We touched down in Nice at the start of Mr Smith’s 40th-birthday weekend, observing that the Côte d'Azur attracts a rather more sophisticated crowd – if you class skinny white jeans, Cavalli sunglasses and Gina sandals as sophisticated – than our fellow travellers on recent Balearic trips. There’s status and money in them there Provençal hills, evidently, which at least bodes well for my secret search for a perfect, original birthday present.
And so to collect the Fiat Panda. Lesson number one: when picking up a Fiat Panda, you really shouldn’t stand in the Platinum queue. Luckily, Providence smiled: the customer before us was so patronising that I gave the member of staff a sympathetic look. Hertz forgave us for standing in the posh queue, and rewarded our sympathy with a upgrade to a BMW X3 – a veritable mini Chelsea tractor, not ideal for the narrow streets of the hilltop towns, but undoubtedly a coup. Lesson number two: being nice wins the day.
Shortly after spotting the beautiful cité historique of St-Paul-de-Vence on our left, we arrived in the less touristy but equally charming hilltop town of Vence. At La Maison du Frêne, we were greeted by Thierry, the owner. Both the man and his house are stylish, witty and unorthodox. You get the impression that you are stepping into a more interesting world, where anything goes, as long as it can be loosely termed as art. Freedom of expression, creative inspiration and exceptional taste make this a boutique guesthouse you won’t forget in a hurry.
There are just four rooms in La Maison du Frêne. An indulgent thought would be to bring a group of your closest friends, take all four of the rooms and have an intimate house party hosted by Thierry. All the rooms are spacious enough to feel like your own apartment, with art, antiques, sculpture and books adorning them. The books on Coco Chanel and the history of couture that lined the shelves meant I subtly binned my well-thumbed celeb magazine.
We stayed in the Parisian room. Its bed is fit for a king. Thierry puts some of his best pieces in the rooms; he is such a perfectionist that, apparently, he personally takes care of every single detail, right down to the bedding. La Maison du Frêne is an undeniably impressive labour of love. Our bathroom was beautiful: surprisingly large, with double basins and big shower with curved glass wall. There was a large hanging space for clothes and an empty fridge. What an inspired idea: choose your own contents in the local shop and avoid suffering the heavy prices of the usual in-room minibar.
The thing is, La Maison du Frêne is not a hotel; it is definitely more like a private house where you can combine complete privacy with your host’s conviviality. Guests are free to do whatever they want, and are given a code to access the front door when Thierry isn’t at home. If the reception area and kitchen are open, he is at home; if they are locked, you go straight up to your suite. The first day it was just the two of us at breakfast.
We sat at the kitchen table with Thierry preparing and entertaining around us. Once a director for French beauty brand Carita, and also a former hairdresser to the stars, Thierry has an interesting perspective on life. He has been surrounded by beautiful people all his years, but he gives the impression that he prefers to be surrounded by beautiful things. We thoroughly enjoyed our conversations about life, style, fashion and art. Not to mention the fabulous breakfast: fresh orange juice, tea, coffee, ripe apricots and blackberries, fresh baguettes and croissants with butter and jam. Very French, very lovely.
We decided to pop into the tourist office in Vence to pick up a map of the walking trail to St-Paul-de-Vence. We set off in shorts and trainers, fearing we looked like cartoon tourists. Map in hand, we still didn’t get it quite right, and went a little off-piste. It was a beautiful sunny day, though, and the walk through pine trees looked and smelled wonderful.
We knew St-Paul-de-Vence was an idyllic place, all winding streets and steep inclines; what we didn’t expect was the quality of art for sale in this little hilltop town: from original Dalí sculptures at €425,000 to vintage fashion ads for €25. We stopped for a lovely lunch on a terrace, and admired the pretty streets, although we did get the impression that it is a bit of a Disneyland village intended for British, American and Japanese tourists. We certainly weren’t the only people looking in confusion at a map in the middle of the street.
Back in Vence, we went for a wander around the irresistible galleries and met Brett Rhodes-Neal, a painter and sculptor who trained with Hockney and who is one of the artists whose work is represented in La Maison du Frêne. My husband is a completely obsessive canine-lover, and he fell head-over-heels in love with Brett’s Beagle in Boots, a carbon-fibre dog wearing trainers, painted in tribute to Lichtenstein. We commissioned our own Picasso-inspired hound, which will shortly appear in a Taschen book. Most importantly, I had found the perfect 40th-birthday present for my husband, and there was no disputing it was an original one.
Not content with spending a small fortune on the four-legged artwork, we then made our way to Galerie de l’Evêché to look at some new Dalibert oils, and to meet the man himself – artistic temptation seems to wait around every corner in Vence. Suffice to say, we ended up buying five paintings for our new house. We don’t have a sofa, a bed or a table, but never mind: we can sit on the floor and be inspired by our first experience of buying art as a couple. There was no denying that La Maison du Frêne had certainly had a profound effect upon us. More than that, we can say we returned from our stay in Vence inspired by l’art de vivre, aka the art of living.