I have a new favourite hotel in the south of France. Well, it is not new at all; I think part of it has been there since the 12th century.
A very kind friend arranged for me to stay at the Château Saint-Martin overlooking Vence. I was in the south of France for a wedding, and having looked at the website, it seemed a nice enough place to rest my head.
I find that on the whole websites tend to overstate the case, but this is a rare instance of a place being much more impressive than its online presence. The Château is actually a castle, a Templar fortress from the 12th century, and it is perhaps the remains of these thick old walls that act as a heroic bastion against the contemporary orthodoxy that dictates hotels should resemble (A) a hard-core concept store in Tokyo, (B) an exhibitor’s booth at Art Basel, (C) a knowing, ironic pastiche of the set of a Baz Luhrmann film, or (D) an overly fashionable nightclub and down-with-the-kidz chillout zone.
Instead, it looks like hotels used to look: dignified – marble, antiques, tapestries, judicious accents of ormolu… that sort of thing… and an almost clairvoyant level of predictive service. The thought begins to form in your mind that you might fancy glancing at a newspaper and one appears at your elbow. The idea of a cooling drink suggests itself and at that very moment a young barman suggests that a special iced tea fragranced with lavender might be in order.
I suppose that the place is saved by its location inland. One can see the Mediterranean and there is a private beach should one want to use it, but frankly I am happy to take that fact on trust.
I remember Taki once reminiscing about how enjoyable and elegant the Riviera had been in the 1950s. Things have moved on a bit since the days of Aly Khan and Rubirosa. There is nothing intrinsically wrong (well, maybe there is a teensy-weensy bit) with oligarchs spraying each other with champagne if that is their preferred leisure activity, but it has made the Côte d’Azur a little different to the Tender is the Night days (if not too much of an oxymoron). Far better to retreat just a small way inland to sit under a parasol in the Château gardens, where the pelouse, as I believe the French call it, is so well looked after as to make the Centre Court of Wimbledon look like an untamed patch of rainforest. And when I am bored, there is a shop in the hotel that stocks, among other things, Bamford custom watches.
To my immense shame, I had never heard of the place, especially as it is a sibling of Le Bristol, a true Parisian palace hotel, and the Hotel du Cap – both oases of classic hotel keeping – but then I suppose that this discretion is to be applauded.
I was particularly reassured to see a few photographs of the Château taken by Slim Aarons, that Nadar of the good life, in the early 1970s, and it occurred to me that someone really ought to write the Slim Aarons guide to hotels, as Slim only stayed at the best places. Based upon my experiences at the Château Saint-Martin, I am quite happy to volunteer my services for this literary task.