As his guest, don't overdo it. Drape yourself by the pool, handsomely conceived as a plain ornamental bassin. Or pick vegetables in the potager and transform them into salads in the dedicated guest kitchen. Or quiz the cook on how she prepared the soulful lamb confit of the night before. You could spend a week at Le Mas des Songes, never once leave it, and never regret the outside world.
LA PROVENCE ROMAINE
L'Hôtel Particulier, Arles
The opening of L'Hôtel Particulier in 2002 came not a moment too soon. Arles was in mourning. Wracked with disease, the plane trees in the Place du Forum had been cut back to nothing in the hope of saving them. With the swipe of a chain saw, the most famous square in provincial France—whose architectural fragments include the pillars and pediment of a Roman temple—had become almost unrecognizable.
L'Hôtel Particulier gave the city something to celebrate. It has the inviolable air of a place that will be around for a long time to come. Like Arles's first-century amphitheater, its allée of marble sarcophagi, and the plane trees, it is a part of the city's identity, a thread in its fabric. The miracle is that L'Hôtel Particulier acquired landmark status so quickly. Before you could say "native-son Christian Lacroix," Arles's Grand Hôtel Nord-Pinus—a great, irresistibly rakish institution in its own right—was put on notice.
An eight-room maison d'hôte that would call itself a hotel if it weren't so modest, L'Hôtel Particulier may be in the heart of the old city, but once you're inside its gates the pace slows to a sexy shuffle. Shaded by ancient yews and privets, the vast courtyard is furnished with teak lounges marshaled opposite a limestone bassin you would never mistake for a swimming pool (but which does in fact double as a lap pool) and with public-park chairs pulled up to folding metal tables (set out for morning coffee or evening aperitifs). Conical bay trees fill tole planters, crusty iron urns are lifted on pedestals, and a niche in the garden wall holds a sweetly battered polychrome statue—clearly a runaway who had second thoughts about the Catholic Church. The resident Labrador shops for affection among guests stretched out in the courtyard, and nightfall is marked by the comforting, rhythmic hooting of an owl.
L'Hôtel Particulier occupies an 18th-century pavilion and the last great private town house commissioned in Arles. The more substantial wing was constructed in 1826 by Guillaume Meiffren-Laugier, Baron de Chartrouse, and is typical of residences favored by the French nobility under Napoleon, with its carved stone overdoor ornaments of griffons gorging on horns of plenty. Every Arlesien gratefully remembers the baron, an erudite mayor of the city, for razing the houses built inside the amphitheater, which then returned to its original function as an arena. Jules Meiffren-Laugier, who inherited his father's house and was also mayor, is only slightly less loved. He ordered up the quays on the Rhône, among the most beautiful promenades in Provence, and the Pont de Trinquetaille, the bridge that gave van Gogh one of his most important motifs.
It was Brigitte Pagès de Oliveira who guessed at a new life for the Meiffren-Laugiers' patrician old crib. A former audiologist who arrives for work in a white polo shirt, black-sequined flip-flops, and a pink slip of a skirt, de Oliveira longed for a careerin which she could flex her twin talents for fashioning light, guileless interiors with a touch of the baroque and for dispensing what the French call petits soins. Perhaps the best way to say this in English is that she really knows how to spoil people—with out-of-the-ordinary breakfast confitures like cherry-peach, mandarin tea-scented candles from Mariages Frères, and rolled-lip bathtubs measuring nearly three feet deep. And how about those melt-in-your-mouth madeleines at teatime?
Madame de Oliveira practices the sort of breezy, straight-from-the-hip decorating that can't be learned and that depends on a certain quantity of pretty, slightly ironic dirty-gilded furniture for its success. I had never thought of white, gray, and gold as three colors that had any particular affinity before, but after a night in the Chambre Grise the combination seemed not just right but inevitable. Draped from the crown above my bed were poplin hangings edged with the most delicate pom-pom fringe. The room itself was wrapped in one of those marvelous scenic papers by Zuber—a fictional landscape of pines, a pond, and a classical temple of the kind known in antique Arles.
ON THE ROUTE DE LAVANDE
Château d'Esparron, Esparron-de-Verdun
Maison d'hôte owners like Bernard and Charlotte Anne de Castellane are the last of their kind. To them, "French country" is the meadow in front of their château, not a style of gobbledygook decorating. They have no interest in contemporary design ("Qui c'est, ce Philippe Starck?"), preferring instead the look of old, inherited furniture, of foggy pier glasses, dog-eared engravings of Madame de Sévigné, and walnut armchairs with mellow flame-patterned needlework.
Bernard is to the castle born, and for as long as you are in one of his five guest rooms, you are too. Pulling up to Château d'Esparron, one hour northeast of Aix, I was welcomed by a splashing fountain, the smell of freshly turned earth, and the domain's proprietor washing his dashing marigold-colored Lotus. He reached for my bag, immediately scoring points—I have been to too many upscale maisons d'hôte in France whose owners think their jobs are beneath them. I'd assumed we would speak French, but there was little point: Monsieur's English is better than the Duke of Edinburgh's.
Charlotte Anne—pale, thin, and from a very good family in Scotland—led the way up the 82-inch-wide stone spiral staircase to room No. 3, the château's best. The bed was a pretty half tester, the writing table placed before open casement windows with handblown panes. Prints of Revolutionary officers playing boules hung above gray wainscoting. An anteroom made me think I would be comfortable not just spending the night at Esparron, but living there.
The French tend to hold on to things, but even by national standards, Esparron has been in Bernard's family for a long time. The property has belonged to the de Castellanes almost contin-uously since the 13th century, when a crenellated tower pierced with arrow slits was built. The stone façades of later wings are chiseled with grapevines (signifying posterity) and oak leaves (power). And after a recent round of work, the 18th-century addition now has shutters again—copies of an original design regulate air and light with a panel that slides in front of a diamond-shaped cutout.