At Domaine de Perches you are guests of Alain and Howard for the ultimate French country house escape, staying at a welcoming boutique hotel.
Alain and Howard have breathed new life into a 17th century oatmeal-coloured wine château. Even Grand Designs’ Kevin McCloud would be in awe at the scope of their project. Six years ago, there were holes and barn owls in what is now the roof of the Grand Saloon.
What was once a cellar housing thousands of bottles of Gaillac wine has been transformed into a light drawing room, leading into an opening dining area.
But along from the cellar six concrete wine vats remain. “Our demolition expert would not touch them. He feared the house would crumble around us,” says Howard ruefully.
Remember you are a house guest – there is no reception. Shout a “hello!” and Alain or Howard will emerge to show you to your room and offer coffee, tea or wine. Then they will offer a tour of the house and its four hectares of grounds, pausing to show you views across their five hectares of vineyards towards the Montaigne Noire.
They will talk of their plans to install a gym, to host a resident artist in what was once the gape-pickers dormitory, to place outdoor furniture by a Givenchy style lily pond, to cover the car park with solar panels panels to provide the power for the grape-presses. No one can accuse Alain and Howard of a lack of vision.
I am a returning guest. Last time, I stayed in the main house, in a cooling large tall-ceilinged room, with a separate dressing area, leading into the bathroom.
This time I am in the Malbec suite, named after a grape as are all 11 rooms, with the best views over the wine country landscape. Every room is a collage of restful neutral creams and oatmeals, artful flower arrangements and libraries of interior design magazines.
In the suite’s spacious lounge there is a sofa, armchairs, a writing desk, a coffee table and side-tables which are homes for yet more interior design magazines. There is neither television nor radio to disturb the birdsong of this French rural idyll.
Rooms are decorated by art collected from around the world. Fluid, vivid oil paintings of passionate violinists, vibrant Berber throws from Morocco’s High Atlas, rugs from Peru and India. Alain and Howard are passionate collectors and travellers.
Bathrooms are on a grandiose scale rarely found in a hotel. My well-lit bathroom had two wash basins and metres of space for all the accoutrements of ablution.
Then there was a walk-in monsoon shower. Not just with virtually instantaneous hot-water but also sensitive and responsive controls.
There’s a tennis court, a swimming pool with unbelievable views and acres of land to meander through. Drawing rooms to read and relax in.
Dinner begins with a bottle of something bubbly, aperitifs and sparkling company. There is no menu but Howard always checks on allergies, likes and dislikes in advance.
Between the chatter, four courses arrive as if by magic, each accompanied by a local wine, usually with the story of its provenance. A chilled gazpacho style soup to start, then some asparagus and salmon or walnuts and goats cheese. For the main course seared veal or a tuna steak and finally a strawberry sorbet or Howard’s cherry and pear tart.
Every night you will dine in a different location: one night in the Old Cellar, another in the Orangery or if the weather is fine by the pool.
Near Galliac, 35 miles north-east of Toulouse airport, Domaine sits amongst the quiet roads of the Tarn. Perfectly located for touring the Bastides Villages, including two of France’s Plus Beau Villages – Castelnau-de-Montmiral and Cordes-sur-Ciel.
Alain or Howard will help you plan your day’s itinerary. Albi with its Toulouse-Lautrec Museum is at the heart of the region, though surprisingly the Museum, in the spirit of the siesta, closes for a lengthy lunch.
Other nice touches
Breakfast epitomises the French good life. Home made yogurt, baked in the oven in winter, baked in the sun during the summer. Fresh bread from the Gaillac bakery, cheeses from the market and amongst the preserves, a fig jam made by a neighbour.
Rooms begin from €150 per night for bed and breakfast, rising to €215 for the suites.
Dinner, including canapés and aperitifs, as well as four courses with wine, with tea or coffee, is €50 Euros per person.
The best bit
You are the guests of Alain and Howard: charming and eloquent company, considerate and imaginative hosts. They welcome you into the gossip in this gentle landscape of medieval hilltop villages, vineyards, sunflower fields and palatial pigeonnaires.
They tell of the absurd Truffle Wars in Cordes-sur-Ciel, “It was like a scene from Manon de Sources,” says Howard sadly. Recommendations are given of where to lunch on your travels around the Tarn and where not to eat.
The final verdict
To stay at Domaine de Perches is to step into another world, the epitome of the French good life that so many of us dream off. This is a world of art, culture, good company, great food and fine wines. Once you have visited you will always want to return.