La Quinta des Bambous, St.-Marc-Jaumegarde, Provence
As little as 10 years ago, La Quinta des Bambous would have opened, sputtered, and died. People weren’t ready for an Asian-inspired maison d’hôtes in France, however beautiful, especially not one with a view of Mont Ste.-Victoire. Then, a guesthouse in the shadow of the mountain that so preoccupied Cézanne would have practically guaranteed a "Provençal experience," meaning the quilts, the prints, the lavender, the sweet breakfast fougasse, the chipped checked-tinplate salt canister on the kitchen windowsill.
But a Japanese rock garden would have been seen as not just alien but heretical. Not to mention headboards fashioned out of tatami mats, Javanese colonial furniture, and cement floors with ideograms for happiness spelled out in river stones.
What a difference a decade makes. In a new, less nostalgic and sentimental climate that goes beyond pastis and pottery, and that finally has travelers relaxing their quaint and hoary expectations, reservations at La Quinta are rarer than hen’s teeth; to snag one during the summer music festival in neighboring Aix you had better know the mayor or someone similarly placed, or change your plans and go to Brittany. The only thing that stands between the maison d’hôtes and Aix is a lovely 10-minute drive in the same hallowed countryside as Château de Vauvenargues, where Picasso lived his last years and is buried. La Quinta is sited on the edge of an immense forest of pines and live oaks, the starting point of romantic trails that lead to two dams: Bimont, which supplies Aix and Marseilles, and Zola, which was built by the novelist’s engineer father, François, in 1854. There are other houses nearby, but the vegetation and spacing are such that as a guest you are only vaguely aware of them; privacy is not compromised.
A single story of smooth whitewashed stucco erected around a courtyard paved with loose stones, La Quinta hews freely (very freely) to a traditional Chinese plan, with each wing serving a precise, dedicated function such as eating, receiving, and sleeping. A roof of glazed and unglazed canal tiles lifts ever so discreetly at the corners, a nod to pagodas but also, just to confuse things, to the quintas around Lisbon, where owners Anne and Philippe Berthier lived after she folded her wings as an Air France stewardess and while he was a senior executive at IBM. Covered terraces projecting from either end of the building look like teahouses, if you squint. They flank an exquisitely plain 41-by-11-foot pool that owes its twinkle to flecks of mica in the anthracite finish. The pool terminates in a flat teak bridge and, just beyond it, a contiguous pond of koi, lotuses, and water lilies Anne brought back from Vietnam. Secreted in that sentence is everything you need to know about why La Quinta looks the way it does: Anne is French-Vietnamese. (Philippe is 100 percent French.) The maison d’hôtes is a lab for exploring the visual aspects of her cultural heritage.
Of the three smallish guest rooms, two share the same access as the Berthiers’ wing and have courtyard terraces (they aren’t especially close, but in Jasmin I could hear someone blow his nose in Lotus). Pivoine is much more independent, with a private entrance and an outdoor sitting area that opens onto the forest and offers a heart-catching glimpse of Ste.-Victoire. The rooms are pleasant enough, with kitchenettes behind shoji-style screens, but they’re not going to change the world. Haven’t we all moved on from the basin sink?And, er, fiberglass tubs?The food, limited to breakfast, also needs rethinking. A tiered and lacquered basketwork caddy left on guests’ dining tables the night before is a nice way around forcing them to commit to a breakfast time before they’ve even put on their pajamas, but there are obvious limitations, starting with the fact that nothing is hot. The most thrilling thing in my caddy was a slice of banana bread, if you don’t count the foil-wrapped butter pats. Très zen.
Anne’s minimalist impulses are much more digestible when she’s celebrating the ancient Japanese art of rock placement. Interspersed with bamboo, the boulders in her garden are metaphors for islands; gravel, for the sea. (La Quinta’s wind chimes are not a metaphor for anything, except maybe annoyance; when no one was looking I disabled them.) In the days when samurai were still a menace, the moodiest rocks with the biggest personalities were sometimes acquired by force. Anne avoids drawing her sword when someone has a stone she wants, though she does have the name of a good wholesaler outside Yokohama.
Chemin des Ribas; 33-4/42-24-91-62; laquintadesbambous.free.fr; doubles from $152.
Christopher Petkanas is a T+L special correspondent.