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.