House & Garden travel editor Pamela Goodman has her heart stolen by the gardens of Domaine de la Baume. A bohemian Provencal property – previously home to the artist Bernard Buffet – and gently nursed back to health by its new hotelier owner.
Let me set the scene. Whoever chanced upon this hillside spot in the eighteenth-century was something of visionary – recognising that the vast and bewitching panorama of the Massif des Maures, where Domaine de la Baume sits, was worth its weight in gold. Even now, some two hundred years on, the view of wooded hills and valleys rolling to a misty blue horizon remains unfettered, the razzle dazzle of St Tropez and the Cote d’Azur somewhere there in the distance but mercifully unseen. At night barely a glimmer of electric light pollutes the landscape – even the exquisite village of Tourtour, perched on its hilltop two kilometres away, is out of sight.
In the latter half of the 20th century, the Expressionist painter Bernard Buffet bought the house and its encircling estate of garden, woodland and olive grove, and lived a Bohemian life here with his wife until his suicide in 1999. Some might say that for a house such as this to fall into the hands of a hotelier, a decade or so later, would be a travesty (it is now a 9 bedroom guest house). But the hands were those belonging to Jocelyne Sibuet – a French decorator of such good taste and finesse that the transformation has been a blessing in disguise.
Having visited most, but not all, of her hotels over the years I can honestly say it was the Domaine that truly stirred my soul. There is something about the gentle apricot-coloured façade with its dusty blue shutters, the plane trees and chestnut trees standing sentinel along the gravel terrace overhung with jaunty strings of bare bulbs like a villageplace, the box hedges and white roses, the Morning Glory clambering up the wall by the entrance, which make the heart sing.
“PERFECTION AT DOMAINE DE LA BAUME IS NOT ABOUT FLAWLESSNESS – IT’S ABOUT HEART AND SOUL.”
The revival process has been a laborious one: to re-tame the wilderness which had enveloped the rose garden, the lily ponds and the kitchen garden and to re-fashion the stony pathways leading through woods, past meadows of grazing horses and up to the beautiful but abandoned pigeonnier – a conversion project for another day. It is one such path which brings you to the woodland waterfalls, a series of natural cascades of cold spring water tumbling down the steep hillside creating magical, dappled pools in the river below where you can wallow and swim when the heat of the Provencal sun becomes too intense.
While updating the house and the grounds, she has been careful to preserve its character, maintaining a sense of rusticity and faded grandeur. She has made virtues of the Domaine’s idiosyncrasies – the bumpy, ivy-festooned tennis court and the big, old pool in the walled garden, and she worries not about peeling paint or the odd weed in the roof tiles. Perfection at Domaine de la Baume is not about flawlessness – it’s about heart and soul.
Pamela Goodman – Travel Editor for House & Garden