When you're immersed in the cosseting luxuries of this ambrosia coated country sanctum, surrounded by a fusion of Provençal flora: olive trees, flowering oleander, trailing geraniums, climbing roses, wisteria, cypress trees, plane trees, rosemary and banks of lavender; you forget that a fascinating town pulsates only a few steps from the regal wrought-iron gated entrance.
Aix-en-Provence is picturesquely situated at the foot of Mont St-Victoire and dates back to 124BC when the Romans, after victoriously battling the Celts and the Ligurians, turned Aix into something close to their hearts: a spa. By the Middle-Ages, Aix was already home to many artists and troubadours, while wealthy counts of Provence built castles in the surrounding countryside.
The last count of Provence, René of Anjou, has his statue standing proud in the main Cours, in honour of his prolific poetic writing known as 'le bon Roi René'. Following his death, France acquired Provence, but it still remained a hive of creativity, housing and inspiring poets, writers and artists alike as well as becoming a university town, as it is today.
Much more than nothing
When Flaubert first arrived at this chilled town in 1845 he described it as "Aix: rien" – nothing. He soon changed his tune when he fell in love with Aix-raised, born and bred, Louise Colet, and consequently spent much of his time here resulting in a life-long love affair with the place. The list of Aix's creative pageantry is topped, perhaps, by Paul Cézanne, who was born here in 1839.
There are constant reminders of the town's visionary ancestors and, though the many fountains were added in the 18th Century, there is a definite sense that this town has cascaded its sparkles for over a thousand years. Today, the old streets are filled with perfume stores, boutiques, art galleries, delicatessens, bistros and cafés. The venerable squares, lined with plane trees and centred with a fountain or statue, buzz with students, locals and visitors, clutching a pastis, vin rose or kir royal while watching a Frenchman's favourite pastime – a game of boules. Aix-en-Provence is often referred to as 'petite Florence', which is why our little 'oasis', a short stroll up the hill, is so decoratively appropriate.
A relais extravaganza
There is no other place like Villa Gallici because its hybrid makeup is so enchanting that no other hotel we have visited could possibly repeat such impassioned incandescenses.
The bedrooms, junior suites and suites are blissful boudoirs of the highest quality, some with terraces or private gardens. Sofas in velvet stripes of burgundy, toffee and olive have classic fringed paisley throws adorning the backs and arms; beds for princesses with coronets and draping covers are a vision in toile de jouy; round tables covered in Provencal paisley, or soft white linen, parade green porcelain parrot candle holders from Limoges aside planters of tumbling scented tea-roses. Hand-painted furniture, gilded solid-carved wood, excessively comfortable armchairs and sofas covered in rich fabrics from French and Italian design houses; decorative painting in all styles: grottesca, baroque, rococco, chinoiserie, tromp l'oeil, murals, hand-painted papers; silver leaf, gold leaf...it all swirls together in an extravaganza that feels warm, exciting, romantic and extremely cosy.
Villa Gallici was an interior design triumph that began with three designers, Gil Dez, Charles Montemarco and Daniel Jouve, who owned the honey-toned 18th Century villa in the early 90s before the current spellbound owners, Nanda and Roberto Polito of Baglioni fame, acquired it. They kept it in the sophisticated warm style to which its guests had become enticingly accustomed. The design relationship with the three imaginative artists has continued throughout the French Baglioni portfolio; however, for us, Villa Gallici has the most vivid personality of them all.
During our last visit, we had a richly decorated boudoir in shades of romantic deep ruby with views onto the luxurious long pool that sits sensationally among a fusion of local flora: very befitting for our wedding anniversary. Outside on the dining terrace and around the poolside, crisp white linen on 'typique' ironware replaces the scrumptious décor of the interior, allowing the exquisitely maintained gardens to provide the frills.
As always, our open-armed welcome was heartening with the hotel manager directing us to a tray of warm, oven-fresh madelines together with an almond and honey-perfumed nectar. Soon after we closed our boudoir door, the manager returned with a broad smile and wide silver tray with a spread of complimentary goodies; a hand-tied posy of scarlet roses, 'madeleines à la lavande', rose biscuits from Reims, and a bottle of chilled Laurent Perrier.
In the warm summer months, dining al fresco on the aged flagstone terrace beneath the plane trees is heavenly. In the cooler months, dining within the cosy, relaxed yet refined and luxurious dining room – with a glowing fire, candles, and figurine table lamps with pleated tasselled shades – is equally enchanting. The event is never brief as you sit in the comfort of deep velvet armchairs or small down filled sofas, in an atmospheric lighting so gentle, that you are lulled into an evening-long radiant dalliance.
The chef, Christophe Gavot, provides palate pleasers that work beautifully within the cosseting surroundings. His style is Mediterranean-Provençal, using local, seasonal ingredients wherever possible; I defy anyone to make a naturally sweeter gazpacho with pimento and cucumber.
His dishes have a comfort factor too, being generous in size and not calorie-restricted; scampi with a twist, butter-soft terrine de foie gras, pink lamb tenderloin with a coating of goats' cheese, plenty of truffle, sea bass cooked in a court-bouillon with local herbs, red cabbage and sweet potato – all delicious. However, he will cater expertly for those wishing to dine on grilled fish and salad. The wine list is short but well formed, with some excellent Bandols and white wines from Cassis, including our favourite: Château Simon.
Having wrapped ourselves up in Villa Gallici's unique velvety enfolds, for three whole days and nights, we felt recharged, thoroughly spoilt...and...rebooked. We are, again, on that list of spellbound repeaters.