Skip the queues, pass on the aeroplane food, forget low-cost cattle class. Now the only way to travel to the South of France is by train
Words: Jemima Boost
I don’t know whether it’s my love of Agatha Christie murder mysteries or a certain nostalgia for classic movies but, dead bodies aside, I’ve always thought trains to be the most romantic way to travel. The benefits of rail over air are clear. Less carbon footprint, no transfers, no queues at check-in and no luggage allowance. There is, however, a common misconception that getting a train abroad can be a bit of a faff. Wrong. Thanks to Eurostar’s summer route to Provence, a weekend of sipping rosé overlooking lavender fields is within very civilised reach – a mere five hours and 49 minutes – as I discovered on a recent jaunt to Les-Baux-de-Provence, near Avignon.
Just to ensure that the whole weekend was as easy as can be, we started our trip with an overnight stay at The Great Northern Hotel (gnhlondon.com), which is quite literally a hop, skip and jump from the Eurostar terminal in St Pancras. Within half an hour of rolling from our crisp white beds, we were greeted at the platform by the chicest of stewardesses and a rack of free magazines, ready to board the 07.15 to the south of France.
There could be few better places to find oneself after almost six hours on a train than Domaine de Manville, a newish boutique hotel just below the medieval town of Les Baux-de-Provence. It epitomises all that you would want from a weekend bolthole in France – speckled sunlight dappling through cypress trees and acres of surrounding countryside and an inviting pool. Despite its golf course, the hotel’s buildings are far enough away for those who’d rather avoid fairways and plus fours, and instead centre around a charming courtyard shaded by centuries-old trees. This is the view that will greet you from the sleek modern bedrooms.
Much like train travel, I have high hopes for hotel breakfasts and am easily disappointed. But Domaine de Manville did not let me down. Breakfasts are exceptional. Held in the magical winter garden, an extraordinary giant conservatory bathed in morning sun light and decorated in bleached timber furniture, the meal consists of flaky croissants and brioche made by the pastry chef, honey dripping from honeycombs from the hotel’s own hives and thick local yoghurt.
When it comes to lunch, things are kept casual. There’s The Bistro, where golfers stop for refreshments or to count up their score at the end of a round. Chef Steve Deconinck then takes the reins for dinner; he comes from nearby Michelin-starred Chez Bru, and has a stint with Ferran Adrià on his CV. Cooking is very much of the haute cuisine variety, tiny neat portions presented with the utmost care. You’ll find the likes of local lamb, crab and veal complemented by organic vegetables and washed down with crisp Provençal wines.
Days at Domaine de Manville – for non-golfers – are spent lazily lying by the pool or in the spa. This is a polished, sleek retreat of a space. There’s a small lap pool, Jacuzzi, sauna, steam room and peaceful treatment rooms. The spa uses all its own products and massages are stellar, every crevice of your stressed-out London back will be kneaded gently by the therapists. If you feel the need to explore, soak up some culture at the nearby medieval village of Les Baux des Provence. Sparsely populated and impervious to change, Les Baux’s cobbled streets wind around higgledy-piggledy houses that have been in the families who live there for hundreds of years.
Although the second busiest village in France, when we visit there is a steady stream of visitors walking in and out of the shops that sell tourist tat, enormous slabs of nougat and pretty pottery. There’s a handful of low-key restaurants such as La Reine Jeanne, which serves local specialities like seafood laden in garlicky mayonnaise on a sunny terrace.
Other contemporary incursions include the Santon Museum, housing figurines illustrating the traditions of Les Baux, and several art galleries, of which the most spectacular is the Carrières de Lumières, which hosts multimedia ‘shows’ aka paintings projected on the cave’s walls. The highlight for me was the ancient castle ruins, which balance on the craggy hillside overlooking the Alpilles National Park.
Looking out over the acres of green pasture you’ll be as bewildered as I was that all this is only a quick train ride away from King’s Cross. It would take longer to get from London to Scotland and you’d be faced with an entirely different prospect for the weekend.
A classic room at Domaine de Manville (domainedemanville.fr) starts from £268 between June and September. Return fares on Eurostar start at £89 return to Lyon and £99 return for Avignon and Marseille, visit eurostar.com or call 03432 186 186