With a song in my heart, I met Mrs Smith at the airport and off we soared to Marseille. In my pocket were five lines of spider-scrawl directions I’d taken down on the phone to the hotel that early and bleary morning. The weather was spectacular, so at the airport we coughed up the extra few euros and upgraded from a rental car that looked like it should have been reserved for Noddy and Big Ears to a sporty convertible Mégane.
Now, be warned: Oustau de Baumanière is hidden away in an obscure part of southwest Provence. It’s a good hour’s drive from Marseille if you know where you’re going, and an infinite puzzle if you don’t. So, lost and tetchy, somewhere between Nice and Barcelona, we bought a map (‘la carte’ en Français – something I discovered it was worth knowing).
Having thrown away my smudged scribblings and given Mrs Smith a speed lesson in navigating, I made steady progress towards l’Oustau de Baumanière. When you peel off the highway, the world changes. The drive takes you between Salon and Arles, and every town looks like it’s out of one of the Stella Artois idents that pop up during films on Channel 4. We resisted the temptation to join in a communal summer party at a village along the way, and continued towards our destination, the hot, moist air making a giant herbal humidor of olive, garlic and rosemary. We wound our way up a small mountain, crossing the castle ruins of Château des Baux. Rolling down to our final target was like descending into Shangri-La, but without those annoying singing children.
I find carparks give a fair indication of a hotel’s calibre, and Oustau de Baumanière’s screamed ‘understated’ and ‘high-end’. The pristine gravel path crunched beneath our tyres as we slid in between our car’s rich relations. There is a huge emblem projected onto the rocks above Baumanière that looks Egyptian or Masonic. The light flattered the exquisite architecture of this 30-roomed hotel and the majestic cliffs behind. It might just as well have read ‘class’.
A garçon appeared from nowhere, welcoming us by name. This exquisite cordiality continued into the tiny high-polished hardwood and limestone check-in, and as we travelled in the crocodile-skin lift up the single floor to our bedroom. Our room looked just superb: gave us a warm glow that lingered for days. Spacious, lofty and slightly asymmetrical, it matched 17th-century origins with modern-day surround-sound extras. The creative lighting design supplied switches ready to match any mood.
Handmade wood-block furniture and a ten-foot satin chaise longue were pure design-museum pieces. The dull stuff (minibar, safe) was hidden behind a false wall. French doors opened out on to a view of the verdant grounds, then olive groves and vineyards. The bathroom held its own, too. I spent a foolish few seconds pressing a jade pebble on the wall in an effort to turn the lights on, only to discover that the walls were embossed with seashells and stones. The bath was bigger than the car we nearly hired.
A patio in front, protected from any light drizzle by a canopy of fig trees, is where Baumanière guests eat some of the best food in France. A glance at the prices might shave the edges off your appetite: we opted for just the one course, while I kept an eye on everything served around me as it either burst into flames or was cut from its bone with the hiss of Sabatier. The wine list arrived, the size of a pantomime fairy-tale book, and after struggling like a nine-year-old with the Sunday papers, I let our waiter select something with the decimal point nearer the front end of the price. The chef meekly approached us and asked our opinion; I told him it was excellent and with reassured strides he bowled back to a hot kitchen. We ended on a shared crêpe Suzette and some crystallised local fruits, and retired to bed trying to pretend this was the sort of place we come to all the time.
The next day we took a little sun in the small but beautiful grounds and a dip in the icy-cold Twenties pool, then walked up to the castle carved into the mountain. The Château des Baux is touristy without being tacky; the ancient alleyways are lined with shops full of local products, and the bars and cafés are cheap and friendly. A steep walk up to the remains of the fortifications rewarded us with a wondrous view; I wondered whether it was that great artists were drawn here or if reasonable artists were just blessed with great things to paint. Down the hill, on the way back to the hotel, we came across Cathédrale d’Images, a huge cave that hosts sound-and-light shows, with locally inspired masterpieces projected onto its walls.
As our farewell to this fine land, we took the car on a burn around some of the local towns; then, after getting utterly lost for a final time, we headed back for a few nightcaps at the hotel. Now I can safely say I know exactly where in the South of France Oustau de Baumanière is. It’s en Provence, in the village of Exquisite, near Perfection, just above Timeless, in the state of Class.