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Sage greens, drifts of lavender and cypress trees corseted in string. This is the Provençal aesthetic that French hotelier Jocelyne Sibuet nailed in 2000 with La Bastide de Marie, her retreat in fashionable Lubéron.
At Sibuet’s newest hotel, the Domaine de la Baume, which opened in July near the village of Tourtour, her acolytes are gathering. Every guest I ask has previously stayed at La Bastide (one couple 20 times). When they heard Sibuet was opening another Provence hotel, they wanted to be first in.
Thus the surprise, mine and theirs, of finding an eight-room maison d’hôte of a different order. The food has the consistent Sibuet finesse, with the chef (trained by the celebrated Marc Veyrat) displaying a lightness of touch in dishes ranging from roast pigeon to sea bream and fennel.
However, there is also a more rustic texture at the new hotel. I’m woken up by the squeals of wild boar (digging up the lavender). At night the same animals churn the grass around the pool. The terrace’s festoon lighting is more gypsy than studied French chic and the paths are only just good enough for a golf buggy (I hope the terrain will win; the buggy strikes a discordant note). When I run through the Domaine’s 99 acres I find my way occasionally blocked by scrub. Then there’s the massage. Sibuet’s Pure Altitude spa at La Bastide commands a formidable following. At Domaine de la Baume, there’s just a single therapist working out of a simple wooden hut beside a tall waterfall shadowed with bamboo.
This is a less manicured vision of Provence, where the horses, available to ride, roam a wild flower-covered paddock next to the pool, where the ivy devours every third tennis ball on the Domaine’s cracked red court. I’m reminded of the lost world of Alain-Fournier’s Les Grandes Meaulnes. The grounds include a dovecote, littered with the feathers of departed birds owned by the expressionist painter Bernard Buffet, who lived at the Domaine from 1986 to 1999.
“He used to call the chicken house his castle,” says Mariannick Bellanger, the hotel’s hostess, of its previous incumbent.
The artist’s late wife, Annabel, wrote in a 1998 exhibition catalogue that, “Bernard, an extremely sensitive man, seems in this exceptional place to have found a place of refuge. He can reconnect with his passion for painting, his liking for a quiet life.” Flicking through a book of Buffet’s paintings, I recognise the same commanding, balconied façade of the ochre-coloured house, which dates from the 18th century. The view, over the oak-speckled Massif des Maures, reaches towards the coast. Another painting depicts a bedroom (my favourite in the hotel), with two chairs and a chaise longue in front of the bed and an iron-railed, half-moon terrace. And there’s a painting of the pool house cradled by cypress trees; this, Sibuet hasn’t changed at all, other than adding orange-red loungers. It remains the heart of the Domaine, as chic as a Slim Aarons photograph.
But lest I should think Sibuet simply moved in – that this is some kind of Mary Celeste, now open for business – I learn how the garden was overgrown and the main house needed gutting (a French owner after Buffet turned the artist’s studio into a pilates gym). Sibuet removed heavy art deco motifs, including fireplaces, in favour of 18th-century-style oak floors and bold floral fabrics. Now the strong colours are more yellow and cinnamon than the ubiquitous Provençal sage, and while there are moments I think Sibuet has gone too far (the heavy red of one bedroom, named Rita, is an example), this is a subjective quibble. The interior style is undeniably romantic: a mish-mash of murals, antiques, lithographs and botanical prints, which Sibuet picked up at dealer markets in Avignon, Montpellier and Béziers.
That the Domaine should have such an atmosphere may not last for ever. I discover local planning is still required to meet Sibuet’s much larger ambitions for a 23-room hotel with a full-service spa. I am conflicted: I half hope for it to stay just as it is, even if I’m under no illusion that a wild aesthetic, which Sibuet intends to carry through, takes as much artifice as a formal French parterre. What I am convinced by is how Sibuet has overcome the tragedy of the house. In 1999, Buffet could no longer paint because of Parkinson’s disease. He put a plastic bag over his head, tied it around his neck and suffocated. I don’t dare ask which room but nor does it matter. This place has already transported me to the dream world that’s hard to find in an industry where too often, luxury throttles soul.
Sophy Roberts was a guest of Domaine de la Baume (www.domaine-delabaume.com). Doubles cost from €440 per night, half-board