The roads are deserted: no evidence of a soul – not a single car or face behind twitching shutter. We’re ambling through parasol tree-lined roads, precarious winding mountain bends and deafeningly silent hamlets toward Le Trésor in Sonnac-sur-l’Hers, Languedoc-Roussillon. The sun beats through the roof and, for a few moments, we are Alain Delon and Brigitte Bardot, the song is ‘On Days Like These’ and the car a convertible Mercedes Pagoda.
Sonnac-sur-l’Hers is a spellbinding village with just 128 residents. Hidden from the prying eyes of passing cars is a bijou church square. As we cross this charming stone timewarp to the hotel, a green-shuttered maître de maison spanning a row of houses that comprises one side of the thoroughfare, an old man who is possibly the last living member of the Resistance stares out at us from behind an antique doorframe.
Classic, enormous and very smart, Le Trésor is a luxury boutique B&B that’s imbued with traditional French character: all white walls, polished dark wood and faithful antique pieces. A tall, cheery thirtysomething Englishman strides round the corner and shakes my hand. ‘Hullo I’m Will,’ he says. ‘My wife Tilly is in the kitchen feeding our son.’ The pair moved from London to pursue the Gallic dream in 2005 and their Year in Provence became a lifetime.
Will shows us up to our suite – the largest of Le Trésor’s four guest dwellings – where the living room alone is bigger than our London apartment. ‘The ceilings are so high that they probably have to change the light bulbs from the floor above!’ Mrs Smith remarks. We walk past the living room with its ethereal Florence Broadhurst-style floral prints and original marble fireplace, into the second bedroom-cum-dressing room with its old-school desk overlooking the square and through a third set of double doors to the largest space of all – the master bedroom, where the light casts a halo onto the room’s centrepiece: a giant freestanding bath in all its glory. Mrs Smith squeals and runs around the walk-in-wardrobe giggling, clearly trying to figure out where to put all two pairs of shoes. It’s a crisp, clean vision of rustic elegance with views extending over the village to the hills.
After a well-deserved siesta (when in the South of France, eh), Will shows us the dining room and the comely honesty bar. You just have to remember to jot down how many bottles of native Languedoc Rose you have consumed. Easier said than done…
We are offered dinner in the garden. Manicured and experimental with a fresh herb garden and a young vine weaving through the fairy lights, overgrown trees shadow the sun loungers and a hammock swings under ancient branches shielding the mountain horizon. Everything feels magically old. A lone table is set in this private nirvana for a mesmeric four-course organic dinner courtesy of domestic goddess Tilly, rich with the heady flavours of L’Occitan and infused with herbs from Le Trésor’s garden.
Mountain walks in the surrounding Pyrenees lie just half an hour’s drive away (during winter you can ski right into the square) and each July the Tour de France whistles by the house. The next morning’s breakfast is pitch perfect. We feast on valley-fresh figs and sliced peaches, yoghurt, honey, pressed apple juice, baskets of croissants and granite-strong black coffee. If that doesn’t wake you up, the chiming of the church bells should.
We drive to Chalabre, a picturesque village with a castle and obligatory Provençals in blue, who drink pastis and carry long baguettes. It holds a dolls’ house-like market whose mainstay seems to be the local tablecloth. Round another precarious bend we see the stretching blue calm of Lake Montbel. Locals sun themselves and children splash in the waters. We sit at a café to shield ourselves from the blistering sun, and realise that if we were cleverer, or indeed even more romantic, we would have purchased a picnic at the village and one of those blessed tablecloths, and spent the afternoon lolling by the lake.
Instead we head for nearby Mirepoix. Driving has never been more glorious: the only other vehicle a huge combine harvester that refuses to notice us, sending us swerving into the sunflower field. Thankfully, staring into the faces of a thousand ochre blooms reaching for the scorching sun is a fun detour.
Arriving at Mirepoix, we turn the corner into the square and can’t believe our eyes. All the buildings, wooden and mediaeval; rows of stalls selling marionettes colour the paths and the place is heaving with sunblushed hippies smoking roll-ups. We have, as Mrs Smith proclaims, ‘the best moules-frites ever’ as we watch this enchanting world go by.
That night, Mrs Smith sleepily announces that the bed is too small and in a room this size it should be much bigger. It should, in fact, be large enough for 10 people. Sweet dreams ensue.
And then, all too soon, the morning sun peeks through the aged shutters and we realise it is time to leave for the fairytale castle town of nearby Carcassonne. The breakfast slows us down and we revel in the Sunday morning stillness.
Will and Tilly join us to say goodbye and it seems as if we have been here for a week. Before we set off, Mrs Smith asks, ‘Why Le Trésor?’ There is a local myth, Will says, of a treasure hidden during World War II somewhere in the house. Indeed, much like this entrepreneurial pair, we feel that in finding Le Trésor we have struck gold.