ST.-ROMAIN-DE-LERPS, France — I've visited France 10 times in the past 12 years, but until last month I'd never been to the Ardeche, that beautiful, green area of southern France best known for its spectacular gorges and winding rivers.
It was worth the wait.
The Ardeche lies between Lyon and Avignon, just north of Provence and just west of the Rhone River, and the views throughout the area are breathtaking--jagged cliffs and green hillsides and all those gorges, gouged out of rock by the forces of nature, century after century.
On our first day in the Ardeche we had a simple picnic lunch on the rocky bank of the Ardeche River, in the shadow of the remarkable stone arch at Pont-d'Arc that was as pleasurable, in its own way, as any number of three-star dinners we'd enjoyed earlier. Still, the most enjoyable part of our four-day stay in the Ardeche was our hotel.
As a general rule, hotels are not terribly important to me. Give me a clean room, adequate heating and/or air conditioning, a firm bed and a private bathroom and I'm happy. Charm and beauty are welcome, but luxury is unnecessary; I'd rather spend my money on a fine dinner than on a fancy hotel room.
Every once in a while, though, I find a hotel that captivates me. Such was the case this year with Chateau du Besset, a 15th-Century castle converted into a 10-room hotel on 125 acres of trees and sprawling hillsides in the middle of . . . nowhere.
The chateau/hotel is at the end of a narrow, winding mountain road about a mile from the village of St.-Romain-de-Lerps. The nearest town, Saint-Peray (pop. 5,200), is about seven miles away, and the nearest city, Valence (pop. 70,000), about 10 miles away.
Chateau du Besset does not look like a luxury hotel from the outside. Indeed, it looks like what it is--what it was: a medieval stone chateau (with, of course, such distinctly non-medieval appurtenances as a private swimming pool and tennis court, hidden away behind the trees, and a Ping-Pong table tucked out of sight in a separate stone building).
But once inside, understated luxury abounds, even if guests must still walk up a narrow, circular, stone staircase to reach their rooms.
Each room is designed differently, with antiques and artworks from different periods in French history, and each is named accordingly (Charles X, Louis XIV, Louis XVI, etc.), not numbered.
Each room has a mini-bar and small safe hidden behind an antique door, and all have large, magnificently appointed, brightly colored bathrooms, with windows opening on the surrounding countryside and with the toilets in separate rooms. The Cambaceres room has a circular bathtub. Voltaire has a large, double tub. The Charles X suite has a Jaccuzzi.
The plumbing throughout is modern, and powerful. No danger of running out of hot water or having the water pressure drop suddenly when the toilet is flushed, as is often the case in hotels in the European countryside. Flush a toilet at Chateau du Besset, even with the water running full-blast in the tub, and the sounds of Niagara Falls fill your room.
Our bathroom had enough floor space to dance on and enough counter space to spread out the blueprints for a mainframe computer. It also had two telephones, one by the washbasins, one by the toilet (and, of course, a third phone by the bed).
Our room was Chambre Diane, as in Diane du Poitiers, the beautiful and ambitious mistress of Henry II and virtual queen of France during the 12 years of his reign in the mid-16th Century. Diane's portrait hung on a wall alongside our bed, and a splendid bed it was, with dark wood and a blue canopy and coverlet that made me quickly forget both the avarice and the beauty in Diane's eyes.
The room itself was huge, 30 feet by 30 feet, with a writing desk and chair, a breakfast table, three armchairs, two antique chests and a TV set. A sash hung beside the bed; tug it and the overhead lights came on. A small control panel was placed on a nightstand on the other side of the bed; push a button on it, and a sign outside your door would say, in French, "Come in" or "Do not disturb" or "Please wait."
Breakfast in Bed
This was especially useful when the waiter arrived with breakfast each morning, breakfast that you could specify be served either on the table (which the young waiter would carefully set for you) or in bed (in which case, two waiters would bring your breakfast, each with one bed tray).
If you preferred, you could have breakfast in the dining room or on the outdoor terrace and, later in the day, you could enjoy a cup of coffee or a Perrier or an old Armagnac in the bar or the game room or the lounge.
Service was quick and attentive, and everyone on the small staff had suggestions--what sights to see, where to eat, what routes to take.