Published: May 2009
By Christopher Petkanas
The answer lies across the Rhône River in the northern Languedoc, a region every bit as seductive (but not half as frequented) as its more high-profile neighbor. And who knew it was home to some of the most welcoming and original hotels, inns, and guesthouses in France?
After driving more than two hours it did not seem likely that Garrigues—a village that looked as if it had been evacuated—was going to produce the raffiné inn that a friend of a friend had promised, using words like oasis, haven, and you've never seen anything like it.
Le Mas Parasol finally revealed itself on the other side of a scarred plank door, which was set in a towering stone arch and painted, a long time ago, an unbeatable olive green. Everywhere my glance settled—on box shrubs clipped into topiary globes, on patinated vintage park chairs—assured me Le Mas Parasol had not been oversold. It was built in 1793 as a farmhouse in a style typical of agricultural dwellings in and around the not-too-distant Cévennes mountains. A two-story structure in luminous beige limestone, the inn has an exterior staircase leading to a loggia that wraps around three sides. Looking at the surrounding plain from here is like watching a fire: you can't take your eyes off it.
Six guest rooms, some with exposed stone walls and arched ceilings, face a central courtyard. Decorative elements run to stenciled friezes, tailored upholstered headboards, the odd antique Provençal rush-bottomed armchair, richly worn surfaces, salvaged doors, and quantities of Designers Guild's signature color-zapped textiles from London. Parked outside in the garden is Parasol's newest accommodation: a self-sufficient, smartly rehabilitated gypsy caravan with its own salon.
Several nights a week owner Geoffroy Vieljeux dons an apron to tempt his charges with lamb shoulder confit, potatoes prepared in the manner of a tarte Tatin, and turnovers filled with salt cod. Vieljeux's deep knowledge of the Languedoc's finest restaurants ensures that, the rest of the time, no one goes hungry.
Rue Damon, Garrigues; 33-4/66-81-90-47, fax 33-4/66-81-93-30; doubles from $70.
There were as many Tintin coloring books littering the communal breakfast table as copies of Côte Sud. Two-fisted coffee bowls were filled and emptied, filled and emptied. Children gave their complete attention to dissolving Poulain powdered chocolate in milk—the national breakfast of the pre-caffeinated. The assembled four young families gave off a confident, all's-right-with-the-world air of preppiness. And they all seemed to know one another.
They did—but they'd met only 72 hours before. Each had come to Domaine des Clos, a sprawling 18th-century farmhouse on a wild windswept plain 82 miles southwest of Avignon, to say good-bye to summer. Having checked in as strangers, they checked out as friends, numbers exchanged, rendezvous promised.
It was just this affectionate atmosphere that Sandrine and David Ausset dared to hope might result from their warmhearted renovation of the Domaine. Five sunny, color-washed guest rooms and four apartments are winsomely and intelligently appointed with brass and iron beds, muslin hangings, vintage marble-topped dressing tables, and terrazzo floors. The crunchy, snowy coverlets are sewn by the maîtresse de maison herself, and light fixtures are cleverly designed using old agricultural implements, including sconces fashioned from rusty hoe blades. Sparkling white bathrooms are edged in Tunisian tiles painted with a charming pinwheel motif.
Though the guest rooms share one well-equipped kitchen, don't worry about pileups—the laid-back people drawn to the Domaine are no more interested in traffic jams than you are. While breakfast is prepared by Sandrine, who makes her own luscious fruit-packed confitures, the kitchen is heaven for travelers who tire of eating in restaurants day after day—even when the restaurants are great. Who hasn't dreamed of making pistou with basil they buy themselves at a southern French market?
One morning I skipped across the Rhône to Tarascon and the Musée Souleiado Charles Demery, the Provençal folk museum run by the Souleiado fabric family. Lunch in Arles at the Grand Hôtel Nord-Pinus was an excuse to revisit the hotel's rakish vest-pocket bar, where a mounted bull's head hangs above a vitrine displaying a sequined matador's jacket.
In the afternoon I stopped for a beer in trendier-than-thou St.-Rémy-de-Provence and spied a Monaco princess. But thoughts of the following morning at the Domaine occupied me more than my brush with royalty.
Would I make a friend at breakfast?
Rte. de Bellegarde, Beaucaire; 33-4/66-01-14-61, fax 33-4/66-01-00-47; doubles from $46.
Just as I lifted my finger to press the intercom, two high-pitched toy poodles struggled through the bars in the iron gate, beating me out to announce my arrival at Château de Ribaute. Striding vigorously across the gravel courtyard behind them was Countess Françoise Chamski-Mandojors, the most unlikely owner I have met in 18 years of guesthouse-going in France. A brisk, commanding woman of a certain age, she wore slim cropped trousers; below them peeked out the racehorse ankles that many French aristocrats manage to take with them to the grave. Her discreet gold jewelry caught the sun, and even at 15 meters I could tell she was wearing Guerlain.
Located 22 miles northwest of Nîmes, Ribaute was built in the 13th century on the foundations of a Benedictine priory, and adapted in the 18th century for a life that had more to do with the pursuit of pleasure and beauty than protection. Many French guesthouses claim to deliver the subtle niceties of staying in a private house, but few succeed with the ease, grace, and abundance of Ribaute—the centerpiece of a pleasant agricultural village without a single shop. The walled garden in which the pool is set attains that rare ideal—looked-after but not too looked-after. Lounging under the century-old Judas trees, firs, maples, and horse chestnuts is as cooling as an iced vervain infusion. Snuggle down with a volume from Count Ladislas's tower library on 19th-century domestic life in the Languedoc and you may never get up. Unless it's to idle in your room. While there is no shortage of fanciful Louis-Philippe armchairs or sleigh beds, striped glazed percales and Patrick Frey toiles cancel any threat of fustiness.
