4 New French Inns
Published: April 2009
By Christopher Petkanas
Forget about <em>toile de Jouy</em>. From Provence to the Dordogne, next-generation inns are awash in Modernism, Moroccan exotic, Flemish austerity—everything, it seems, but traditional French Country style.
There’s a new wind blowing in France—or is that a storm kicking up?Guesthouses—maisons d’hôtes—are in a delirious state of revolution.
In the old model, the kids went off to university, their rooms (minus the Johnny Hallyday posters) were done up with a wing, a prayer, a staple gun, a bolt of Napoleonic toile de Jouy (purchased on a special trip to Paris at the Marché St.-Pierre discount fabric market), and that was that. Maybe the radiators worked, maybe they didn’t. The towels were leftovers, thin and sandpapery. The croissants had freezer burn. If you were a chatelain, you accepted paying guests as a way of paying for repairs of the family tapestry (Brussels)—or, more urgently, the roof.
In a dramatic reversal, the 2007 model is conceived—designed—as a maison d’hôtes; clumsy retrofitting is finished. And because owners are serious about getting a return on their investment, their MO is more professional. The best new maisons d’hôtes are also tiny, with as few as two guest rooms: You feel like you own the place.
But perhaps nothing has changed so much as the look, which has progressed from quaint and nostalgic to exotic and transporting. The map says Provence, but one maison d’hôtes can’t seem to make up its mind if it’s in Morocco, India, or New Mexico. Mont Ste.-Victoire is the unlikely site of an Asian fantasy, lit with washi-paper Noguchi lanterns. In the Dordogne, a vernacular farmhouse goes head-to-head with two lean-and-mean, 21st-century pavilions. Furnished with modern classics by Le Corbusier and Mies van der Rohe, a medieval castle lifts its defensive bulk above the Ardèche River.
Luxurious double-faced wool-and-alpaca throws, L’Occitane amenities, and Olivier Desforges bath sheets will have you pinching yourself. Have maisons d’hôtes really come to this?They have. No, Fifi, we’re not in Clermont-Ferrand anymore.
L’Ange et L’Éléphant, Maussane-les-Alpilles, Provence
"Let’s get this party started!"
This being France, what the person at the next table actually said to me was, "Allez les enfants, la fête commence main-te-NANT!"
Historically, provincial maisons d’hôtes are a lot of things—deliciously louche, impossibly cute, poignantly decrepit—but rarely are they scene-y. L’Ange et L’Éléphant is the almost freakish, salutary exception, an all-in-one inn, restaurant, café, tea salon, and boutique. You might also call it a hangout, one that answers the ancient national need to be depaysé, or lifted away, by a mood, an atmosphere, an ambience—but without having to get on a plane.
Provence, as everyone knows, is the country’s most hedonistic region, but no one does pleasure-seeking—which, to be frank, often means squeaking by with doing as little as possible—like this pocket of the Bouches-du-Rhône. You smoke yourself to death over a pastis, toss a steel ball in an umpteenth game of boules, take three hours to do the marketing for lunch, read and reread the sports page of Le Provençal—and before you know it, it’s time for a nap. Idleness isn’t just its own reward here in the heart of Frédéric Mistral country, but a virtue. L’Ange et L’Éléphant taps into this lifestyle in a rather edgy way. It’s a huge success, the frustrated envy of every Maussane shopkeeper and hotel and restaurant proprietor intent on relieving tourists of their euros.
