We arrive in Saint-Emilion late evening, just in time to see shopkeepers closing doors on rows of gleaming ruby bottles. Stone roads meander away offering us more views to mellow buildings that reek of historical importance and the work of the great Dordogne valley in producing wines for kings and princes. Restaurants invite us to step out of the twilight into the promising glow inside, but anxious to start tasting, we hurry on to Le Relais de Franc Mayne.
As well as producing Grand Cru wines on the outskirts of the mediaeval town of Saint-Emilion, much to Mr Smith's and my delight, the Château Franc Mayne has also created a rich and opulent bed and breakfast. We’ve heard that from the reception area of this elegant limestone house you can look down through huge glass windows and admire the gleaming stainless-steel vats below. Aphrodisiac indeed for our Smith escape.
The appropriately named Angèle had called us earlier to warn us that if we arrived after 8pm, we’d have to let ourselves in. At the top of the drive we punch in the digits she’s sweetly given us, the barrier flashes up and we sweep up in front of the house. Beautifully lit, this 16th-century property is typical of the region – a pale stone residence in miniature, with cooling stones and water features everywhere. Ensconced in seven acres of rolling green vineyards, Le Relais de Franc Mayne has been built in classic Girondine style – an imposing building in smooth grey stone with a whiff of the mediaeval about it. We find the front door, tap in the codes again, and creep in.
There is a great hush in the house, belied by an exuberant decor. We’ve heard each bedroom is different, with some rooms, such as the spacious Campagne Française evoking quiet rustic comforts, while others tend towards the endearingly eccentric – for instance, the hot pink motifs of British Landscape, or the zebra print and elephant portraits of safari-themed African Lodge. After a little wander around, we find our boudoir – the Asian Mood room.
Discovering a bath that fills like a whirlpool, I can barely recall the segue between post-drive soak and slumber, but being swaddled in thick bath towels definitely featured. And I certainly can’t remember the last time I slept so long and so soundly. In search of breakfast, we tiptoe downstairs and pass through the salon with the dining chairs hanging upside down on the wall, past the pot-bellied cabinet dipped in gold paint, and out into the sunshine on the paved terrace. We eat a very late, very calm breakfast, listening to the water falling into the natural pool and admiring the antics of a young red squirrel.
There seems to be no one else around; at first this is disconcerting, like a boutique guesthouse version of the Mary Celeste, but we soon savour the tranquillity. If we did want something, we could go and find someone who’d no doubt be delighted to rustle up whatever it is. I take this opportunity to mention to someone that I think we’ve been sleeping on a mattress cover. They assure me that it is definitely a bed sheet, but if I desire a different style they’ll happily supply it. And they even keep their mirth at my linen query hidden – well, until they close the door.
Reception has until now alluded us. When we finally find the operating heart of the place we discover all the staff are young, attractive, extremely friendly, and when it comes to grapes, they know their onions. Indeed the hotel’s nine bedrooms share space with all the trappings of oenology: an eye-catching renovated vat room where guests can learn about wine-making from the château’s expert vintners, as well as taste some of Franc Mayne’s finest vintages, and the underground caverns where barrel upon barrel of the lush liquid is stored. These very caverns provided the area with its beautiful and distinctive creamy stone, an extraordinary achievement that now provides perfect cellars for wine. We sign up for the official tour of the Franc Mayne vineyard, choosing the French version to stretch our linguistic skills. The vast limestone cellars are incredible, cool and aged and so vast they have to be seen to be believed.
Afternoon approaches and we keep the viticulture alive with a walk through the vineyards into St-Emilion for lunch at Bistrot le Clocher. With a town dedicated to wine and gastronomy right on its doorstep, Le Relais does not try to compete. Though you can order salads or a simple three-course dinner on the terrace, most foodies are out and about wine tasting and feasting nearby. We could spend ages exploring the town, but it is difficult to feel any sense of urgency, or accelerate beyond a gentle amble. I wander through a door in the back of the tourist office and find myself in a mediaeval cloister. Passing through that, I am in the aisle of a beautiful stone church. Created by religion, built up on wine, Aquitaine offers a lot to look at and learn about.
Eventually Le Relais lures us back for an afternoon swim in the natural pool. Floating here in the cool, chlorine-free water, I reflect on how wonderful the French way of life is: the pace is slower, lunch is as important as oxygen, and of course, there are all those fabulous wines on tap. Right now, surrounded by the vineyard views that surround the Relais Franc Mayne, the world could not look more perfect.