Meals are skillfully cooked by the Chamski-Mandojors' daughter, Julie, a 30-year-old hotel-school graduate whose dedication to keeping the château afloat must be encoded in her DNA. Duck terrine studded with hazelnuts and vegetable tagines are served in an abidingly grand dining room hung with Compagnie des Indes porcelain and a portrait of a relation who lost his head, literally, in the revolution. In summer, the scene shifts to the courtyard, whose arcades seem to exhale cool air.
Place du Château, Ribaute-les-Tavernes;
33-4/66-83-01-66, fax 33-4/66-83-86-93;
doubles from $76.
Fifteen miles northeast of Nîmes in the hill town of Castillon-du-Gard is a hotel whose discreet, un-hotel-like façade could easily be mistaken for a village house. The three interconnected buildings in honey-colored stone (the oldest dating from the 12th century) exhibit a kind of Cubist chaos. Le Vieux Castillon's proud, embattled beauty is much like that of the Languedoc itself.
Nothing prepares guests for the charms within. Discovering how the hotel's various wings join up is an enchanting surprise. One link is a grassy courtyard planted with olive trees, cypresses, and oleander. Another is a hyphen of a footbridge that vaults over a cobblestoned pedestrian passageway, where locals can be observed on their way to buy Le Figaro. With such low-key amusements, it's easy to imagine spending a week at Le Vieux Castillon without so much as a shadow of ennui darkening the pages of your vacation paperback.
The languorous rhythm of my own stay at the hotel suggested itself almost immediately after I set down my bags. A third of my time was claimed by poolside naps overlooking the grapevine-carpeted Vallée de St.-Hilaire. Another third was reserved for deconstructing chef Gilles Dauteuil's Mediterranean cooking, which cleverly manages to be both earthy and sophisticated (if rather pricey). And one-third was spent wandering through Castillon-du-Gard, population 816.
Despite being cradled in the bosom of the Midi, Le Vieux Castillon isn't the kind of hotel that lets its hair down; the 33 guest rooms and two suites have a slightly impersonal quality, with interior shutters, candlestick lamps, and cheerful buffalo-check fabrics. While service is generally acceptable, the personnel at reception could learn from their colleagues in the restaurant. The young maître d's and waitstaff are the best that France has to offer.
Who goes to Le Vieux Castillon?Across from me at lunch one day sat a distinguished couple in their seventies, the man in a jacket, tie, and immaculately polished shoes, his wife sporting a superbly pinned chignon. A dangerously tanned woman of a certain age in a coquettish sundress teetered by in Perspex sandals with heels like needles; she smooched a skeletal chihuahua. At the pool a few well-behaved children amused themselves quietly.
And everyone but me was French.
Castillon-du-Gard; 33-4/66-37-61-61, fax 33-4/66-37-28-17; doubles from $150.
In a canyon on the leafy edge of the Tarn, the 15th-century Château de la Caze was built for romance, even if its three towers, moat, and crenellations suggest a more defensive purpose. In 1488 a local demoiselle with a generous dowry was inspired by her new husband's good looks and gallantry to build a castle that would serve as "a setting and refuge for their love." Four years later, the couple took possession of their imposing nest and found it bewitching. I was alone at La Caze, but I can still attest to its sexy vibe.
La Caze is a magnet for travelers seeking to live out their Renaissance fantasies. Horses once clopped through what is now the main hall, moodily lit by lanterns suspended above a Gothic pew. The floor is a checkerboard of beige, black, and brown paving stones polished to a high gloss. Twelve guest rooms and seven suites are filled with handsome Louis XIII furniture: beds with rope-turned posts and fleur-de-lispatterned headboards, settees covered in magnificently faded needlepoint. "Soubeyrane" has a tower bathroom and the finest view of the Tarn; "Melchior" and "Nuptial" have their own terraces.
La Caze also offers six shipshape apartments in a modern annex—ideal for families—with striking views of the château and the cliffs beyond. The wrought-iron beds, tables, and armchairs were made by a craftsman in nearby Lunel. No corners were cut: doors are of solid oak, and there are towel dryers in the crisp, fresh bathrooms.
Meals at La Caze are served by a friendly and capable young staff. Breakfast brings the celebrated honey of the Méjean Causse, made by bees that feed on thyme, white clover, and borage. At dinner, the signature dish is trout with smoked lardons and Puy lentils, an interesting idea that, like much on the menu, needs refining and sharpening. Other dishes reflect the region's wealth of wild mushrooms: cèpes, chanterelles, mousserons, morels.
Kayaking and canoeing are practically at La Caze's doorstep. A day trip from the château took me to Générargues and the Bambouseraie, a 42-acre park where 150 species of bamboo are cultivated. I returned to the inn with tacky back-scratchers but also a load of terrific baskets and trays.
At night, the canyon air was so pure that I slept with the leaded windows open. Waking at dawn, I saw a wild boar nuzzling the banks of the Tarn.
Rte. des Gorges du Tarn, La Malène, Ste.-Énimie; 33-4/66-48-51-01, fax 33-4/66-48-55-75; doubles from $110.