Coming from Provence's natural wonderland into the entrance hall of Château de Massillan, one cannot help but gasp. Less South of France than trendy London lounge, the public spaces of this small luxury hotel showcase polished wooden furniture, sexy light fixtures, and square sofas done in the decidedly un-Provençal colors of beige and gray. Antiques well chosen by the designer owners Birgit Israel and Peter Wylly--such as the lobby's gorgeous 18th-century crystal chandelier--provide touches of historic authority. "We didn't want to force a contemporary vision on a sixteenth-century château," says Israel. "Instead we pursued a soft look that would enhance the natural beauty of the surroundings."
And beauty there is. Located in the Vaucluse, 20 miles north of Avignon, Massillan is surrounded by Châteauneuf-du-Pape vineyards, sweeping forests, and ancient Roman settlements. The air is thick with the scent of lavender, thyme, and rosemary; and lush vegetation--oleander, olive trees, weeping willow, and cypress--overspills the château's 24-acre park.
Until now, cutting-edge design was not the first image that came to mind when thinking about Provence. But this may change thanks to the innovative husband-and-wife design duo. The recently opened Massillan offers a thoroughly modern version of Provence without sacrificing any of the area's intrinsic charm. And the château's sleek decor proves that a contemporary interpretation of the legendary region isn't only possible but long overdue.
After scouring the South of France for two years for a suitable property, Wylly and Israel found the 20,000-square-foot castle by chance. Built in 1550 and the home of Diane de Poitiers, mistress of Henri II, the limestone château, with its turreted towers, elegant long wings, and picturesque courtyard, possesses an undeniably romantic air. Despite the previous owners' unfortunate affinity for velvet, marble, and anything gilded, Israel and Wylly fell in love with it on the spot.
With a team of German builders headed up by Birgit's brother, Christoph Israel, the designers (she hails from Hamburg, he from London) and co-owner Marc Koenemund embarked on a major interior renovation, undaunted by the coldest winter Provence had seen in 15 years. "Our neighbors brought us a space heater," laughs Wylly; "we weren't exactly prepared for snow."
When Château de Massillan opened its doors last May, just eight months after Wylly and Israel's arrival, the interiors were unrecognizable.
Like the public spaces, the 12 guestrooms (seven will be added next year) are a delightful blend of outré objets and antiques (including a fabulous collection of 19th-century mercury-glass mirrors).
Best of all are the sprawling bathrooms. Though they vary from room to room, features include long limestone sinks, freestanding tubs, and spacious open showers with beautiful garden views (Wylly's favorite architectural detail). Amenities include soothing bath products from London, fine Egyptian-cotton sheets by Peter Reed, and fluffy oversized towels from Portugal.
The rooms differ in layout and design: Some on the first floor have exposed dark-wood ceiling beams and/or large terraces lined with lemon trees, while others have original 18th-century red floor tiles. Make sure to ask for a tower room. (Caveat: Despite the spectacular views, some top-floor rooms can feel small.)
Massillan's magnificent isolation leads many guests to stay close to the turquoise pool or shaded courtyard, though hiking at Mont Ventoux, canoeing in the Gorges de l'Ardèche, and antiques hunting in L'Isle-sur-la-Sorgue make perfect day trips.
Small and personal, Massillan isn't the place for those seeking the constant and effortless (i.e., unobtrusive) service found in, say, a grand hotel on the Côte d'Azur. Though Wylly and Israel are enthusiastic hosts, they aren't trained hoteliers. Nevertheless, their somewhat casual approach is appropriate in the relaxed environment.
In the evening, you might spot Koenemund, who is Massillan's head chef, in the herb and vegetable gardens, picking some cherry tomatoes here, some fresh lemongrass there. "I prefer working with homegrown products," he says in fluent French, not once slipping into his native German, "and the local markets are incredible."
The menu, mirroring Massillan's innovative design, infuses classic haute cuisine with deliciously contemporary touches: foie gras lightly seasoned with spicy garam masala and served with red-plum chutney, tender young rabbit on a bed of chilled ratatouille, lavender-spiced guinea fowl with sweet melon sauce, monkfish fillets with tomato compote and saffron vinaigrette.
"The menu will change often, according to season and whim," says Koenemund. After all, the region is famous for truffles (in season from November through March), wild game in the fall, and Avignon's wine festival in November. The château's own comprehensive 100-plus wine list is heavy in reds from the Vallée du Rhône, including small appellations like the nearby Domaine Bouche and Château Saint Estève. Skilled sommelier Laurent Le Breton offers charming introductions to all of them.
Château de Massillan proves that opposites do attract: The up-to-the-minute design truly captures and celebrates the region's unmatched natural splendor. Even the homemade marmalades at breakfast bear unexpected hints of lavender, anisette, and rosemary. Thickly spread on a flaky croissant, they taste like biting into Provence itself. "Massillan is all about spoiling your senses," says Israel, "life's simple pleasures transformed into luxuries."
Room rates: $160-$360. $ Four-course dinner for two without wine or service: $120. Château de Massillan, Hauteville, Uchaux 84100; 33-4-90-40-64-51; fax 33-4-90-40-63-85; www.chateau-de-massillan.com.
How to Get the Chateau Look
Walking through Massillan, one can't help but admire the flawless contemporary design while mentally selecting items for their own home. Luckily, many of the pieces here are available in the château's boutique and hail from Babylon Design, the London interior design company and shop also owned by Israel and Wylly.
Founded in 1997, Babylon specializes in 20th-century antiques, innovative sculptural lighting, and sleek objects such as the mirrored glass vases and bowls found in Massillan's guestrooms. "Our aesthetic is one of uncomplicated beauty and complete originality," says Wylly.
Jo Whiting's lamps ($455) in the château's lounge, for example, are made of exquisitely thin textured porcelain strips. Layered and stitched together with wire, they look like fabric pieces and produce a soft, translucent light. More dramatic are the "James" floor and table lamps ($530 and $380) with their oak bases and microcashmere shades.
If you wish to perfect the Massillan mélange, select antiques are on sale, like the 19th-century French chaise longues ($3,500) and fauteuils ($1,400) covered with contemporary fabrics from Bute, in Scotland.
Always toying with new ideas, Israel and Wylly are unfazed by the prospect of guests literally buying up the château's furniture. "We don't believe in hotels that are designed once and stay unchanged for years," says Israel, "Château de Massillan is a very personal statement, and it will always keep evolving."
At Home in Provence Massillan's owners Birgit Israel and husband Peter Wylly enjoy a moment of relaxation in the château's courtyard. Sharing the plein-air break are partner-chef Marc Koenemund and the front-desk manager, Anna Dehof. In the background, pieces of fossilized oak as sculpture.
Simone Girner, based in Paris, wrote about the St. Tropez flea market in the September issue of Departures.