Like a pair of navy espadrilles, Saint-Rémy — a small Provençal town an hour’s drive north from Marseille — has always been fashionable … but rarely trendy. With its gurgling centuries-old fountains, winding streets and shuttered sandstone houses, its beauty is of the timeless, low-key sort, remarkable for its unselfconsciousness. It’s where, looking out from the window of his asylum, Van Gogh painted “The Starry Night,” and not even the many fashion world denizens who have taken over the thick-walled farmhouses on the town’s outer edges (Pierre Bergé converted several tracts into a jungly Moroccan refuge) could disrupt its sense of serenity.
Now, though, with the recent opening of the Hôtel de Tourrel — a converted 17th-century mansion redecorated with Serge Mouille lights and Eileen Gray chairs — Saint-Rémy’s laid-back sense of chic is getting a little more sophisticated. As is the surrounding area’s. Half an hour’s drive to the southwest, Arles is developing into a cultural capital, thanks to the LUMA Foundation’s forthcoming arts center, designed by Frank Gehry and Annabelle Selldorf.
These changes aside, though, what locals really love about Saint-Rémy is how truly it epitomizes the ideal southern French town. It has squares paved with glossy sandstone and planted with ancient plane trees. On Wednesdays at the weekly market, there’s the woody aroma of freshly woven straw baskets and the rich scent of ripe apricots. Just outside the crumbling 14th-century town wall is a deeply unstylish ice cream shop that serves scoops of tangy raspberry gelato, perfect for after-dinner walks. And at the locally beloved cheese shop on the Place Joseph Hilaire, with its palm-size rounds of herb-flecked chèvre, everyone knows to ask for the owner, Monique, by name. Here’s the best of the new — but eternal — Saint-Rémy.
Built around 1670 as the private home of the aristocratic de Tourrel d’Almeran family, this imposing sandstone palace was restored by its current co-owner, the German architect Margot Stängle, and is now a seven-room hotel. The decoration balances old and new: tables by Konstantin Grcic on aged herringbone parquet floors. In the restaurant, with its olive oil-green tufted velvet banquettes and Eileen Gray Roquebrune chairs, you can order light Mediterranean fare.
The scene from the gates of the Château des Alpilles, a short drive from Saint-Rémy proper, looks like a 19th-century architect’s watercolor. Two columns of plane trees lead to a manor house of perfect neo-Classical proportions set on 17 acres of parkland dotted with palms and cypresses. The 21 rooms are all different — gilt mirrors and carved-leg chairs in the main house, Saarinen tables and a concrete mosaic floor in the restaurant. There is also a private two-bedroom stone cottage, which is cozy, rustic (it still contains the chateau’s old bread oven) and perfect for families.
Le Bistrot du Paradou
A 15-minute drive across the Alpilles from Saint-Rémy, this little bistro has been a cult destination since the ’80s, attracting a quietly glamorous crowd — despite, or perhaps because of, its homespun rusticity. Here, hearty French country fare like cassoulets and terrines is served family-style on wooden tables below an exposed-beam ceiling. The four-course prix fixe lunch menu includes unlimited local wine, which lends the restaurant a permanently celebratory atmosphere. Reservations are mandatory; aim for Friday when the very garlicky “grand aioli” is in rotation. 011-33-4-9054-3270
La Boutique des Jardins
Françoise Gerin’s eclectic interiors store on the edge of Saint-Rémy is filled with ornate colored glass lamps, handmade leather sandals, printed floor cushions and other exotic knickknacks from her travels across Asia (she lives half the year in India). The all-white interiors are flooded with light from floor-to-ceiling glass doors that open to a large garden wild with lavender, palms and trellised mermaid roses. Here you might find a four-foot-tall tooled-metal candle holder or an antique Indian daybed. 011-33-4-9092-1101
La Cave aux Fromages
A wide vitrine in the front of this endearingly no-frills store holds slices and wheels of cheese sourced from all over France, but owner Monique Mayer’s specialty (and passion) is local varieties from small producers in the Alpilles and Luberon. Inside, jars of briny olives from Les Baux-de-Provence and fig and plum jams line the wall, and downstairs in the 12th-century ripening cellar, Mayer offers samples of chunks of traditional grassy brebis from the Camargue and pats of fluffy-silky crémeux pressed with dried wildflowers. 011-33-4-9092-3245
Painted hot pink, orange and lime green and filled with piles of Afghan pillows and swags of sequined curtains, Jeanne Bayol’s wooden gypsy caravans are the centerpieces of her interior design store, and the embodiment of her borderless, eternal-hippie aesthetic. Born in Saint-Rémy, Bayol began restoring abandoned 18th- and 19th-century Romani “roulottes” more than 25 years ago, and has since expanded into making her own bohemian-inspired clothes and leather bucket bags.
Behind the counter of this small, stone-walled chocolate shop on Saint-Rémy’s ancient main boulevard, master chocolatier Joël Durand organizes his flavors by letter: A square painted with golden Cs contains caramel (made with salted butter from Brittany), E is flavored with Earl Grey ganache and J with jasmine tea. An assorted box could contain chocolates infused with anything from Ethiopian arabica coffee to Corsican honey, but the best are the ones that contain local ingredients, like the silky milk chocolate squares flecked with lavender, or the dark chocolate ones spiked with local thyme.
Occupying a sliver of storefront between two converging medieval streets, and facing a small square, this gemlike pâtisserie run by Petrossian-trained chef Michel Marshall has the perfect vantage for people watching, along with good coffee (which can be elusive in this part of the country). The cafe, which recently started offering fresh salads and terrines for lunch, is the place to find innovative desserts as well as traditional pastries. 011-33-490-950-354