THE FRENCH RIVIERA
CHÂTEAU DE LA MESSARDIÈRE
The Palace of St Tropez is the Château de la Messardière. This is true both metaphorically and factually. Metaphorically, a palace is a place of dreams, romance and luxury, and such a place is the Messardière. And factually, there is only a handful of hotels in France officially designated ‘palaces’, and the Messardière is of that number. It is not just one of the best hotels on the French Riviera, not just one of the best hotels in France, not just one of the best hotels in Europe, but one of the best hotels in the world. Much of the credit for this must go to the hotel’s Director General, Alexandre Durand-Viel (photographed with your correspondent). He has taken this sparkling jewel in the treasure chest of French hospitality and has polished it until it sparkles like the brightest diamond. Monsieur Durand-Viel is a remarkable hotel manager. He is also a civilised and cultivated gentleman, being not only the President of the SociétéTropézienne des Amis de la Musique but also the instigator of the Messardière Prize for Summer Novels.
During my last stay I was delighted to be able to attend one of the concerts organized by the Société, held in the town’s pretty Théâtre de la Renaissance. Although another engagement obliged me to leave at the interval, I thought how utterly charming the whole event was. As the musicians delivered their spirited rendition of Schubert’s Trio Opus 99, the pleasure of music seem to merge with everything good about the local community. (I travelled to and from this treat in the hotel’s shuttle ‘bus – an important facility, which runs 24 hours a day, and takes guests into town and to the beaches.)
I first visited St Tropez so long ago that I dare not count the years. I have loved it ever since. On my first visit I decided to go for a ride in the small boat which takes tourists to stare at the homes of the rich and famous. Since I was then (and remain) largely ignorant of popular culture, many of the names of the folk who were said to own the waterside villas – names, I supposed, of popular singers and film stars, for they caused my fellow passengers to gasp and sigh – meant nothing to me. I was intrigued, however, by what appeared to be a fairytale castle on top of one the hills overlooking the Bay of St Tropez. Eventually, the sun-tanned commentator directed the attention of his audience to the object of my interest. “At the top of the hill,” he declared, “you can see the Château de la Messardière. It is now a luxury hotel. Very rich people stay there.” Thus was I introduced to what I now count as one of my very favourite hotels.
The keep of the castle was built in the Nineteenth Century in the Gothic manner by the Comte de la Messardière. (The family’s association with the building continues, for his great grand-daughter, Victoire, is a talented artist and many of her paintings adorn the rooms and corridors of the hotel.) Around this central block are modern structures, designed to remind us of the Italian Renaissance – with their columns (both Florentine and Genoese) and their Venetian arches. This meeting of styles is successful, as you can see from the pictures. Indeed, whenever I turn off the route Tahiti and guide the motor between the wrought iron gates and up the drive through the 25 acres of gardens, I always feel I am purring up the incline towards a place of real welcome. Above the entrance is a crest with the family motto, Victor et Inermis, which we may translate as ‘Victor even when disarmed’.
It is appropriate, for the victory here is, indeed, won without force of arms. It is a victory of good hotel-keeping, and it is achievedby the powerful combination of a beautiful setting, exquisitely tended gardens, luxurious accommodation furnished in impeccable taste, wonderful food and a body of staff (in high season it can number as many as 180) which is totally dedicated to serving those fortunate enough to occupy the 118 rooms and suites.
My own room, number 237, was a Junior Suite, and therefore 850€ – 1,300€ a night, bed and breakfast for two, according to season. It was reached by a corridor decorated with posters of the films of Brigitte Bardot – so that, by the end of my residence, I was quite familiar with at least the titles of Miss Bardot’s œuvre. Within, my apartment was light, spacious and supremely comfortable. Its colours of white and pale lemon were restful, and its floors of ceramic tiles entirely right. A sliding door from the hallway opened onto the bathroom, wherein I found two wash basins, a tub of good size, a separate shower, a separate loo, spotlights, a shaving mirror, toiletries by Blaise Mautin of Paris and that simple device which always indicates to me that the details have not been overlooked – an extendable washing-line over the bath.
In the bedroom the bed had been made wonderfully soft for me. The lighting – from five table lamps – was effective, as was the air conditioning. There was plenty of space for a sofa, an armchair and a writing desk, and the television had a dvd player attached, so that the music of Sir Edward Elgar could accompany my afternoon doze. A dressing room with a safe was a welcome convenience. And then there was my terrace. Through the French window of plate glass was a platform large enough for tables and chairs, from which I could look towards the distant bay and the azure sea. This accommodation was entirely to my liking, and enabled me to dress well for the evenings.
I like to look my best for dinner – particularly when the restaurant is as chic and as sophisticated as L’Acacia at the Château de la Messardière, with its brown napery, Bernardaud crockery, Degrenne glassware and Chrisofle cutlery. The cuisine of Executive Chef Pierrick Berthier is chic and sophisticated, too. His menu is appealing, his ingredients are of the finest, his combinations of tastes and textures are well-judged and his culinary skill is impressive. You will enjoy eating here, as I did – which is why I was keen to be photographed with both the Chef and the Food & Beverage Manager, Arnaud André.
Chef Berthier offers two set meals, priced at 80€ and 120€. I chose four courses from the carte, for which you should allow 130-150€. I began with excellent duck foie gras, served with Muscatel jelly and soft toast with cranberries, a well-balanced dish. The evening being warm, I thought it right then to move on to another cold dish: yielding blue lobster, which had been cooked in stock, with pea gazpacho and hazelnut oil. This was particularly pretty, and I like my food to be pretty. My meat course was magnificently tender and tasty rack of venison, with pears, chestnuts and pepper sauce, a ravishingly rich confection. I ended with my perfect ending: a large raspberry soufflé, divided between myself and my companion. Delicious.
The wine list has 276 offerings, including 15 magnums and 16 halves. All, apart from eight, are French. Prices run from 45€ for a Provençal white (Clos Ste-Magdeleine, Cassis, 2013) to 9,500€ for the 2005 Romanée-Conti. Clarets are well represented, and the following caught my eye: 2000 Cos d’Estournel (520€), 1999 Latour (1,800€), 2001 Lafite (4,440€), 1986 Haut Brion (1,760€), 1986 Pétrus (4,930€) and 1989 Cheval Blanc (1,760€). My own drinking included a red Rhone which was hot, alcoholic and packed with fruit both red and black (Gigondas, Maison Tardieu Laurent, Vielles Vignes, 2012 – 60€).
I must make mention of my breakfasts (on the restaurant terrace, with its gorgeous view) for two reasons. First, the food from the buffet – including orange juice, croissants, ham, cheese, fruit salad, apricot tart and banana cake – was truly excellent. And second, there was the afore-mentioned Food & Beverage Manager, Arnaud André. He worked tirelessly to ensure the comfort of his guests, and managed – by moving the sunshades this way and that – to avoid any ray of sunshine falling upon my sensitive skin.
Such care for my well-being is what I would expect of a palace. And that is what the Château de la Messardière is: The Palace of St Tropez.
CHÂTEAU DE LA MESSARDIÈRE
Route Tahiti, Saint Tropez 83990, France.
Telephone +33 (0)4 94 56 76 00
Fax +44 (0)4 94 56 76 01
Double rooms from 400€ - 700€, including breakfast, according to season
Open from April to the end of October
Check the hotel website for special offers