L’Ange et L’Éléphant requisitions a massive 18th-century staging post. It’s a lovely three-minute walk from the town’s main square, down an allée of plane trees and past the handsome washhouse inaugurated by Napoleon III in 1865 and the butcher selling garrigue-grazed Maussane lamb under a registered trademark. St.-Rémy (once charming, now over) is just on the other side of the Alpilles mountains. Les Baux, with its spectacular wind-hollowed bauxite cliffs, lurks above. Like St.-Rémy, Maussane suffers from being fashionable, but unlike the former it still retains a degree of authenticity. Despite the hype engulfing Provence, despite the bad food and subdivisions and grandes surfaces (ghastly stadium-sized supermarkets that, to be fair, are also filled with guilty pleasures), Maussane still resembles the sort of agrarian stronghold rich in folkways eulogized by Mistral in his memoirs. I rented a house here 20 years ago and amazingly, nothing much has changed since, except that during the summer fête votive (the feast day of the patron saint of the village church and the village itself), the girls who perform in the magnificently cheesy revue have harder bodies and are showing more of them.
What makes L’Ange et L’Éléphant so special?As the vise screws of "l’esprit boho" take another quarter-turn on the French imagination, it’s a relief to see that l’esprit hasn’t been totally co-opted by Parisians striking a subversive pose. This is the real thing. The fact that L’Ange et L’Éléphant is a little destabilizing and hard to nail down only heightens the experience. It’s a cultural and decorative stew. There were moments when I felt like I was in Tangier—or was it Chandernagore?Scratch that. What it really feels like (I think) is Santa Fe.
On motorcycles and in BMW’s they come to sip melon wine, nibble chicken in coconut milk (amateurish and eccentric, the food is far from the point), and nuzzle their dates under the stars in a sprawling courtyard. It’s appointed not with all that boilerplate stuff that romanticizes French rural life but with tole cacti, daybeds from Afghanistan lashed with buffalo thongs, embroidered straw rugs ravaged by the sun and rain, cedar panels of lacy moucharaby, old beaten shutters—and vintage Coca-Cola picnic coolers. (Nearly all of the above is for sale, augmented by Fez pottery, horn cups, and sequined babouches in the boutique.) A giant blow-up chair skims the surface of the kind of featureless anti-swimming-pool swimming pool the French term a bassin. It’s all casually banged together, the service is beyond relaxed, but it works.
The party goes on all night to an insinuating sound track of the African chanteuse Judith Sephuma and Brazil’s Rosalia de Souza, the neighbors—some of them farmers who must be up with the sun—be damned. (Even guests, cruelly deprived of sleep by the music, nattering, and clinking of glasses, sometimes feel that Juliette Godeau Ledieu and Joël Gourlot, L’Ange et L’Éléphant’s owners, go too far in the pursuit of a good time.) Down the lane, workers at Moulin Jean-Marie Cornille, the most famous olive-oil mill in France, have been at it for many hours before the couple have even thought about raising the shades.
It’s difficult to imagine, but Godeau Ledieu and Gourlot are veterans of the pharmaceutical industry. They are the only aubergistes in France (possibly in the world) ever to have met in a Johnson & Johnson laboratory.
"It’s that feeling of being somewhere else, yet perfectly at home," says Gourlot of the cloistered mini-universe he and Godeau Ledieu summoned from scratch. "L’Ange et L’Éléphant is an anachronism. Some people put their nose through the gate and walk away, so there’s an auto-selection process that actually suits us. In this way the only people here are people who want to be here. We’re not for everyone."
That is just as well, as there are only two guest rooms. One is perfectly sweet, though it gives directly onto the pool and is not much bigger than a cocktail napkin. The shower stall, open on one side, is so near the bed you are always afraid of turning on the water for fear of soaking the taffeta curtain (folo) that drapes it. Nothing sums up Godeau Ledieu’s improvised style like the bedcover, unless it’s the hand towels, which someone has very patiently edged with little silk knots that look just like my Charvet cuff links.
Reached via a private, exterior corkscrew staircase from India in elaborately worked iron, the 750-square-foot suite has two bedrooms (one on a mezzanine), a salon that drifts into an open kitchen, and a vast terrace that keeps an eye on all the goings-on in the courtyard below. The chef d’oeuvre here is the bathroom’s waist-high unglazed terra-cotta jar from Rajasthan cradling a sink from Morocco in maillechort, a copper, zinc, and nickel alloy. My bed had an acid-dipped metal headboard in the shape of an ogee arch. Taking up the book on the nightstand before going to sleep, I saw that the previous guest had gotten to page 229 of Le Tour du Monde en 80 Jours.
