What with all this eatin’ and drinkin’, here at the luxury Hostellerie de l’Abbaye de la Celle, one of the gems of Groupe Alain Ducasse an hour from both Marseille and Nice, the gal needs to do something about her figure. But stepping on these antique wood scales, in one of the ten bedrooms of the hotel, may not give an accurate reading.
Tancrède Barale, the Ducasse disciple who directs this hotel, says it comes from the Ducasse depository, which sounds like an eclectic treasure trove of bits and pieces he has collected over the years. He seems personally to have collected all the bits and pieces around the hotel – with the exception, that is, of the Nathalie Decoster sculptures that will be exhibited, inside and out, through 2013.
In the five-acre gardens here, as well as the Decosters and rows of vines and medicinal and other herb plantings, there is a centuries-old tiny church (its door hidden in a vineyard during World War II) where Ducasse books and other products are sold. A collage of the great man, on the far wall, beams down on you. He has such taste. Look at the breakfast cups and saucers, an Emilio Bergamin design made by Taitu Rosso.
Breakfast can be in your room or, if you have sensibly chosen one of the five rooms in the separate Béguinage building which all have private gardens, there looking across at the vineyards and hills. It is also set up in one of the two restaurant rooms, or, on request, in the conservatory-like Veranda – the 36 botanical paintings seen here are also from the Ducasse depository.
Tancrède Barale says that invariably people staying wish they had booked for longer. Not only is there so much to do – visiting the convent and its archeological workings, being paid for by the Var departement and, surprisingly, the budget disbursed by Mr François Hollande himself – just staying here is such fun. Go into the kitchen one evening and talk with the chef, Benoît Witz, on what you would ideally like tonight. And every breakfast is a delight. It comes automatically with fruit and yoghurt and fresh croissants, and ladybird china, more Emilio Bergamin talent.
The napkins are heavy linen, three feet in each direction, their woven stripes matching the redcurrants and ladybirds. You cannot outwit these French chefs. The menu basically says ask for it, we will have it, even a gibassier or pompe à l’huile, a Provençal cake with orange blossom. A request for scrambled eggs and ham would have done Dr Suess more than proud. They come separately, the ham just-carved off a whole hock. While eating this, we plan the day, say a swim in the hotel’s 55-foot pool, looking out over abbey ruins and vineyards. I might try a massage from the local lady who also runs the boutique, and I will definitely run round local hilly lanes, passing vineyards and meadows of wild flowers (La Celle claims a population of over a thousand but goodness knows where they are all day long).
One absolute must, before leaving this luxury hotel, is to visit the wine store next door. This is the headquarters of Côteaux Varois de Provence, representing 80 local producers. Here, on a central table, stands a display of rosé wines, including the Ch des Annibals Suivez Moi Jeune Homme 2012 that we enjoyed last night at dinner. Yes, take my advice and definitely plan more than one night at this lovely Alain Ducasse outpost.