Get a taste of local Provençal life steeped in history on a sojourn in a restored bastide in the Luberon countryside
If, at mention of the term ‘bed and breakfast’ you picture an old, poky living room with macabre paintings on the walls, artificially-lit halls and mish-mashed personalities awkwardly attempting conversation, allow me to introduce Domaine Clos Saint Estève in Provence to restore your faith. This elegant property in that golden corner that is the South of France turns the stereotype of the good old ‘B&B’ abruptly on its head. Sure, you get a bed and breakfast, but the beds are within a lovingly restored, historic and luxurious house in the French countryside, the breakfast includes freshly-baked croissants from the local boulangerie, and the view from every room is across two hectares of magnificent, manicured gardens that appear to be straight out of a storybook.
Domaine Clos Saint Estève dates back to the Napoleonic era (late 18th to early 19th century), with iron work and other details from the period found in the house during its restoration, and landscapers putting the shady trees on the grounds at 100-150 years old. It is a property rich in history and abundant in charm, and with nature taking centre stage it feels purpose-built for peace, quiet and contemplation.
The traditional ‘bastide’– historically a summer residence for the French elite and nobility who lived in the city – has just five bedrooms: three within the bastide itself (‘the Chambres d’Hôtes), and two within a self-contained apartment, the Maison d’Amis, which has its own separate entrance and all the charm of a traditional Provencal ‘gite’ (holiday rental). Every room at the property has views over those divine, sprawling gardens but only the grand, 100 square-metre Suite St Estève, where I’m staying, has double doors that open onto a Juliet balcony overlooking a patchwork of pinch-me purple lavender, in full bloom during my stay in the blistering late June heat. With a desk, sofa, oversized dressing area and ensuite bathroom larger than some studio apartments, it’s a sumptuous, penthouse-sized space at a standard room price.
At home in Provence
As for the rest of the property – I can’t emphasise enough just how beautiful Domaine Clos Saint Estève is. The elegant and vibrant country kitchen would have been right at home in Julia Child’s house, and the double-height entry hall has a floor-to-ceiling bookshelf filled with the novels and tomes – fictional and not – that showcase Provence in all its glory. I find Peter Mayle’s A Year in Provence trilogy and even French language books, and the romance of it all is enough to make me want to kick off my shoes right then and there and settle into a reading marathon.
But the house and gardens didn’t always look this way. Canadian owners Anna and Hanno Lemke bought the land and house just ten minutes from the picturesque Luberon town of L’isle sur la Sorgue in 2013 after several years of searching for a European location to make a summer holiday house. They initially intended to settle in Tuscany, but the country’s bureaucratic system and cuisine didn’t sit well with them, and they eventually settled on the South of France – although it has its challenges, too. “It’s not rosy in Provence, but France is quite clear – they have a lot of regulation, but you know what you’re dealing with,” says Anna. “Another aspect of it was the food and the wine. We like the wine in Italy, we like the traditional Italian food however we found that after about a week spending time in Tuscany we had just had enough of pizza and pasta, and even going through the Côte d’Azur would be a relief. So from the point of view of the culture, the food – this is the place we discovered where we felt the best.”
As it turns out, plenty of other people have been bewitched by the property’s magic over the years, too. “When we started digging into the history of the place, we found in the last 100 years it had 18 owners,” explains Anna, “so the house has a little bit of soul from every owner that was here.” Domaine Clos Saint Estève also has an adjoining winery building dating back to 1916, a remnant of the property’s winemaking years, and the Lemkes have renovated this too, with the ultimate goal to plant vines and produce their own wine.
During the restoration of Domaine Clos Saint Estève, local artisans worked on the ironwork, painting and antique, reclaimed tomette tile flooring – a centuries-old Provençal tradition – to elevate the property and bring it into luxury territory while still honouring the property’s history. After years of restoration and commuting back and forth from Vancouver and then London to Provence, Domain Clos Saint Estève was reborn in 2017 as a bed and breakfast.
The experience of staying at the bastide in this special part of the world begins on the drive through the countryside. Passing by kilometre after kilometre of apple and pear orchards as well as that newest and most photogenic of agriculture trends: lavender fields, the tone is truly set for the bucolic encounter that awaits at Domaine Clos Saint Estève.
80% of the two-hectare garden that immediately surrounds the house was planted by the Lemkes, beginning in 2014. With a Diploma in Horticulture & Landscape Design and a Diploma in Floristry from Vancouver, Anna worked with a local garden designer to create the dream garden, which was inspired by renowned Provencal landscape architect Dominique LaFourcade’s work. “[The designer and I] collaborated and came up with this design and we are slowly implementing it to completely cover the two hectares and make it a cohesive design throughout, and very Provençal with attention to this particular climate, and the fact that we are receiving less and less rain and its becoming hotter and hotter in Provence due to global warming.”
There are ornamental flowers such as early blooming roses, all-summer- blooming English roses, hydrangeas, agapanthas, early spring multi-coloured irises everywhere you look, along with quintessentially Provence shady Plane trees and of course, lavender, just in case you were at risk of forgetting you were in Provence. There is also that other vital Provencal addition: a swimming pool – and she’s a beauty, not to mention a godsend during the mid 40-degree heatwave I lethargically endure during my time in the region.
Then there is a herb garden, ‘potager’ (traditional French kitchen garden), apricot, apple, pear, plum, fig and quince trees and 75 olive trees from different regions of the Mediterranean, the fruit of which was used to make olive oil for the first time last year. “It’s really beautiful and it’s a symbol of Provence, but it’s also one of the few things you can do if you’re an owner long-distance commuting back and forth.”
Now based in London, the Lemkes open Domaine Clos Saint Estève for B&B reservations and private events like small weddings, retreats, photography workshops and cooking classes between May and September. The property, like the bastides of centuries gone, is a true summer home – unoccupied in the colder months, waiting for spring so it can reawaken from the dormancy of winter.
If you want to taste authentic local life in Provence, and to grasp why the Parisians have long made the verdant region their go-to summer destination, there is possibly no better place to stay. In fact, if this is the new standard of BnBs, call me a fan because I feel right at home.