This review is taken from our guidebook, Mr & Mrs Smith Hotel Collection: France.
Beeswax, honey and lavender scent the air, and a haughty, dark-haired beauty watches as we take
in our surroundings. It’s one of several portraits we spy of an aristocratic lady who must be Madame Gallici, the wife of Villa Gallici’s original owner. Little is known about the wealthy bourgeois couple who built this fine-looking house in the hills above Aix-en-Provence, but they’d surely have approved of the classical opulence that greets their 21st-century guests. As a stylish bourgeois type myself, though my west London estate is a little more modest (and I haven’t yet been captured in oils), I’m qualified, hopefully, to check this place out.
We enter by way of an alleyway attended by Italianate statues and dripping with roses, glimpsing Florentine gardens and detecting the melodious sound of a fountain. It’s dark, but far from gloomy – rather, the 18th-century mansion is enveloped in velvety Mediterranean night.
The detailed elegance of Villa Gallici’s decor, combined with its mini-grand scale, make it intimate and welcoming; the hotel ‘reception’ looks nothing like one, and the restaurant is more reminiscent of an elegant period sitting room, with fireplaces, upholstered armchairs and little sofas in alcoves. We find antique furniture and perfectly polished, centuries-old wooden floors, set off by scenic toile de Jouy wallpaper in sunny yellow and pink. The salon area opens onto a terrace adorned with classical statues of goddesses, who seem to look kindly upon the villa’s guests; below, a swimming pool is surrounded by blooming pink bay trees in terracotta pots.
Details that make us smile include big jars of home-made calissons, the local sweetmeats made with almonds and fruit paste, and armfuls of roses decorating almost every surface. Only the kind and discreet staff, smartly uniformed, remind us we aren’t, in fact, in a luxurious family home, but guests at a superb small hotel.
Before we enter the bedroom, ascending an airy staircase illuminated with tea lights, Mr Smith notices that the wall above the door is painted with a rural scene, all saucy shepherdesses frolicking in haystacks. And, indeed, the villa was originally built during the century that saw the French flowering of libertine love, when spirited conversation was offered as essential foreplay to more earthy pastimes. The bedroom itself, with its creamy Louis XV furniture, sky-painted ceiling and rich fabrics, is definitely liaison-worthy, with ample charms for entertaining jaded aesthetes.
We’re enfolded in boudoir-appropriate toile de Jouy, with libidinous cherubs decorating the canopy bed, the sofa and the heavy drapes that separate the bedroom proper from the little sitting room. From here, great big windows and French doors open onto our private balcony. As I run a bath in the marble bathroom, I can easily imagine dropping my white-lace bodice on the floor, before I step into the bathtub filled with asses’ milk – a beauty ritual popular historically popular among Provenc?al belles (they copied it off the Romans), who swore by it to soften their skin. Today, you can substitute
La Villa Gallici Provence savon de Marseilles, the traditional local soap made of olive oil, almond oil and lavender essence.
After a lazy night and an ample breakfast in bed, Mr Smith and I extract ourselves from Villa Gallici in order to explore charming, prosperous Aix, cultural capital of Provence. The post-impressionist Ce?zanne and prolific 20th-century composer Milhaud were both born here, and the opera festival is up there with Glyndebourne and Bayreuth. This is also a city of churches: mediaeval, Renaissance, big ones, small ones. Food comes a close second to culture, as demonstrated on Thursdays, when the market is held on Place de Verdun. Wonderful local products include tapenade (the savoury paste made with olives), anchoi?ade (ditto, made with anchovies), speciality vinegars, flavour-packed tomatoes and super-sized ceps.
Appetites duly whetted, when evening comes we’re treated to refined Provenc?al dining in the restaurant, back at Villa Gallici, where the white linen tablecloths are decked with fresh flowers and gleaming wineglasses, topped up by the charming waiters with rose?, then red and, finally, Beaumes de Venise dessert wine. We start with pumpkin veloute? with morels and quail’s egg, then I opt for magret of duck cooked in white truffle honey, while Mr Smith goes for John Dory with ricotta ravioli. It isn’t too indulgent, provided you keep off the bread, and share one thyme cre?me bru?le?e between you. On our second night, we dine in Aix at Mitch, a stylish and extremely good restaurant off Cour Mirabeau, the city’s main drag. Even though they’re already fully booked when we ring, Mitch himself arranges us a table in the mediaeval cellar, cheered by candlelight and the piano where he sometimes plays for guests at the end of the evening.
We’re not inclined to linger long away from Madame Gallici and the shepherdesses. Aix is attractive but we’d rather make the most of our private, comfortable hotel. It’s near enough to the centre to let you walk down in 10 minutes, but its seclusion from the busy streets sustains a gentle, rustic atmosphere behind the heavy iron gates. The languid, timelessly romantic feel of the place both slows our thoughts and makes our hearts beat a little faster; the sense of privacy is incredibly restful, so whatever we do and see when we leave the hotel, we know we can relax completely when we return. We’re none the wiser about Monsieur and Madame Gallici by the time we check out, but we do believe they were a pair of generous souls, for building their sensual, classical villa and sharing it with us present-day libertines.