We’re definitely coming back,’ I said to Mr Smith as we parked the hire car and walked, just after midnight, into the white, pebbled, candlelit courtyard of Château les Merles. A long table of late diners were finishing off their puddings underneath the stars. ‘Hang on – we haven’t even checked in yet,’ he pointed out, as we sat down in a pair of white-upholstered Philippe Starck chairs and were immediately brought welcoming glasses of champagne and a plate of canapés. (These included specialities of the Dordogne region: we pounced on foie gras, tomato tartlets and some deliciously crisp radishes and endive.) Within seconds, the cares of the day, the plane delays and the car-hire queue were distant memories.
The air, which was scented with the lavender and thyme that border the courtyard, further aided our relaxation. The 17th-century château was breathtaking in the crescent moonlight. After checking in, without actually having to get up from our table, we were shown to our suite. It was decorated in a style I am christening ‘convent de luxe’: dark wood, antiques, lots of white upholstery, crisp snowy linens and huge windows everywhere. ‘Who’s hidden the nuns?’ I asked. But any concealed nuns were sybarites, too: black satin slippers lay next to our bed in special boxes, and a silver bowl of berries from the château’s organic garden was waiting for us. There were two parallel white sofas in the little sitting room, and a dark-velvet chaise longue for stretching out and reading and chatting on, side by side. In the gleaming black and white bathroom we found a similar blend of monochrome luxury and simplicity.
Even if our beds were of that silly Siamese-twin configuration (locked together but made up separately), it wasn’t the end of the world, as they were extremely comfortable and welcoming, and we couldn’t have had a more delightful awakening in the morning. Manic birdsong roused us and I pulled back the shutters to reveal the hotel’s swimming pool sitting picturesquely in the lush gardens. Fear of missing breakfast (as well as general lethargy) prevented us from taking a quick dip there and then and, instead, we returned to the courtyard restaurant to sample the château’s morning delights.
A table inside was spread with organic garden fruits, home-made bread, viennoiserie, a variety of cheeses and hams and other local delectables. I’ve never eaten a dish of freshly picked blackcurrants for breakfast before but I can recommend it. We sat for ages eking out the meal with supplementary cappuccinos and extra croissants, basking in our new setting. As we sat, we observed a few other guests in tailored shorts lugging huge golf caddies across the courtyard on their way to the morning’s round, and felt intense relief that we had no such taxing agenda ahead of us.
As breakfast drew to a close, our thoughts turned naturally to lunch, so we got into the car and drove to the local town of Bergerac, about ten minutes away. We wandered round the narrow streets of the old town, buying hats, looking at antiques and hunting slightly obsessively for some pink and gold dessert plates while dodging statues of Cyrano, the town’s most famous romantic hero and, along with goose liver, the region’s most celebrated export.
Lunch, at the hotel’s recommendation, was at the excellent (and modestly named) L’Imparfait in a quiet back street, where we feasted in a shady courtyard on sea bream and lamb shanks. They were both exceptional. After some light shopping (more local wine, foie gras, some candlesticks), we made our way back to the hotel and stretched out on the sunloungers, coming to every now and then to summon some drinks via the phone, which was conveniently situated right by the pool.
I couldn’t imagine any possible improvement on the scene, but Mr Smith, post-swim, was nursing a very understandable complaint. He wistfully mentioned to staff that he was going to miss an important football game. A huge projector screen was instantly rigged up in an empty upstairs ballroom, and cold beers (and kir royales for me) were delivered to us throughout the match. So much more civilised than our local, we observed, looking up at the chandeliers.
Evening came, and all the corridors became crowded with small girls in tutus. The local ballet academy, it transpired, was putting on its end-of-term gala at the hotel. We watched from a nearby bench, drinks in hands, as the tinies performed before us, overseen by their stern Mamzelle in black leggings. Then we dined in the courtyard restaurant where a special buffet had been prepared. The local wine and produce were just delicious, and I felt so happy I genuinely contemplated joining the dancers for their Swan Lake finale. Mr Smith, however, kept a firm hold of my elbow, distracting me with spoonfuls of chocolate mousse and raspberry sorbet, until the dangerous moment had passed.