As I sat in the Hôtel Particulier’s sun-dappled courtyard, scooping fresh raspberry jam onto delicate little pastries and listening to the soft coos of the somnolent doves perched plumply on the roof, I marvelled at how the Arlésiens’ hospitality has improved in the 120 or so years since they petitioned for the removal of their most famous guest. In their defence, this uncongenial reaction to the hard-drinking and prickly artist would have probably gone unnoticed had Vincent Van Gogh not later become a household name, forever associated with twinkling Provençal scenes.
Since then, the locals of this town in southwest Provence have been trying to patch things up with the Dutch master by memorialising the café in the main square and creating a museum in his name – although, tellingly, it doesn’t actually contain any of his paintings. They’ve also definitely been working on how to treat outsiders, a skill that's been honed to a fine art at the Hôtel Particulier.
Having abandoned satnav in favour of the tried and tested method of sticking his head out the window and asking a local, our genial taxi driver eventually deposited us at the Hôtel Particulier. Down a side street a five-minute stroll from the centre of Arles, the location is not glamorous, but the 18th-century splendour of the courtyard through the front door makes up for that.
Each of the rooms is individually designed in the classic French style, with diverting pieces here and there: the enormous, crisp-linened bed and Provençal furniture in our huge whitewashed boudoir were enlivened by a turquoise lit de repos. After two minutes of rummaging and many appreciative squeals, Mrs Smith was on the phone to her best friend, itemising our room’s delights: the pair of ornate writing desks, the vast gilt-edged mirrors, the freestanding bath groaning under the weight of a chemist’s worth of Gilchrist & Soames products. I was most impressed by the hotel’s disdain for the television set. Ours was perched in the corner, discreetly hooded like a kestrel. The implication was clear: the hotel recognises that it should supply a TV, but it would rather you didn’t watch it, thank you very much.
After we’d decided the room was to our liking, we slipped into our swimmers, donned our fluffy robes, and headed outside to soak up the last of the afternoon sun. The Particulier’s pool sits within the courtyard’s tall walls, surrounded by even taller trees, so privacy is guaranteed, but loungers must be strategically placed in order to make the most of the sun. We settled in among our chic fellow guests, ordered drinks and toasted Arles for being so gloriously different to our exuberant but exhausting home in the London Borough of Hackney.
Outside the bedrooms, the hotel has a strong Moroccan streak, with rugs and incense-burners dotted around its halls, and it was at a distinctly north African table on the terrace that we dined, with just one other couple for company. Like all the guests, the staff at the hotel are impeccably discreet – it’s such a pleasure to be able to enjoy a meal without having your glass topped up every 30 seconds – and the courtyard at night is serene and charming. The food is good rather than exceptional, but that does little to detract from the pleasure of staying here: there is an almost Moroccan feel to the super-stylish courtyard, and the interiors are further proof of our hosts’ knack for effortless-feeling glamour.
On Saturday, after a leisurely breakfast and long baths, we wandered to the square for lunch. As well as the Van Gogh Café, there are four or five other restaurants serving trad bistro fare. We went for that holiday staple: steak frites and pichets of rosé. By the time we were on our exhilaratingly bitter coffees, I had come to terms with the fact that Mrs Smith was ready to elope with our elfin 18-year-old waiter, who blushed so disarmingly every time he spoke to her that I had actually started to sympathise with her Shirley Valentine-like longings.
When we got up to leave, the Place du Forum was washed in the soft, creamy late-afternoon light that makes Provence so beautiful at that time of day. Emboldened by the heady mix of wine and caffeine, I saw an opportunity to take back the initiative from my new love rival and whisked Mrs Smith off on a romantic tour of Arles. We started at the magnificent arena where, rousing myself with thoughts of my own ongoing gladiatorial conflict, I expounded lengthily on blood sports, reality television and civilisations in decline. Mrs Smith, who has forgotten more history than I have ever known, rolled her eyes, took my arm and told me that all I needed to do was buy her a poster and she’d definitely be accompanying me on the flight home.
The poster in question was a beautifully designed Seventies advert for a bullfight. For, unlike me, the city hasn’t let its history become a millstone. The Arlésiens revel in their ancient buildings as vibrant living spaces: in addition to the matadors thrilling the 20,000 fans that pack into the arena, the Roman theatre still hosts concerts, two millennia after the builders packed up their hods and left.
After a couple of hours soaking up the antiquity, we felt culturally enriched and quite entitled to another drink and more food. For our Saturday night splurge, we picked the Nord Pinus on Place du Forum – a hotel and restaurant considerably smarter than its neighbours. We walked through the modern dining room and headed straight to the livelier terrace, where we settled down with another bottle of excellent rosé and crisped breads with tapenade. I’m a sucker for any course that arrives without being advertised, and was suitably impressed by the wild-mushroom cappuccino that appeared immediately after we’d ordered. Afterwards, we drank cognacs in the Nord Pinus bar, an atmospheric little place once frequented by Graham Greene and Picasso.
Strolling along the river, full of good food and drink with our enormous bed enticingly near, I realised that we’d seen most of Arles’ attractions and that next time we visit, we’ll have nothing to do but lounge around at the Hôtel Particulier, perhaps devoting an entire day to its atmospheric spa – a thought that filled us with a great deal of good cheer.