In the deep heart of Armagnac country we meander through seemingly endless lanes, where vineyards nestle with valleys of corn and oak plantations shade the hilltops as far as the eye can see. We pass through timeless sleepy villages where the colombage houses haven’t been touched since they were first hand-built and the grapevines creeping up the corners of old stone barns carry a rather pretty pale blue shadow, the legacy of decades of bouille bordelaise application.
In this bucolic landscape it comes as quite a surprise to arrive at Barbotan-les-Thermes, an authentic spa town complete with tall red-shuttered Landaise hotels redolent of Alpine villages. It’s a unique destination where people have been coming for centuries to enjoy the healing mineral waters and seek cures for their ailments.
Even in late September there’s a buzz as people stroll in the exotic gardens, take lunches outside the cafes and hotels, or march purposefully to their next appointment in the impressive spa complex. Walk along the high street and through the medieval gate with its bell-tower and you can’t miss La Bastide de Gascogne, one of the Guérard family’s hotels.
With its gorgeous ochre-stone facades, white shutters, grand entrance and brick arched colonnade, the hotel looks more like a stylish Italian palazzo than an 18th century chartreuse, yet it is not out of place in this self-confident little spa town. The interiors are a delight, cleverly retaining some of the classic features such as open fireplaces, wood panelling, antique artworks and beamed ceilings, but combining these with white painted walls and contemporary decorative touches in the lamps, ornaments and bright soft furnishings. The overall effect and ambiance in the salons and dining rooms is charming, relaxed and welcoming– like the finest holiday retreat you could imagine.
Upstairs the 18 bedrooms and suites are elegantly and comfortably furnished – offering an esprit de calme which is appropriate for a spa hotel. White is the prevailing background colour and with the large windows the overall effect is wonderfully luminous. All rooms have air conditioning and spectacular walk-in rain-showers– some of the best I’ve experienced.
It becomes clear that a unified vision is at work in the hotel so it’s not surprising to learn that Christine Guérard (wife of 3* Michelin chef Michel Guérard) has played a key role in the decision-making during the colossal renovation process (it closed for ten years and only re-opened in 2011) and also in the interior design and furnishings. It’s all in the detail, and here the details are spot-on.
The 450 sq m spa complex offers a large range of treatments including thermal steam baths, hydro massages and mud wraps, most of which are based around the mineral rich hot springs which were discovered here many centuries ago. Not surprisingly the hotel offers a variety of retreat packages where you can benefit from use of the spa as part of the overall price – check the website for offers.
Meals in the elegant dining room offer a choice of “Santé Nature”, low calorie cuisine or a more conventional menu provided by talented young chef Jérôme Artiguebère who cooks with local Gascon ingredients. Menu decisions are supervised by Michel Guérard. In warmer weather there is a choice of terraces for exterior dining.
La Bastide is part of a wider estate where vineyards are cultivated to produce Château de Sandemagnan Armagnac. A visit to the cellars and dégustations are available to experience this world-famous liqueur made the traditional way.
An outdoor swimming pool and large gardens complete the picture of this idyllic retreat.
La Bastide is part of the Relais & Châteaux family. Address: 32150 Cazaubon. Tel: +33 (0)5 62 08 31 00. Prices from 195 Euros per night (superior rooms). Suites from 290 euros. Website: www.bastide-gasconne.com