Where to stay and pray in Provence

We followed a Jewish heritage trail that led to an unlikely vision


No wonder I feel at home in Provence. I've always warmed to the voluptuous, painterly maquis-scented landscape and felt drawn to the characterful, stone villages hugging the hill-tops with markets to drool over.

Yet, it was only on my recent visit to the new, elegantly discreet Domaine de Mandeville, deep in the Luberon heart of Provence, that I became aware that Provence has always been a shelter for Jews.

It was a touching revelation. The hotel, privately owned by Patrick and Edith Saut who were unassumingly present whilst I was staying, boasts that every guest's interest and whim can be catered for.

They got off to a good start, arranging for me to be taken to Cavillon to meet a guide from the Provence-Alps-Cote d'Azur regional tourism board to give me an individual tour and insight into its Jewish past.

Our rendezvous was in the very appealing town, Cavaillon, somewhere I'd always associated with melons (actually planted there by the Popes as melons were a fruit they were used to eating in Rome).

Getting there

Fly: British Airways Heathrow to Marseilles. 3 flights daily. From £73 one way including generous hand baggage allowance.
Stay: Domaine de Manville, Rooms start from euro 250 in low season and euro 350 high season.
More info:

We started at the arch leading to the cobbled, ghetto-like carrière (Provence for street) where the modest Jewish population were once crammed into high tenements, closed off nightly with a chain. I learnt that Jews had been welcomed and acknowledged for their intellectual, cultural and commercial influences in the region, right back to the time of Roman Gaul when it was known as Provenzia.

During the Middle Ages, though, the Jews were banished from the French kingdom and they found refuge in the independent country of Provence.

Even after its partial absorption into France, they were sheltered and offered asylum and tolerance by the Popes in Avignon within the Comtat Venaissin (now the Vaucluse) as "Jews of the Pope."

They were allowed to worship, yet had to pay all manner of taxes, and deliver regularly to the Bishop's table a prized delicacy, the tongue of every animal they slaughtered for consumption. Not all, I learnt, was so grisly and explicit.

I had been promised a visit to one of the oldest synagogues in France, but there appeared no sign of it.

Instead, I was led upstairs into what appeared to be in a noble house of the 18th century. Inside, it was a different, unconventional story. The interior with its boisière of white picked out with blue, gold fluted and gilded columns, pink walls and rococo, decorative motifs was beautiful, though quite unlike any synagogue I'd visited. It was designed to appear to be more like a church.

More extraordinarily still, I noticed an elaborate miniature armchair incongruously placed against a rococo cluster of sky-blue clouds, high above the congregation's heads, whose symbolic purpose was to seat the Prophet Elijah. What's more, there was no balcony for the female worshippers.

We went downstairs into a simple brick room where the women used to have to hear the service through a grate, but could not see it.

There was still the oven once used to bake matzah and surrounding it a modest museum of prayer books and marriage certificates with delicate floral borders, including one referring to a certain Madame Cohen, whose faded photograph of a frail, elderly Jewish woman in traditional Provence dress was testament to the last Jew to survive in Cavaillon. On the gentle drive back, we briefly visited the room where Van Gogh stayed at Hospital-Saint Paul in St Rémy de Provence to see the view of the gardens he painted, though there is no access to the grounds as it remains an asylum. We stopped too at Eygalière, picturebook perfect with plenty of Daylesfordesque shops of bleached timber artefacts and expensive boho jewellery, plus an accordian player in the market.

As Domaine de Manville is so ideosyncratic, yet luxe fashion far removed from the chintzy Provence norm, I was otherwise content to cocoon there.

The litmus test of a truly immersive, sybaritic hotel experience for me is invariably the dining.

It is irreproachable at Domaine de Manville under the direction of Steve Deconinck, who trained with chef Marc Veyrat.

Deconinck shares the passion of his mentor for elevanting vegetables, wild herbs and edible flowers to lead roles. Breakfasts too, the ultimate pleasure when enjoying a rare taste of living more slowly, are exceptional with probably the best and flakiest brioche I've ever tasted and the luxury of a whole frame of Domaine de Manville's own hives. It all makes life seem truly sweet.

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