This review is taken from our guidebook, Mr & Mrs Smith Hotel Collection: France.
My husband is a strong contender for ‘Most Stereotypical Parisian of the Year’. He can’t stand the countryside, he detests the South of France, and he’d rather spend a week trapped in a lift than amble around the villages of Provence. There’s no tribal-regional-football reason behind this; he doesn’t even like soccer. No, he just claims that, the minute you leave the capital, the heat is oppressive, the local markets are absurd, and the houses look rather on the old side. He’s a bit of a one, my husband. So it is with a certain sadistic joy that I ask him to accompany me to La Maison sur la Sorgue, a ravishing hôtel particulier located in one of the most attractive market towns in the South of France, L’Isle-sur-la-Sorgue.
We’re in the heart of things, which isn’t at all a bad place to seek relaxation and romance. The town square and its baroque church are virtually on our doorstep so, when the mood takes us, we can nip out to sit on a sunny café terrace with a coffee and Le Monde. And, let’s face it: for out-and-out urbanites, it’s vital to be somewhere; in France, the middle of nowhere means just that.
We’re no more than a 25-minute drive from Avignon TGV station, itself two and a half hours from Paris, but we’re deep in prime husband-riling holiday territory, a part of France where grapes, olives and lavender are cash crops, and second-homers are a fact of life for locals. And here’s this pretty little island, where the pace is slow and the air is warm, with plane trees doing an admirable job of providing shade when the heat gets a bit much.
This charismatic region, to the east of the river Rhône and the papal city of Avignon, is still sometimes known by its historic name of Comtat Venaissin, and L’Isle-sur-la-Sorgue has been called its Venice. The town was built on piles driven into marshland during the 12th century, and it is criss-crossed by canals. Venice it ain’t, before your expectations mushroom, but it is lovely, its streets charmingly skew-whiff and its stone-built houses solid and attractive. The River Sorgue meanders lazily here and there, going underground and re-emerging, and turning massive, mossy waterwheels as it flows.
It’s not easy pulling off a truly excellent maison d’hôte – guests should feel perfectly at home, but it must offer a degree of elegance that puts their own abode just slightly in the shade. The achievement of La Maison sur la Sorgue’s proprietors, Frédéric and Marie-Claude, is remarkable. They took on the property in 2002 and opened house in 2006, after extensive works. There are just four suites, each vast and subtle in style. I’m not keen on over-complicated, artificial deco or low-lit loungey retro, so I’m in the right hotel. In terms of interiors, fashion, design, I crave simplicity, originality, integrity and craftsmanship – the values Frédéric and Marie-Claude seem to have written into their design credo.
Via the magnificent, heavy wooden door, you enter a splendid residence, whose white stone walls act like gallery space for a collection of finds from all over Asia: dark-wood furniture, decorative chests, Buddhas. It’s beautifully and unpretentiously put together. Through the picture windows, we make out the courtyard, shaded by a great plane tree, with laurels, pots of aromatic herbs, a teak swimming pool and an artful smattering of wrought-iron garden furniture. Back in the luminous kitchen/dining room, on a big tiled worktop near the enviable black Lacanche stove, stands an immense platter of hazelnuts and walnuts and – twinkling at us by way of greeting – two glasses of Côtes du Rhône. My husband abandons his wariness of the warm south and lets the hospitable welcome melt away his Parisian tension.
Our room, Chambre à la Loggia, has theatrical red walls, sisal-type flooring, a superbly big bed and, instead of a TV, shelves of Murakami novels; we also find a music system in a little carved-wood wardrobe, not to mention CDs by Pink Floyd and their psychedelic ilk (did I mention that my husband is a card-carrying old hippie?). The suite opens onto a terrace decked out with sofas and an inviting day-bed; we’re delighted by so many opportunities to take things lying down. In the morning, it’s Fr´´déric who mans the stove, serving us a fine breakfast – fresh melon and strawberries, scrambled eggs, home-made pannacotta – on refined white porcelain. He was a Parisian in a former life, until he joined his wife, a Vaucluse native, to breathe contemporary chic into Isle’s accommodation offering. They’ve even rethought the old épicerie that belongs to La Maison sur la Sorgue, piling it with an ever-changing stock of statues from Thailand, hand-blown glass lamps and other objets trouvées and trinkets. Retour de Voyage is not your usual hotel boutique.
As far as the rest of the local shops go, L’Isle just happens to be the third most important world hub for vintage furniture and brocante finds, with treasures from every era, including the old-hippie years of the Sixties and Seventies. There are 12 permanent markets and 40 boutiques, and up to 300 dealers crowding in at weekends. We aren’t in materialistic mood, so we take a drive out to Velleron, a village known for its farmer’s markets; and further on to Gordes, a perched settlement with protected status. To avoid the tapenade shops and save our ankles from mediaeval cobbles, we repair immediately to a locals’ café with three outdoor tables. Here, we look up at the sky and down at the Luberon valley, and surrender to wine, foie gras and the inimitable pleasures of French country living. Back at La Maison sur la Sorgue, we sprawl on our terrace, warmed by the sun, the wine, the freedom. And – can it really be? – my husband’s eyes seem a little mournful as he checks the Avignon–Paris return tickets are in order for the morning.