9 Rue de la Reine Jeanne; 33-4/90-54-18-34; doubles from $112.
Le Canard a Trois Pattes, Tamniès, Dordogne
Flush with medieval and Renaissance monuments, Sarlat is the tourism capital of the Dordogne, and everything you have heard about it is true. The only language spoken is English, iterated with an English accent. Every perpetrator has a camper, a baby stroller, and at least one dog, and in summer they make Saturday, market day, a misery.
The antidote lies in a hamlet 7½ miles to the north, at a gently perched 15th-century farmhouse with five guest rooms and an arcadian view of soft hills flecked with cows as big as medium-size rental cars. No one is more aware than I am that this is exactly the kind of vignette country people make fun of city people for even registering, but I’m going to describe it anyway: The cows pass in front of the house twice a day, on their way to and from being pastured. A farmer leads the herd (though herd is much too big a word for his troop of four or five), putting up as he goes a string barrier to keep the animals from devastating the neighbors’ grass. His son brings up the rear, taking the string down as quickly as it went up. All this takes place under your nose, while you look out of your bedroom window.
If that scene doesn’t have you reaching for the Internet to make a reservation at Le Canard a Trois Pattes, this may: the principal structure is an exceptional example of colloquial perigourdin architecture, with a façade of limestone blocks in a deep, drenched-ocher color; schist roof shingles; and knobbly pisé floors—schist chiseled into small, triangular stones driven pointy-side-down into wet, beaten earth. Framing the house, and staging a prickly confrontation with it, are two blunt cubic pavilions with flat roofs built on the footprints of a pigpen and a bread house. Studio Carré Rouge and La Habanna, which sleeps five and has a small hardworking kitchen, are not totally disinterested in tradition, however: their wide pine siding makes reference to the region’s tobacco-drying sheds.
Armand Van Lierde and Greet Decreus, Belgian architects who had their own practice in Antwerp before coming to the Dordogne, are the B&B owners from heaven: discreet, cultivated, laissez-faire. Decreus is also a decorative painter, Van Lierde an artist. In the dining room, where chairs of rigid polyurethane foam by Maarten Van Severen for Vitra are pulled up to an old refectory table, one of Van Lierde’s works leans against a wall, a huge red field with a heart lying on its side, perhaps recovering from a wound. And in an area where they would find a way to turn foie gras into ice cream if they thought anybody would eat it, the dishes Decreus coaxes out of her plump, retro Smeg fridge and butter-yellow Aga are models of freshness, sanity, and simplicity: grilled eggplant involtini piped with goat cheese, cherry-tomato risotto, cinnamony apple tart. Seafood arrives right at the gate via an ambulant fishmonger who receives regular deliveries from the Atlantic.
In the atelier, in the kitchen, Decreus and Van Lierde demonstrate great reductionist style. They subscribe to wabi-sabi, the Japanese aesthetic system that finds beauty in imperfection, chance, decay, impermanence, natural wear and tear, and making something from nothing. Van Lierde gives two examples: "We had some not especially pretty stones left over from restoring the house and made a pile of them in a spot that happens to be favorable for raspberries and blackberries," he says. "Now the bushes are growing among and around the stones, creating a happy, artful composition. A section of the pisé floor in the salon has sunken in, and some of the stones have come loose, but I find it very beautiful. I won’t touch it."
Swallow, the only accommodation in the main building, is named for the bird’s nest tacked to a ceiling beam, another instance of wabi-sabi. Floating the mattress in the middle of the room, with no headboard, no nightstand, no bedside lamp, no nothing is a provocation I understand but reject as impractical and even a little sadistic: sleeping here, or trying to, I felt totally unmoored. The only other furnishings are a butterfly chair, a folding park chair in flaking paint, and a huge ottoman in hairy chocolate cowhide. Separated from the bedroom by a half-wall clad in chestnut planks, the bathroom has a sumptuous slipper tub that was found languishing in a field and re-porcelained.
