At the region's latest retreat, La Bastide de Marie, Christopher Petkanas discovers that pinks and patterns are not comme il faut in a world of greige
The red pullover i'd packed never had a chance. Ditto the cotton shirt in a sprigged Provençal print, even though I had killed myself chasing down an exact copy of the one Picasso wore during his days as a potter in the south of France. I had taken possession of my room at La Bastide de Marie only minutes before, but a firm inner voice told me, "Madame would not approve."
In the months leading up to this nervous moment, Jocelyne Sibuet—La Bastide's owner and haute conceptualizer—and I had spoken so many times on the telephone, left each other so many voice mails, sent so many messages through mutual friends, and enjoyed so many nearly consummated appointments that I felt as if I knew her. Now the time had come to go head-to-head with the top boutique hotelier in France, who'd made her name in Megève in the French Alps with Les Fermes de Marie, a rustic-chic hamlet of vernacular Savoyard farm buildings transformed into luxurious lodgings for paying guests. In France, Sibuet's every move is read like tea leaves by hotel-chain honchos, decorating editors, lampshade manufacturers—anyone with a franc to earn in the arena of l'art de vivre. Which way is the wind blowing?Jocelyne will tell us.
La Bastide de Marie is Sibuet's latest stage for expression, a 12-room inn coaxed out of a centuries-old farmhouse in Ménerbes, 24 miles east of Avignon amid the sexy, undulating flanks of the Lubéron Mountains. This is the Provence of shrill cicadas, pulsing hallucinogenic heat, dangerously short-tempered paysans, and wild thyme crunching underfoot. A magnet for café society and political and art-world scenesters who like to throw their money and celebrity around, the historic villages of the Lubéron—Ménerbes, Roussillon, Gordes, Bonnieux, Lacoste—are the nearest thing France has to the Hamptons.
La Bastide is set on a 37-acre parcel of Sibuet's own vineyard, Domaine de Marie, which produces promising red, white, and rosé Côtes du Lubéron. Nuzzling the valley floor and powered by a let-them-eat-truffles, it-doesn't-matter-how-much-it-costs-as-long-as-we-achieve-the-right-effect budget, it's packed with the faux-throwaway touches justes that have made Sibuet's hotels such hot tickets. (With her husband, Jean-Louis, she also owns Cour des Loges in Lyons, and five hotels in Megève.) Like Les Fermes de Marie, La Bastide is a rural fantasy, with a strong element of Marie Antoinette playing milkmaid at Versailles. That pyramid of savons de Marseille in the restaurant's powder room may look like a folly, but it was carefully constructed by Madame, block by block. Charme and bijou are the two most abused words in the French hotel business. But La Bastide can use them with impunity.
As it turns out, it was a good thing I nixed the four-alarm sweater. For, over a rousing and breathless couple of days spent with Sibuet in Ménerbes, she revealed herself as a woman of unflinching principles where beauty and appearances are concerned, one who has no time for dissenters. She reminded me of a late friend, Nicole de Vésian, the trendsetting garden designer who lived two villages over in Bonnieux. Nicole once famously refused a gift of pruning shears, explaining that while their orange handles would make them easy to spot lying around her garden, the gash they would create doomed them as unacceptable. In America we have the fashion police; in France they call them style gendarmes.
No, said Sibuet, who has the bullet-like build of a jockey, her diet does not allow much color. She could have greige—designerspeak for that fleeting shade between gray and beige—for breakfast, lunch, and dinner. She is not into prints, though when pushed she agreed that they have their uses as an accent. The mention of what the French, perversely borrowing from the English, call "le look Provençal," made her bristle. Been there, done that, her expression said. The style is built around the locally produced Indian-flavored cottons, with a charming hand-blocked quality, that flap in the mistral at every market and are such a hit with American tourists.
"THE WHOLE PROVENÇAL THING IS SOOO OVER," Sibuet said witheringly. She was seated on the terrace at La Bastide where guests are served breakfast under a canopy of split cane, overlooking the grapevines that march right up to the inn. And then I remembered: my Provençal shirt, which seemed so right when I paid too much for it on Madison Avenue, committed the triple sin of being pink, patterned, and passé. (Note to self: Cut losses and leave behind for parking attendant.)
