines and making a different kind of experience out of it. The Palace tour is undoubtedly the big draw of the property, but guests also receive privileged access to tour the gardens, including a private golf club and complimentary boat rental if one wants to take a leisurely row through the ponds (I did).
The most famous resident of Versailles, of course, was Marie Antoinette, and her bedroom remains one of its biggest attractions. And it is really something (the bed, topped with snowy white ostrich plumes, did make me consider who has the monumental job of keeping those feathers clean). From her public bedroom, the tour I was on looped around, through the Hall of Mirrors and reception galleries of the Palace, downstairs, outside, and then back up a narrower set of stairs into the queen’s private chambers. As the rooms became more intimate, they became progressively smaller, until finally we entered her private bedroom, which felt like, well, a bedroom. The route we took was so circuitous that even with a stellar sense of direction I was thoroughly turned around; when our guide directed us to look through a small door, my heart jumped slightly as I realized the room I was standing in was tucked behind the wall of her public bedroom. I was now on the other side, peering into the gilded room from behind the scenes.
Each time I stepped from the walled gardens of Le Grand Contrôle onto the grounds of Versailles, I had a similar feeling. Tucked inside a private space — special, personal — I nonetheless could access all the famous Palace has to offer. It was a singular feeling, the stay a truly unique experience.
Skye Parrott is the editor-in-chief of Departures. A magazine editor, photographer, writer, and creative consultant, she was previously a founder of the arts and culture journal Dossier, and editor-in-chief for the relaunch of Playgirl as a modern, feminist publication.
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