‘Prendre la première sortie à droite’ – an innocuous request, reasonable even, to an average French driver. However, as we hurtled towards the roundabout in our spanking new hire car with flashbacks of an errant youth and all those skipped French lessons, to us it might as well have been an instruction from Houston to fire the retro-boosters on Apollo 11. Somehow we reached our destination, La Maison d’Ulysse, in the tiny hamlet of Baron, with the aid of a good old-fashioned map (who needs Sat Nav?) and the dramas of the last hour soon dissolved as the effervescent (English-speaking!) hotel manager Claire furnished us with two glasses of a fine local wine.
The arrival at a hotel for the first time is always filled with anticipation. In this case it was relief at first sight. The building’s rustic stone structure surrounded by a wild garden with old benches from the Gare Saint Charles railway station in Marseille was perfect under the blue Languedoc skies. Even Mr Smith looked impressed.
A few glasses later, balance had been restored. Claire showed us our room, which was accessed via a narrow external stone staircase and a little terrace overlooking the gardens. I surveyed our home for the next three nights, a large light-flooded room with cream-felt curtains embroidered letters (we later discovered that they were from the French Navy) designer furniture (including a neon-green wardrobe) twin Vitra basins and what came to be know as the ‘disco shower’, a black-and-bronze-mosaic shower with backlit water and nice local shampoos and body wash.
Soon we got down to the serious business of food. Claire reeled off a list of options and a reservation at a local restaurant was secured. Claire then left us to relax. Owners, Guy and Gauthier arrived in time to see us off for supper, but not before showing us around the house. La Maison d’Ulysse is a beautifully converted 17th-century former silkworm factory (how exotic) and it bears the name of a former resident, the archaeologist and poet Ulysse Damus. We saw the small hammam (they can arrange for a masseur), a library on first floor with a real fire, and a breakfast room with a terrace, which is used on sunny days. They also showed us a few of the other accommodation options, all of which were lovely, especially the apartment Petit Prince complete with a small kitchen and terrace overlooking the gardens with its bushes of scented lavender, oak, olive, fig and mulberry trees (the leaves from which were once used for feeding the silk worms) and breath-taking views of the surrounding vineyards.
Our first foray out to experience the local cuisine, was to Table d’ Julian, a splendid, much sought-after bistro tucked away in a nearby village of Saint-Maximin. Dining alfresco was a first for this year, and the pan con tomate and jamon Serrano followed by fish in lemon sauce was fantastic. A guest appearance by a small furry animal running along a perimeter wall sparked an excited international debate between the diners and waiters as to whether our unexpected visitor was a grand souris (mouse), or a petit rat (rat). The debate never reached a conclusion but the evening was repeatedly interrupted by further bouts of laughter and cheers as the waiters valiantly fought their corner.
I love a good hotel breakfast and La Maison d’Ulysse doesn’t disappoint. Local yogurts, cheese, salmon and hams, jugs of steaming coffee, fresh orange juice, croissants and Gauthier’s homemade jams – delicious. On the first morning I asked if they had honey, the rest of our stay a little dish of honey was on our table. It's the little touches...
A gentle routine evolved during our all-too-brief stay, Gauthier bustling in armed with local maps and guides to arrange our day over breakfast. Another, expedition was to St Quentin La Poterie to see the artisan pottery shops; Gautier suggested a lunch at 30 Sud, a cavernous restaurant known for its delicious salads in the centre of town. The following day, we joined our hosts for an aperitif as they briefed Mr Smith on the best route to our dinner reservation. This time we were to try a local restaurant perched on a hillside in the nearby village of Montaren. On a warm evening the views must be magnificent; as it was, the interiors can only be described as Cath Kidson meets Barbara Cartland. The following day Gauthier’s plan for us was to visit the market at the nearby mediaeval town of Uzès, which holds a market on Wednesday and Saturdays in the pretty Place au Herbes. Cafés and bars surround the square, and we nestled down with a carafe of wine and plates of cheese and charcuterie to watch the world go by.
On Saturday evening we enjoyed the highlight of our stay, the table d’hôte meal lovingly prepared by Gauthier using home-grown vegetables and local produce. Suppers are served outside on the patio when it’s warmer, as it was Claire lit candles and welcomed us inside. We started with soup made with sorrel from the kitchen garden, followed by chicken with asparagus and a delicious tiramisu. There was a small list of local wines, and as we only had to stumble back to our room we tried several.
We had become accustomed to being treated like royalty by our charming hosts but nothing had prepared us for the last evening as we savoured our drinks on the terrace; two military jets in formation roared over our heads, prompting Mr Smith to wryly exclaim. ‘God, they’ve even arranged a fly past, now that’s really impressive. ’ If a restful break with only the sound of birds and frogs to disturb your sleep appeals, and you enjoy fine wine, delicious food, exploring pretty French villages and their markets, then this is the perfect Smith stay for you. And if you need someone to carry your bags, Mrs Smith has strong arms.