It’s just as well I'm a bit tiddly after our Côtes du Rhône wine-tasting session on the way to Les Sardines aux Yeux Bleus today, because – according to the newspaper headlines about Cern we spot in Uzès while foraging in its famous food market – today is, potentially, the End of the World. We shove a few extra bottles of Lirac into our shopping basket (in case the case of Gigondas we already have in the car isn’t enough to quell our fears about Armageddon).
‘Bonjour! Bienvenue! Can we help you with your cases?’ Owners Olivier and Anna Karin greet us with outstretched arms from the threshold of their blue-shuttered, honeyed-stone house. ‘Which ones?’, we laugh, happily (or, in my case, a bit drunkly). 'Ha ha!' Hellos completed with a flurry of kisses, hugs and (from their daughter Clementine) bicycle donuts, we’re shown to our chamber in this charmingly petite maison d'hôtes in Languedoc-Roussillon.
The Blue Room has me cooing like a parent over a new baby the instant we're over its terracotta-tiled threshold. And it's not just the wine talking: I love this shabby-chic decor – the kind of elegant thrift shopping and clever repurposing of furniture and fabrics we’ve all had a go at (or fantasised about). Only, when you or I or Laurence Llewelen-Bowen attempt this look, it's like we've run amok at a boot fair covered in glue, collecting broken porcelain, unloved linen, wonky candlesticks and three-legged tables in our wake. Where my efforts to remodel a china saucer into a decorative lampstand feature ressemble a scrawny Blue Peter advent crown, Anna Karin’s dedication, imagination and naturally stylish touch have transformed all manner of objets trouvés and hand-me-down treasures into a beautifully relaxed French village house (with a good dash of her native Swedish calm for good measure).
I woudn't be surprised if you told me Anna Karin and Olivier had single-handedly kickstarted the make-do-and-mend movement themselves. Copper-piping taps, reclaimed creamware tiles, river stones for shower flooring and restored antique fireplaces meld to form a pretty rendition of the vintage French vernacular. This enterprising, modish couple (he’s a photographer; she’s a former model) have restored a ramshackle country hamlet variously dating from the 12th to the 18th centuries into a welcoming and private home. With a pool. And a lovely courtyard. More than anywhere else, this boutique B&B merits use of the well-worn phrase, ‘staying here is like staying in the house of a good friend’ – it doesn’t just feel like that; it is that.
Downstairs in the breakfast room, there's a small fridge for guests' use, where we stash our haul from Uzès market: goat’s cheeses, heritage tomatoes the size of Lennox Lewis’ fists, cornichons, pâté, butter, cured meats, salad leaves, rillettes… I could go on, but this is probably a bit like your deli shopping list, only you'll be paying about £107.49 more for yours than we did. And it won't be as fresh.
Another couple have spread their (remarkably similar) offering out across one end of the linen-covered, flower-dressed table, so we decide to join them for a candlelit picnic supper. Turns out they live about 10 minutes down the road from us in London, which rather takes the wind out of our 'smug tourist' sails. Small world, eh? An ever-decreasingly small world, if the Large Hadron Collider experiments at Cern described in today's paper go to plan (accelerate electrons towards one another at improbably high speed, wait – ooh, nine months – for them to collide, cower under physicist’s desk as they create antimatter and subsequently a black hole that sucks all life into it. Maybe).
There is a gratifying clap of thunder and bolt of lightening. (If you’ve ever read Asterix in French, you’ll know from the Soothsayer book how scary French thunder is: it goes Brou-ha-ha-haaa, which of course in English means, 'Stop making such a fuss dear, this will all blow over in a bit.') We crack open another bottle of soul-soothing red as the romantic sound of a late-summer storm becomes our background music for the evening.
Deeply refreshed after a blissful night’s sleep, we awake to a joyful ray of light streaking through the shutters and the jovial sound of the breakfast table being laid under the wrought-iron pergola in the courtyard garden. Anna Karin crunches tantalisingly back and forth across the gravel, bearing steaming jugs of coffee and tea, juice, home-made confitures, fresh croissants and bread, cheese, yoghurts, a delicious home-baked cake decorated with real flowers, and a platter of fruit. Sunbeams catch the steam of the coffee – it’s so idyllic. If this is what the end of the world looks like, I’m happy to ride it out here for a few more days…
At a loose end for the day, we're packed off by Olivier to see renowned annual photography exhibition Les Rencontres d'Arles, and he books us a table at L’Atelier de Jean-Luc Rabanel for lunch first. 'Would you like the 10-course or the 16-course menu?', asks the gorgeous Arlesian waitress. ‘Um, just the 10 to start off with, we can always order more if we’re still hungry.’ Ten mind-blowing, mouthwatering courses later and we can barely lift ourselves out of our seats, never mind navigate the amazing exhibition venue – a reworked SNCF train depot.
Back at base, we stay up with our hosts in the salon, cosily tucked in among the cats and the cushions, nursing our lovely wine and talking about life, the universe and everything. Olivier is very French, very philosophical and very good company. Unfortunately, this doesn’t turn out to be the early night we anticipated. But, hey: it's not the end of the world…