A Fortnight in Provence, Part II

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In the second part of the Larmans’ tour of Provence, Nancy writes about the region that was Cezanne’s muse and they find an Italian influence to their comforts…

It speaks volumes that Paul Cezanne could never quite extricate himself from his birthplace at Aix-en-Provence. Although the post-Impressionist had dutifully (and fruitfully, it must be added) fulfilled his rite-of-passage amongst the chattering classes, the thinkers and the radicals in Paris (his childhood friend Emile Zola had strongly urged the move from the bucolic to the big city), Aix exerted an inexorable and constant pull, the Mont Sainte-Victoire his most constant muse.

The town itself radiates civility. From the dappled shade form the avenue of trees on the Cours Mirabeau, Aix’s main artery, to the convivial small piazzas where friends eat and drink al fresco on balmy evenings, it is a place that exudes unhurried charm. But few places even amidst this picturesque idyll are less hurried and more charming than the Villa Gallici, just outside the main town and set high up on a hill.

One hundred year old plane and cypress trees dot the small but perfectly-formed grounds to this honey-coloured villa, a Francophile’s dream, with Italian accents (the hotel is part of the ever-excellent Baglioni group, which hails from neighbouring and culturally simpatico Italy). The service is more than just slick; from the moment of arrival, the staff is so warm as they whip away your luggage and immediately replace it with a refreshing drink that we were ushered to our room grinning like happy idiots and delighted to have found such a nice circle of new friends within seconds. En route to our quarters, we’re waved at by the maitre’d, who convinces us that he genuinely can’t wait for us to come back in a few moments for lunch, and are greeted by the breakfast manager, who has been serving up cappuccino on the terrace since the Villa Gallici first opened its doors to guests.

Villa Gallici Provence exterior

But we don’t dither, because we have the feeling that something spectacular may just lie on the other side of our bedroom door. And lo, as we turn the handle, little irrepressible squeals of delight escape our lips, as we clock the vast and beautifully candle lit room; the bed is surely made for giants (it could legitimately have its own postcode), the bathroom is the stuff luxury dreams are made of… and then there’s a conservatory (larger than many hotel suites we’ve known) and the terrace. Yes, a whole sun terrace that is completely secluded, allowing us to flop our sun-deprived white bodies under the rays without the horror of having to bear virgin white legs in public.

But we resist momentarily, for there is lunch to be had. And what a lunch. Once we’ve sunk our (still pallid) bodies into two impossibly comfortable armchairs, a friendly waiter brings over a little amuse bouche of cherry tomatoes and parmesan, the superiority of the ingredients proving that simplicity will always win out over fussy foams; it is sublime. A starter of salmon with raspberries is astonishing and quite unlike anything I’ve eaten before, while mains of squid ink risotto and succulent lamb have us whimpering with delight.

The next day, we take a very long breakfast on the terrace followed by an even more drawn out swim in the heated pool, emboldened as we are by a few hours of sunshine the previous day on the terrace. We draw everything out partly because it is that sort of languid slow-motion place, and partly because we are in denial about leaving. This is the kind of spot where, to quote Holly Golightly, nothing bad could ever happen to you. Except for having to eventually depart. If only Cezanne has painted it so that we could at least have gawped at its likeness once we are home.

Provence Mont Sainte Victoire

We are, happily, comforted by one thing. Goodbye Villa Gallici does not yet mean au revoir to Aix, for we have two nights booked in at Le Pigonnet, a five star hotel just a few minutes’ walk from central Aix but a world away in terms of its total tranquillity. And our old favourite Cezanne clearly knew a good thing when he saw it; he too visited the property, and it was from here that he painted his muse, the mountain on more than one occasion. Which should give some indication of the exquisite vantage point that this secluded little retreat enjoys – and it’s not been lost on the great and the good either; Princess Caroline, Clint Eastwood and Iggy Pop are rank among all former guests, while Highlander himself, Christopher Lambert is one of the co-owners. While we are there, the marketing folk are busy prepping the hotel for a big press junket for the launch of a book – we never quite work out who the A-list French celebrity author is, but one thing’s for sure; when the A-list come to Provence, Le Pigonnet is the first place on their radar.

And it’s easy to see why, particularly in the recently restored rooms, some of which have terraces overlooking the gardens. Each suite is slightly different, some with Art Deco overtones, others more traditional, and others still slick in their contemporary feel.

Provence Hotel Le Pigonnet rose garden

But the main draw here is the garden, which offers the most perfectly manicured oasis just about anywhere, ever. Secluded areas with kissing seats give way to impossibly beautiful archways, which makes it small wonder that Le Pigonnet is a popular choice for weddings from all over the world. Our only regret is not being able to dip in the beautiful pool due to the unseasonably cool weather (darn those famous Mistral winds).

If we were to have a criticism, it would be that the breakfast operation could be slicker (we went coffee-less both days as the staff seemed not to notice us) but it is a small gripe.

In all, the trip was enough to make us reach for the brushes, Cezanne style (apologies to family and friends who may have to act pleased at ‘home made’ Christmas presents this year). In the words of Aix’s most famous son, “The truth is in nature, and I shall prove it.”

Well, it is when you live in Aix-en-Provence.

For more information about Hotel Le Pigonnet in Aix-en-Provence, including details of offers and a thoroughly tempting photo gallery, visit www.hotelpigonnet.com.

For more information about Villa Gallici, including details of scenic tours and a videos of the hotel, visit www.villagallici.com.

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