Château des Milandes and Manoir d’Eyrignac are so close by I could not find a reason not to visit them. Milandes is where Josephine Baker raised all those adopted children and where the original of her legendary banana skirt is exhibited. Eyrignac’s grounds follow an 18th-century Italianate design and are known to garden enthusiasts around the world. Revenge on the campers and baby strollers was not my object in stopping in Sarlat on the way back, but what a bonus. After taking a lazy look around St. Sacerdos’s cathedral, the bishop’s palace, and the courthouse and filling my basket with a tin of foie gras and a liter of walnut oil, I raced home to the arms of the Duck with Three Feet.
Le Castanet; 33-5/53-59-13-85; www.troispattes.com; doubles from $197.
Château de Balazuc, Balazuc, Ardèche
After the Revolution, property belonging to emigrés was confiscated by the state and auctioned "à la bougie"—with a candle. According to this picturesque custom, the winning bidder was whoever made the last offer before the candle burned out.
But what if you staged an auction and nobody came?That was the fate of two 1792 sales that tried to unload the 11th-century Château de Balazuc, whose host bourg (full-time population: 335) is located in the lower Ardèche on a bluff high above the temperamental Ardèche River, 63 miles north of Avignon. It’s a gray (all that Jurassic limestone), isolated, fantastically lonely place of vaulted passageways, houses that seem to grow out of the cliff face, and vacationing canoeists whose hands the locals like to bite. The villain in a long history of poverty and suffering is what Yale professor John Merriman names in his Stones of Balzac the "’ungrateful’ soil."
The auctions took place while the count who owned the castle was licking his wounds and basically just trying to stay alive in England. There was a lot of melted wax. Eventually, almost grudgingly, a farmer stepped up to buy the château before yet another candle spent itself and a cheerless thread of smoke filled the sale room. He paid a derisory 625 livres and used the castle, Gothic fireplace and all, as a rather grandiose outbuilding (even the andirons have survived, gorgeously intact). Combined with its awful condition, disaffection for the château ran so high that it brought more than 24,000 livres less than the village gristmill, which had the advantage of being revenue-producing, and only 175 livres more than the humble communal bread oven. What all this illustrates is that square footage is a contemporary obsession. A castle with a river view, even one in bad shape, at fire-sale prices—no one today could say no.
The last time the château changed hands, in 2002, it was still being abused in the same depressing fashion, this time by a grower of wine grapes. In one of those big, brave, life-changing moves that have a way of yielding a great guest experience, Virginie and Daniel Boulenger ditched their careers as auto-parts engineers (well, somebody has to do that job) to open a four-room maison d’hôtes, erase the inglorious chapters in the castle’s past, and restore its seigneurial dignity.
They accomplished this in ways that would not have occurred to your old-school fixer-upper of fortresslike medieval châteaux. Three of the guest rooms are situated off the salon, where a muscle-bound steel-and-glass staircase and bridge lead to the Boulengers’ private apartments. Furniture runs to Le Corbusier club chairs and Barcelona chairs in audacious white leather, designs whose flashing metal frames look wonderful against the matte slate and brick herringbone of the floors. Even more tonic and startling is the collection of Modern art, including one painting in Jean-Marc Dallanegra’s pressure-cooker series and a portrait by Troy Henriksen that pays homage to Jean-Michel Basquiat. Leaf-printed curtains in loosely woven linen from Robert Le Héros add softness and poetry.
Dinner is served at one table at one seating on a terrace overlooking the river under a canopy of Virginia creeper amid ad-libbed bouquets of dried grasses, wild fennel, and thistles. Daniel takes great care with the seating plan, and plates are scrupulously changed between courses, just as at a real dinner party. However good Virginie was at designing dashboards and rearview mirrors, she could not have been better at it than she is at cooking. A typical meal might begin with a cheeky "tarte Tatin" of eggplant with sun-dried tomatoes and pine nuts, then move on to a gigot de sept heures (leg of lamb cooked in a slow oven for seven hours, until it can be carved with a spoon), wheat berries, and buttered string beans from a neighbor’s garden. Roasted figs with cardamom is a popular dessert. No one turns in without a mug of house tisane, lemon verbena and star anise or linden blossom and mint.