No, nothing so obvious or commonplace as a folkloric print is permitted a major role in Jocelyne Sibuet's luminous reinvention of French Country, a fresh, tranquil universe that picks up where Pierre Deux left off. Sibuet's look is at once less sentimental, more sophisticated and evolved, gutsier, and worldlier. Best of all, her interpretation is also more modish.
You'd be amazed how current a Louis XVI armchair looks covered in natural-colored linen. The vaulted stone ceilings in the guest rooms, slapped with multiple coats of whitewash, practically glow in the dark. In the bathrooms, bowl-style sinks by Philippe Starck are poised atop vanities of limestone quarried minutes away. And did I mention the decorative curveballs?Sofas with baroquely carved and gilded frames are upholstered in . . . denim. Not your grandmother's Provence.
Not outdoors, either. A curious L-shaped swimming pool—a canal, really—hugs a high wall in the entrance courtyard. An existing bassin in the garden is the starting point of a second, bi-level pool whose upper half spills into the lower in a waterfall effect. It's not the easiest thing to climb in and out of, and heaven help you if you have knee trouble. But it is beautiful.
One morning, between swallows of inky coffee and bites of fluffy house brioche swirled with chocolate, Sibuet opened up on the theory that shaped La Bastide. Forty minutes later she surfaced for air. I was wrung out; she was just beginning.
"I'm not a financier," explained Sibuet. "I'd never buy a hotel that's successfully up and running, because it wouldn't have my imprint. What interests me is creating." Neither a guesthouse nor a hotel, La Bastide, she said, stirs together the best qualities of both. "It has the laissez-faire atmosphere of a guesthouse, minus the challenges and awkwardness of making yourself comfortable in someone else's living room, where you're terrified you'll spill your tea or knock something over. It offers the service and comfort of a small luxury hotel, though hotel implies too much of an institution to describe us. We love occupying this in-between niche—no one can put us in a slot."
No one needs another reason to visit Provence, but in creating La Bastide, Sibuet has sweetened the trip. Everything is within a reach-out-and-touch radius of the inn's doorstep. Olive groves, allées of plane trees, wind-sculpted ocher cliffs, and cedar forests furnish the landscape. Distilleries emit the toasted, nose-twitching scent of lavender. Romanesque churches and Cistercian abbeys lend their stern, chaste beauty. Perched medieval villages should have been given up long ago as too inconvenient, and yet they go on, the glitzy ones like Gordes choked with day-trippers, the overlooked ones like Caseneuve steeped in a ghostly, melancholy charm. Some restaurants still celebrate the Provençal culinary trinity of tomato, garlic, and olive oil. But they are outnumbered by those who tart up beyond recognition the delicious, fundamentally "poor" local cuisine (La Bastide is an offender at dinner but not at lunch).
A short drive puts you in the weirdly beautiful moonscape of the Alpilles, the Lubéron's sister range, where a wrong turn can bring you face-to-face with one of van Gogh's motifs. In St.-Rémy, the area's locus, the possibilities swing from the sublime (visiting the vestiges of the Roman settlement of Glanum) to the ridiculous (hunkering down for a Grimaldi princess sighting at Le Café des Arts). And while the Musée du Petit Palais in Avignon houses an extraordinary collection of Italian Renaissance paintings, closer to home base are the boulangerie museum in Bonnieux and the corkscrew museum in Ménerbes. To apply the decorating lessons you learned at La Bastide, go to the flea market at Isle-sur-la-Sorgue, buy a worm-eaten wooden skittle, and wire it into a lamp.
THAT THE GENIE WHO SPINS LIGHTING out of vintage toys conforms to type takes nothing away from her Napoleonic skill in building a mini—hospitality empire. Like every other woman tastemaker I've known, Sibuet has a scary self-possession and sense of entitlement. When she announces, "I could open a decorating business tomorrow, no problem," you don't doubt her. In fact, Sibuet is almost there. Having seen pictures of La Bastide in a French magazine, one of her repeat guests in Megève, an American, commissioned her to do his house in California. "That's it!" he told her. "That's exactly what I want!! Don't change a thread!!!"
