As we drove towards our destination through the rolling hills above the Côte d'Azur, down tiny tractor-filled country lanes, it was clear that this was to be a weekend for leaving city life far, far behind. Despite being a mere 15 minutes from Nice airport, we managed to get completely lost in the rural landscape; the countryside was so picturesque we were only too happy to take the scenic route. Eventually we found what we were looking for – a beautifully restored 300-year-old house, finished in Provence’s signature honey-coloured render. We were greeted at Toile Blanche by the charming Madame Nadine who, like the setting itself, had a calm and gentle air.
The lack of dedicated reception area promotes a relaxed, informal feel. This informality could be said to extend to our room, where Mrs Smith discovered a neat stack of someone else’s smalls in the wardrobe. When we asked if we were in the right room, Madame appeared surprised, and came up to remove the mystery lingerie. Though charmed by the huge bed and gloriously big bath, we wondered whether the lack of TV or minibar was an oversight by the hotel. We found a whimsical note explaining that the absence is quite deliberate in order to create proper downtime. It wasn’t until we sipped an early evening beer on the terrace that the penny dropped...
This isn’t a full-service hotel stuffed with hairdryers and staff poised to pick up your towels. Toile Blanche is a chambre d’hôte – one of those quintessentially French things that doesn’t quite translate into English. It’s a place to stay as a privileged guest in a family home, where hotel facilities and amenities are swapped for the chance to gain an insight into the Riviera way of life. The owners are generally busy getting on with their lives during the day, rather than tending to your each and every need, so consequently they appreciate an easy-going attitude from their guests. At the same time, they value any opportunity to get to know you and truly want you to feel at home.
Yet this is no ordinary home. The rustic house and lavender-filled garden contrast delightfully with a very modern interior. Polished concrete walls are mixed with bold colours, intriguing sculpture and striking artwork. Pristine linen tablecloths and white parasols flap gently in the breeze: this is cutting-edge style in an idyllic rural setting.
When we quizzed one of Nadine’s amiable sons about the vibrant art adorning the walls, it transpired that Leroy+Leroy are not only resident artists, but also his brothers, and Toile Blanche’s talented chefs. Their parents’ love of art has clearly rubbed off – even extending to their own contemporary gallery. Here is a family business par excellence: a private home in the South of France given over to culture, food and laidback living. Perfect for a Smith escape.
Just as the hotel isn’t really a hotel, the restaurant isn’t really a restaurant, but a table d’hôte, albeit a very sophisticated one. Each night in summer a set menu is offered for a very reasonable €40. Fresh local ingredients arrive each day in distinctly un-Sainsbury’s-like wooden trays, and are cooked to perfection with a sense of adventure and fun. We’d advised our hosts that we’re vegetarian, and to our delight found that this didn’t mean missing out – who knew veggie haute cuisine could exist in France? Our love of apricot-hued Provençal rosé was also catered for by a well-chosen wine list.
By the end of the night we agreed that it was one of the best meals we’d ever had on French soil. That is some compliment, and it explains why this restaurant was full of locals and should be booked in advance. (Dinner is only served for three summer months and should not be missed). As our fellow dinners indulged in an incredible array of cheeses, we sloped off to bed, pausing briefly to ask at what time breakfast was served. The answer was a refreshing ‘as late as you like’.
We put this to the test by moseying downstairs from a prolonged lie-in at 11h15 to find one table on the terrace still set for breakfast. We apologised for being the last guests to rise but Madame shrugged, smiling: ‘Someone has to be.’ Breakfast was a splendid mix of fresh fruit, cheeses and patisserie with coffee and just-squeezed orange juice. We were then left to our own devices, which meant sunbathing for Mrs Smith and a splash in the elegant pool for Mr. The tranquillity that dominates the local valley was broken only occasionally by Pico, the 25-year-old feathered member of the family. Mr Smith discovered a new talent for squawking and whistling, to Mrs Smith’s embarrassment. Pico, unembarrassed, responded accordingly.
We decided (a little reluctantly) to go out for dinner the next night, and having already spent the day wandering the ridiculously quaint St-Paul-de-Vence, we headed to Haut-de-Cagnes, an untouristy mediaeval bourg where we climbed the steep alleys followed by a legion of ponderous Basset hounds. In Place du Château we came across a bucolic French scene of a boules match, so we bagged a table at Le Jimmy's and spent the evening debating, over perfect pizza and rosé, whether we could afford a local pied-à-terre.
Toile Blanche has all the essential ingredients for a boutique weekend away. The hills, cobblestone villages, pretty terrace and wolf-whistling parrot made it all the more unforgettable. But what makes Toile Blanche special is the languid pace of French family life and the phenomenal food. This is a hotel (sorry – chambre d’hôte) that could persuade even the most ardent urbanite to adopt a healthy dose of sun-kissed slothfulness.