Luxury Explorer Review

5-Star Hotel Review

Le Prieuré

France

A peaceful, aesthetically astute, gourmet luxury hotel in a former cardinal's residence

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Le Prieuré
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Le Prieuré

Location

Villeneuve-les-Avignon, across the river from Avignon centre

Travel Information

5 minutes from the heart of Avignon

5-Star X-Factors

The tasting menu at the Michelin-starred restaurant is a must!

Pleasures from Le Prieuré

As avid fans of Jean-André Charial (owner and chef-patron of Oustau de Baumanière) this gourmet destination is one of our favourite Provencal retreats. Its gentle appeal won us over soon after opening in 2007, as layers of profoundly fine-tuned pleasures seduced our sensitivities with every passing minute. Crossing the Rhône, technically exiting Provence and entering the Languedoc, had never felt this good before.

In the 14th Century Le Prieuré was built first as a convent and then a cardinal's residence, set, exclusively, in the intriguing medieval town of Villeneuve-les-Avignon. This is a town that holds more historical buildings per square metre than any other in Europe. Built in precipitous geographical conditions, on the west bank of the Rhône River, the medieval town rises up barefaced rock, facing one of France's most revered cities – the papal city of Avignon. This is quite some neighbour to compete with, but that it does, just on a smaller scale. If places have souls then it is here that they thrive. As a sensitive 'soul', Jean-André Charial, together with his wife, Genevieve, transformed Le Prieuré into a charming, peaceful, aesthetically astute, gourmet luxury hotel: a worthy 'Maison de Baumanière'.

I assume they fell in love with the buildings, many of which are steeped in Carthusian history, as well as the centuries-old Pope's garden that, today, is an arresting explosion of aromatic herbs, vegetables and roses, spraying out with wild abandon from perfectly clipped boxes of privet. An ancient walkway runs beside the low, ivy-clad stonewall and down to the superb all-weather tennis courts. Wisteria has taken heavenly control of its trellises and limestone doric columns; the ravages of time did not leave their mark on sweet nature here.

Layers of aura

When we arrived the atmosphere felt almost communal. The buildings range in period from the 14th Century to the 1970s, but the transitions feel totally organic. We stayed in the creeper-clad, well-blended, 70s atrium and, although I am naturally inclined towards period architecture, our 'apartment' was quite awesome. We felt like expats who had landed in lush luxury, in some exotic destination of unknown identity. The entire family could have fitted comfortably in here; well, certainly two thirds.

The fine furniture in the bedrooms and study was cherry-picked from antique collectors and contemporary designers. A soft decorative palette, in taupes, creams, mushrooms and pale mauve, enhanced the subtle feel of understated luxury. From our sun-soaked, southwest-facing private balcony, we looked down onto the huge, brilliant aqua pool, with a gloriously flowering acacia tree a hand's reach from our wrought-iron balustrade. It just felt so luxurious, but as much for its uncomplicated elegance as the more obvious five-star extravagances. The pristine white-tiled bathrooms are seriously state-of-the-art with a generous, scintillatingly-scented range of herbal products, appropriately labelled 'Pure Herbs'.

Unwinding in style

The captivating courtyard oozes a chic urbanity: part flagstone, part boules-perfect gravel, it shifts in ambience from one hallowed end to the other. There are slick, black Lloyd Loom-like wicker chairs and low tables on the flagstones in the quadrant nearest the understated reception – where the light is low and the air is cool – while toffee-coloured rattan-backed chairs with ironware tables grace the sandy gravel beneath generous dapples of sunshine. The courtyard is part-shaded by several plane trees and, if there is a mistral, it has no place here.

One couple – a film director, a script and his muse – sat on the wicker-side for several hours before moving nearer to the pool; this place has a discerning, creative aura. Slick wicker sun-loungers, in front of cut-pile velvet green lawns, surround the Olympian-sized pool. After quietly admiring this quintessentially southern French setting, we took to the cobbled streets, made many moons ago from the stones of the Rhône, with the sky set to flawless cerulean.

Villeneuve-les-Avignon is washed in a rich architectural and religious heritage: the 14th Century cardinals' palaces; the national monuments; churches with cloisters; classic squares and splendid châteaux. There are actually designated walks that are recommended if you have the time and, with the right shoes, these walks will unravel the town in all its remarkable cardinal pageantry. Two to three days would be an excellent timeframe for a stay here. If you walk down to the banks of the Rhône you will see across to the Palace of the Popes, the Rocher des Doms, and 'Le Pont d'Avignon'. Cross the bridge and you can take on the 'master'.

Dining delights

We also came here for gastronomic reasons. This is Monsieur Charial's baby after all, and twilight to midnight at La Prieuré is scintillating. The gardens are softly illuminated, the pool is glowing, the plane trees are up-lit in a soft yellow, and the chic incandescency from the bar and restaurant (still outside) illuminate the settings with a polished pizzazz.

The groovy bar, both radiant and mellow, dazzles from sunken fluorescent spots and candles on round tables. It beckons, doors akimbo, onto a petit high-walled courtyard that leads through to the dining terrace. Taut, expansive parasols stand above the toffee-coloured rattan furniture with funky lamps (streetlight art) blending together in uber-chic harmony. A glass of l'Affectif' 2007 Rosé (par Jean-André Charial), with crisp un-cracked green Picholine olives, unshelled roasted almonds, plus the chilled tones from Buddha Bar's soft techno, underscored by the omnipresent chorus of cicadas, is pure Le Prieuré nectar.

Star service

The restaurant service is extremely polished and worthy of its Michelin star, first awarded in 2010. The chef, Fabien Fage, previously the sous chef at La Cabro d'Or, has been mentored by some of the greatest chefs in France, including Bernard Loiseau, Alain Ducasse and, of course, Monsieur Charial. He has developed his own delectable idiosyncrasies, leaning on the Languedoc region for its finest fare.

Among several other courses (I must guiltily add), I had expertly grilled langoustine in an aged-balsamic reduction, surrounded by tiny balls of melon and avocado, with a delicate sprinkling of herbs from the Pope's garden. Once Mr Why could get his head out of the Cave's metre-square book that brags hypnotically impressive vintages (finally choosing a bottle of Louis Carrillon Puligny Montrachet 2002), he selected and consequently swooned over the butter-smooth firm-flaked cabillaud, accompanied by plump clams, on a decadent bed of slightly chewy fresh prawn risotto with a light truffle-frothed reduction, capped with orange nasturtiums.

Fabian will only use seasonal produce from source and local markets, while also dipping his hand into the rich pickings within Le Prieuré's ancestral walls. This style of cooking pays remarkable dividends, not only in flavour but also in favour.

The meal continued in mellifluous notes as the half-moon shone like a beacon behind the plane trees. We chose to enjoy our cognac digestifs by moonbeam on our balcony, with the pool aglow while the owls took the acoustic lead from the cicadas. Le Prieuré may be extravagantly spacious, but its charm lies in the many fascinating layers that have built up over centuries, together with those that have been perceptively introduced by a dynamic duo who benefit from a deep well of spirited passion. A class act indeed!

Sophie Marchant
Sophie Marchant


Luxury Explorer
Luxury Explorer