Sibuet had no plans to expand her empire south when, in 1997, she learned that one of the Lubéron's last great farms was on the market. Cutting to the chase, she and Jean-Louis purchased it, deciding—and then almost immediately deciding not—to keep the place for themselves as a vacation house.
"It was too big for us and our daughter, and we wouldn't get a lot of use out of it," recalls Sibuet. "Buying the property for ourselves seemed selfish. We wanted to do something that would really make it live."
Like many farms in the region, La Bastide was built over time, starting in the 18th century. Unable to work the land in winter, farmers filled the months by tacking an extra room onto their houses or by throwing up a barn. In this way, La Bastide became an organic if not always logical accumulation of buildings sheltering more than one family.
The big work of converting a handsome, if primitive, dwelling with beaten-earth floors, crumbling walls of biscuit-colored stone, and a patchy canal-tile roof had been undertaken by the previous owner. Pulling down interior walls and putting up others, Sibuet redistributed the space—1,800 square feet on three levels—to create the guest rooms and public areas. These include a towering salon with a walk-in fireplace, and bookcases in exactly the right state of decrepitude, their crusty paint flaking just so and stocked with editions of rainy-day grist, such as Auguste Nicolas's 1858 four-volume Le Christianisme. Judging it too risky to hire only artisans she had never worked with, Sibuet brought down from Megève the same tilers, painters, and patina specialists who had collaborated with her there. Local craftsmen schooled her in such regional elements as double-faced plank doors and plaster-and-timber ceilings.
What price style?Like many design divas, Sibuet leaves nothing to chance—as our most recent ex-president might say, "If you find a turtle on a fencepost, it didn't get there by accident." And she can be more interested in how things look than in how they work. If, like me, the last thing you do before turning out the light is take off your watch, where do you put it on a bedside table that is barely large enough to hold a lamp?No one has told the staff that they shouldn't fight in front of guests. When I asked the manager whether I could borrow a pen, she told me there were none—not one, anywhere, in the entire inn—and that a pencil, Monsieur, would have to do. Dining under the stars, you dine in a virtual blackout, which, as I have said, is just as well. With half-board obligatory, the trick is to have dinner out and lunch in, for the midday dishes are simple and earthy. John Dory is baked with olives, tomatoes, and fennel, and accompanied by mashed potatoes mounted with olive oil. Roast chicken scented with rosemary is served with its jus and a charming little cast-iron casserole of caramelized vegetables.
This may sound bigheaded, but, having finally met Sibuet, I can't help congratulating myself that I did not offend her (and that I have reached the end of this piece without mentioning Peter Mayle). Now, I'm not in the habit of seeking the approval of others. The last exception I made was for the late Sister Parish, the cabbage-rose-crazed "First Lady of American Decorating," on whom I wrote a slight book. Before that there was Madeleine Castaing, who might be described as the French, Balzacian version of Mrs. Parish. I hate to admit it, but I wanted Jocelyne Sibuet to like me. Whatever she's selling, I'm buying.
La Bastide de Marie, Rte. de Bonnieux, Quartier de la Verrerie, Ménerbes, France; 33-4/90-72-30-20, fax 33-4/90-72-54-20; www.labastidedemarie.com; doubles from $360.
WHERE TO EAT
When you're not dining at La Bastide, consider these nearby options.
La Petite Maison Place de l'Étang, Cucuron; 33-4/90-77-18-60; dinner for two $68. The owner of Château de Bagnols in Lyons, Helen, Lady Hamlyn, went on to open this bistro, which serves an excellent beef stew.
Le Fournil 5 Place Cannot, Bonnieux; 33-4/90-75-83-62; dinner for two $46. Sibuet patronizes this reliable if high-attitude restaurant for its asparagus and truffle dishes.
Bistro de France 67 Place de la Bouquerie, Apt; 33-4/90-74-22-01; lunch for two $35. Stop in at this bistro after trolling Apt's Saturday morning market.