There’s a bar on a street corner in Uzès – a pretty market town in the south of France, equidistant to Nimes and Avignon – where if you buy a drink, you’re free to tuck into your own food. Directly opposite, there’s a conveniently-placed shellfish stall, where you can order a platter of freshly shucked oysters, and have them brought over to you. There’s no obvious business connection between the two: the bar doesn’t serve food; they do.
It’s a rare sight for this British tourist. If I attempted to get a sandwich out of my handbag in a bar over here, I’d be reprimanded. Or at the very least, scowled at. As we waited for our dozen to be delivered, a family of seven took over a table next to us, ordered a round of Cokes and unpacked various packages: olives, bread, tapenade, cold meats; the full picnic works, plucked from the Saturday farmers’ market on the Places aux Herbes. It felt like we’d arrived, metaphorically speaking, and one of many times over the weekend, when Adam and I discussed upping sticks and relocating to this rose-tinted alternative lifestyle.
If it wasn’t for the local who told us about it, we wouldn’t have stopped at the bar, or known about the brilliant shellfish arrangement. We may not have joined the queue entering the ‘best bakery in Uzès’ for fougasse either, or known about the 360 degree views at the top of the tower in Le Jardin Médiéval, and we certainly wouldn’t have found the prime place to park in town, with such ease.
The insider in question is Gauthier. As well as being the co-owner of La Maison d’Ulysse, where we were staying that weekend, he has a natural knack for recommending excellent things to see and do, and an enthusiasm for sharing this with guests. It’s led to the creation of Gauthier’s Guides, a series of mapped walks and bike rides of various lengths and terrains starting and finishing at the hotel in Baron, a sleepy village a 15-minute drive from Uzès and under an hour from Nimes and Avignon airport and train station.
La Maison d’Ulysse is boutique hotel passion project for Gauthier and his partner Guy, who brought it back from a dilapidated state and transformed it into the beauty that it is today, through a careful restoration retaining as much of the original structure and materials as possible. They are friendly and funny, generous with their time and knowledge, and relaxed and down to earth. It feels very much like you’re a guest in their home, rather than a hotel resident.
Gauthier, with a short stint at cookery school under his belt, also makes a mean crepe and homemade jams from fruit trees in the garden. The main cooking is in the hands of talented, Paris-trained duo Valerie and Daniel, who meld French culinary precision with Asian and Caribbean elements to exciting and delicious effect – think julienne radish with a mirin and sesame seed dressing; miso-marinated chicken with parsnip puree; celeriac soup scattered with hazelnuts; chocolate mousse with rum banana and salted caramel.
It’s hard to articulate what it is that makes this hotel so come back to-able. The 16th century property is draped in a purple rain of wisteria when we visit, and surrounded by wildflower, herb and vegetable gardens in a scene that epitomises French country house chic. Inside, a mix of bare and lime plaster walls, antique, mid-century and modern furniture, and pops of bright colour, are straight from the pages of a glossy interior design magazine. There’s nothing try hard about this set-up, though it’s clear Guy and Gauthier have put a lot of thought and work into getting it to such an impeccable place.
Prior to being a hotel, it was a family home – a discreet mausoleum in the garden houses some of the former residents – and many years before that, it was a silk farm; the leaves from the mulberry trees dotted about the gardens, keeping the silkworms plump and producing the raw material that was sent to ‘City of Silk’ Lyon.
The nine guest rooms and suites (ranging from 30m2 to 65m2) are all individual in layout and decor, with original features, mixed with clever contemporary design to cosy effect. We stayed in Petit Prince, which just so happens to be my grandmother’s favourite book, and felt like a good omen at the start of our stay. It’s the only one with a kitchen-diner-lounge, complete with Smeg fridge and coffee machine, and has an eclectic, jolly mix of décor: blue 60s floral sofa, buttercup yellow dining chairs, gold pendant light fittings, exposed beams, and a large ornate gilded mirror with cherub detail. It has the added bonus of a rooftop patio made for drinking Provençal rose at sunset, with views over Baron’s rooftops and countryside.
There’s also Fleur Dumas, named after the youngest daughter of Ulysse Dumas, the former owner and from whom the hotel takes its name. This suite has a vintage feel with a free-standing bath, stood upon the original patterned cement floor tiles. Belle du Seigneur, after the Albert Cohen novel, mixes 15th century features with punchy orange modern Belgian light fittings. The standout touch in the Odysse suite is the huge bath and glass walk-through shower, which sit a few steps from the foot of the King-size bed. The six-metre-high beamed ceiling, exposed stone wall and eleven small square windows lend an immediate wow factor to Écume des Jours, while underfloor heating and luxurious furnishing keep it warm during chilly season. And so on.
There’s a vaulted Turkish hammam so private we were allowed to lock the door and enjoy it alone, sans swimwear, and so steamy we couldn’t even see our hands in front of our face. Outside, you’ll find a 14-metre, outdoor, heated pool; a tree-sheltered boules pitch, and on the first floor, a lounge to, well, lounge in. Practically on their doorstop, there are vineyards to walk through, wine to taste, and goat cheese so local we were introduced to the flock responsible for the ones we ate during our stay, while on a bike ride with Gauthier.
Each morning Adam and I woke up and commented on how fresh, clear-headed and awake we’d felt in long time. Gone was the tired, puffy face that usually blinks back at me in the mirror; in place, a wide-eyed, joie de vivre. Perhaps it was the perfectly cool room, the comfortable bed, and darkness from the wooden window shutters. Or, the fresh air and exercise from the 8km walk we navigated on the first afternoon (following Gauthier’s guide no.3: ‘Les Hameaux de Baron); one that took us through vineyards, to the hilltop ruins of Baron castle, past old wells and hamlets, tractors working the land, and a recently restored lavoir which once would have been the communal al fresco laundrette.
Maybe, the 30km, multi-terrain, cycle ride we joined Gauthier on day two (No.5: Villages et Vignobles de L’Uzége), had something to do with it, and the excellent organic wines we tasted on a visit to the Domaine de Cressance winery straight after (do try and arrange a visit here). It could’ve been the breakfast buffet feast we enjoyed each morning, and the three-course dinners we tucked into each eve. Most likely, it was the perfectly-balanced combination of it all.
It’s rare you find a hotel that covers all bases so brilliantly; one that has you planning your return before you’ve even left. This one does it with aplomb. Farewell for now La Maison d’Ulysse, mon ami, see you in September!
Rates at La Maison d’Ulysse start from £182 per room per night based on two people sharing on a B&B basis. Visit www.lamaisondulysee.com for all offers and reservations or call the hotel on + 33 4 66 81 38 41.