A meal across the bridge at Le Viel Audon, 20 minutes on foot from the château, is just as satisfying, but in an utterly rustic way you would have thought lost. The hamlet is a species of cooperative where if you’re older than 6 and younger than 26 you can go to learn bread-baking, beekeeping, animal husbandry, and more. Lunch is a board piled with thick shards of ham, dried sausage, cornichons, and goat cheeses in three stages of maturity. And it wouldn’t be the Ardèche if there wasn’t caillette, a mixture of Swiss chard leaves, pork, and pig’s liver wrapped in caul fat. Just in case you haven’t had enough cheese, it appears again at dessert, freshly strained and molded, topped with chestnut cream or blackberry-and-blueberry jam.
Balazuc’s vegetation is Mediterra-nean. But as the village is only 10 miles south of "the olive line," the cutoff point for the cultivation of olive trees, no one should go expecting Provence. Balazuc has none of that region’s easy talent for voluptuousness. Pleasure has never been its own reward here, though the Boulengers are having great success swimming against time and history.
33-4/75-88-52-67; www.chateaudebalazuc.com; doubles from $151.
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.
When to Go
May and June are pleasant and warm; avoid July and August, when the area is busiest. September is crisp and clear across much of France, and temperatures stay in the 60’s.
Air France (www.airfrance.com) offers daily flights from Paris to Marseilles, Avignon, and Bordeaux for under $200, or opt for France’s high-speed TGV train (www.tgv.co.uk). The distances between L’Ange et L’Éléphant, Château de Balazuc, and La Quinta des Bambous are easily covered by car, and together they make a nice circuit.
Where to Eat
Le Viel Audon This rustic inn-cum-cooperative has a café on the premises that’s open to visitors. Balazuc; 33-4/75-37-73-80; lunch for two $33.
What to Do
Château de Balazuc Rent a kayak or a canoe and ride the river below the property. Le Fazo; 33-4/75- 37-00-44; www.balazuc-canoe.com; canoe rentals from $49 per day, kayak rentals from $26 per day.
Château des Milandes Tour the historic castle once owned by music hall star Josephine Baker. Castelnaud-La-Chapelle; 33-5/53-59-31-21; www.chateaudesmilandes.com.
Les Jardins du Manoir d’Eyrignac Ten acres of hedges and greenery vigorously maintained by traditional French gardening techniques. Salignac; 33-5/53-28-99-71; www.eyrignac.com.
Musée Frédéric Mistral The Nobel Prize-winning poet’s home in Maillane houses his personal collection of books and photographs. 11 Ave. Lamartine, Maillane; 33-4/90-95-84-19.
Provence markets The Wednesday and Saturday morning markets in Arles, located on Boulevard Émile Combes and Boulevard des Lices, are the best in the region.
Atelier Cézanne Nestled among the landscapes he once painted, Cézanne’s Ste.-Victoire studio is open by appointment to visitors, daily from 10 to 6. 9 Ave. Paul Cézanne, Aix-en-Provence; 33-4/42-21-06-53; www.atelier-cezanne.com.
What to Read
Two Towns in Provence by M.F.K. Fisher (Vintage) illustrates the food and city life in Aix and Marseilles; The Stones of Balazuc by John Merriman (W.W. Norton) catalogs the history of the resilient Ardèche River town; Mes Origines, Mémoires et Récits, by Frédéric Mistral, which recounts Mistral’s childhood and young adulthood, has been translated into English.
Consider planning your route through the province of Drôme via Nyons, a town known for its namesake olives and appellation d’origine controlée olive oil.