Editor’s Note: Monthly Ticket is a CNN Travel series that spotlights some of the most fascinating topics in the travel world. As the UK crowns a new monarch, we’re exploring all things royal, from castles to grand tours.
The sleek, dark-gray lines of a F-16 Fighting Falcon jet, flanked by two other veterans of the Cold War skies, a French Dassault Mirage IV and a F-104 Starfighter, is not what you would usually expect to come across when walking into the courtyard of a 700-year-old French château.
The conspicuous presence of this triad of combat aircraft in such an unlikely setting offers a foretaste of what this historical manor has in store for its guests.
Château de Savigny-lès-Beaune, in the little Burgundy village of the same name, dates back to the 14th century and would be just one more of the many wine-growing estates that dot this historical region of France was it not for the personal passions and initiative of one man, Michel Pont.
A winegrower, car racer and avid collector, Pont bought the château in 1979 and over the following four decades, until his passing in 2021, turned it into a treasure trove for all those interested in mechanics and engineering.
“My father raced Abarth cars for five years, between 1968 and 1973. He kept his cars and, at the same time, started collecting motorbikes too. The majority of them were acquired as scrap,” says Christophe Pont, Michel’s son and current owner and manager of the château.
By the late 1970s Pont had already accumulated a significant collection of vehicles, comprising 10 Abarth racing cars and more than 300 vintage motorcycles. He was, however, just getting started. That initial batch of cars and motorcycles kept getting larger and larger and it soon started branching out.
Record-breaking private collection
In the mid-1980s, Pont, who was ex-military, made inquiries with the French Air Force about the possibility of getting one of their decommissioned Mirage III fighter jets to exhibit at the château. The request was granted and six months later what would become the kernel of the world’s largest private fighter aircraft collection was on its way to Savigny-lès-Beaune.
It’s not an exaggeration to say that quite a few national aerospace museums would be envious of what’s on display: around 100 aircraft of different makes and provenances all perfectly lined up in the grounds of the château.
The list reads like a “who’s who” of 20th-century military aviation: several different versions of French Mirages and Mystères, American F-100 series fighters and Soviet-made MiGs and Sukhois are among the many types of airplanes and helicopters you can find here.
For years, Michel and Christophe Pont scouted the whole of Europe and beyond in order to expand their collection. Those aircraft they could procure were then dismantled and brought over to Château-Savigny to be reassembled on site.
As the exhibits kept growing in size and scope, the word spread and the Pont family soon started to get offers to take in all sorts of machinery.
Many of them eventually found their place at the chateau, which now boasts nine different exhibition areas ranging from satellites and space technology to tractors and wine-making equipment, in addition to the aforementioned collections of aircraft, Abarth racing cars and historical motorcycles.
Fire trucks, hovercrafts and more
If the outdoor aircraft display is enough to get any aviation geek’s heartbeat racing, the scope and diversity of the other collections can also be overwhelming at times.
The whole scale of this extravaganza becomes ever more apparent as you visit the several pavilions scattered throughout the estate or slowly make your way through the château’s halls and corridors.
As you move from one room to the other, each seemingly packed to the hilt with thousands upon thousands of scale models of pretty much every conceivable type of aircraft that has ever flown and every make of car that has been produced, you stumble upon countless other interesting items, from ejector seats and fighter jet canopies to disassembled engines, strewn all over the place in an apparently random fashion.
One of Château-Savigny’s most colorful collections, in a literal sense, is perhaps the fire trucks, which was set up with the collaboration of Jean-Claude Picot, a friend of Pont Senior.
Picot used to run a business building emergency vehicles and, upon his retirement, brought to the chateau his private fire truck collection, which shows the evolution of firefighting equipment throughout the whole of the 20th century.
Then there’s the room dedicated to naval matters. Remarkably for a place that is hundreds of miles from the sea, the château not only has a small naval exhibit, but is home also to several Bertin hovercraft. These were designed in the 1960s by Jean Bertin, a French engineer who is also credited for the development of the Aérotrain, a futuristic technology to run high-speed trains on an air cushion that slides over concrete tracks. The “Bertins” were recovered by Pont from a scrap heap and brought over to the chateau where they now stand next to one of the property’s vineyards.
Preserving for the future
“At the moment I am no longer looking to add museum pieces,” Christophe Pont tells CNN, “My main goal is to preserve and continue the work of my father. I must ensure the continuity of the collections. It is with this goal in mind that I have resold some items. This has allowed me to purchase part of the collections from my brothers and has also given me the opportunity to trim the collections a bit in order to highlight some the most valuable pieces.” His wish for the future is that “twenty years from now, our aircraft collection will be housed in an indoors museum that protects it from the weather.”
All these many and varied interests have not prevented the Pont family from continuing to tend to the estate’s vineyards. After all, the château’s traditional line of business has always been, and continues to be, wine-making.
While most of the 30,000 visitors the château gets every year are attracted by its unique collections, there is also an offering for those interested in plain and simple wine tourism.
With the Bourgogne wine region boasting up to 84 designations of origin for wine (“Appellations d’Origine Contrôlées” or AOC, in French), including one specific to the village of Savigny-lès-Beaune, it shouldn’t come as a surprise that Château-Savigny has also its own wine-tasting rooms and shop as well.
Regardless of the reason that brings you to this corner of rural France, better set aside some time in your schedule, because this most eclectic of French châteaux is guaranteed to keep you busy for a good while.
Château de Savigny-les-Beaune, Rue Général Leclerc, 21420 Savigny-lès-Beaune, France; +33 3 80 21 55 03