Well hello, is that Jesus standing next to the reception desk? Welcome to three-star Hotel Gounod in the heart of Saint Remy de Provence, possibly one of the quirkiest hotels in the world.
Statue? Boom tish. The toilets just off the lobby are labelled Joseph and Marie, and everywhere you look, there’s a religious icon looking back. I try not to giggle at the life size statue of Virgin Mary with flashing ferry lights.
It was here in 1864 that French composer Charles Gounod composed the opera Mireille. The hotel, which opened in 1830, is the oldest in the town of about 10,000 inhabitants, and the building dates back to the 1600s.
There are only 34 rooms, with 10 in the oldest part of the building and the others arranged around the central courtyard and pool. Each room has a different decor, often using primary colours and bold textures. The overall effect is a whimsical nod to French grandeur, and a glorious shrine to kitsch. My room is a decadent combo of cobalt, black and gold. The bathroom is spacious with opalescent tiles and the toiletries are L’Occitane.
The hotel’s website says: An hotel for those who look for someone different! Animals not accepted in room. Completely NON SMOKING establishment. The hotel is not adapted for families with children. Inside you find the tea room En attendant Gounod, refined and felted.
The place is chock full of artfully arranged antiques, bric a brac and these religious statues. One energetic child’s hop, skip and misplaced jump could result in a minor catastrophe. The elegant tea room, Salon de Thé, is open to the public, Tuesday to Sunday, 7.30am-7pm. It serves “biological herbal teas” along with local fare. A single room with breakfast starts at 110 euros, taxes not included. Free wireless internet in every room is a plus. It’s also available downstairs in reception and the dining area.
Hotel Gounod is one stop in the 13-day Back-Roads Touring adventure through Provence and the Riviera. The company deliberately chooses small hotels with individual charm. This place takes the gâteau.
At the Place de Café next door I have dinner one night with fellow travel writer/editor Julie Mautner, a straight-talking American who has lived here for about 12 years and runs the excellent resource www.provencepost.com She’s a walking encyclopedia (or should that be app?) for Provence and now runs her own tours for visitors.
I apologise for looking fraught. I’ve left my passport and jewellery in a hotel in Aix-en-Provence (OMG, what a ditz) and the bank up the street has just munched my cash card. I can’t get it back until Tuesday, because on Monday all shops and most businesses are closed. My tour guide, Jeremy Rose, (who has the patience of a saint), tells me not to worry and Julie waves away my concern. She gets me a glass of vin rose to soothe my nerves, and then graciously buys me dinner, because I have no money. Merci bien.
Jeremy drives all the way back to Aix to retrieve the red bag containing my valuables (bless his cotton socks) and goes with me to the bank first thing on Tuesday morning. With a minimum of fuss and paperwork I get my bank card back. Bless his socks again. Perhaps the angels of Hotel Gounod are watching over me.