Can you keep a secret? Just two hours from Nice there is a magical hideaway of international stars and mere mortals alike.
Ladies, have you ever wanted to sleep in George Clooney’s bed (come on now, be honest!)? Yes, you can! All you need to do is to trek up to idyllic Château Arnoux, a couple of hours drive (or a romantic train ride) away from the French Riviera. And what awaits you there is the terrestrial version of paradise: a small, exquisite hotel with a Michelin-starred restaurant that transports you to culinary heaven, set in a bucolic, tree- and sheep-dotted Alpine landscape of mountains and lakes.
The keeper of the Pearly Gates – pardon, of La Bonne Étape – is not called St. Peter but Jany Gleize. And Jany is the kind of man you would dearly want to be your Dad. Or your best friend. As soon as you arrive at his hotel – no, we refuse to call it that: it is really your home away from home for the duration of your stay! – he welcomes you with rare grace and warmth. You instinctively feel that he is the heart and soul of this house, because it really is HIS house, and he is the genteel head of the manor. This four star Relais & Châteaux in the department of Alpes-de-Haute-Provence is the furthest thing from an impersonal collection of standardized corporate shoe boxes that often pass for luxury hotels – instead, a world of zen opens up as you traverse the immaculately kept grounds and step into a warm country home, lovingly put together and thoughtfully expanded over the course of three generations.
Affable, charming, smiling, and with a handsome face that bespeaks as much a love of life as a generosity of the heart, Jany Gleize is the original innkeeper’s grandson, deeply rooted in this picturesque corner of the country. And it helps to understand the history of his family and the house to appreciate its spirit even more.
Let’s take a trip back in time to the first half of the 20th century, and to a small village called Château Arnoux situated in the mountaineous Haute Provence between Digne-les-Bains and Sisteron. Jean and Gabrielle Rey are running the 18th century post relay station that their parents, the Giacomino family, bought in 1911 and which had been transformed into an auberge called l’Hôtel Perrimond. While they modernize and extend the house, they stay true to their heritage as farmers and agriculturists when it comes to the food they serve, using the products their land and stable provide…. meat from the farm animals they raise, herbs and vegetables off the plot of land that Jean tends to right next to the house, locally produced olive oil……
Fast forward several years. One fine day, a motorbike rider breaks down near the main road and chances upon a lovely young girl. The spark plugs may have been gone but sparks fly anyway between Pierre Gleize, a confectioner, and Arlette Rey, the innkeepers’ pretty daughter, and it won’t be long until the young couple weds, and in 1957 brings their son Jany into this world. Yes, the same Jany who is now your gracious host. And to celebrate the fortuitous chain of events, the Perrimond Hotel is renamed, “La Bonne Étape”. The good stopover.
The Gleize family keeps on building the reputation of the hotel and restaurant, earning its Michelin star in 1964 and never losing it since! Small wonder therefore that young Jany discovers his passion in life early on – it lay right there, in his parents’ kitchen. As soon as he is old enough, he heads off to culinary training – and not just with anyone – no, with some of the greatest chefs in French cuisine. Jo Rostang…. Pierre and Jean Troisgros in Roanne….. Alain Chapel…. Michel Guérard. A six month pit stop at the prestigious Connaught Hotel in London rounds off his kitchen and front-of-house experience, and in 1981 he is ready to go back home to La Bonne Étape, reigning over the stoves of his parents’ establishment and taking on more and more hotel management responsibilities as well. It does not take long until his talent and ambition are rewarded: for the bicentennial of the French revolution on July 14, 1989, he ascends the culinary Olymp when President François Mitterrand invites him to cook for the state dinner reception.
Born to please and to share, and perfectly bilingual French/English, Jany Gleize is now the master of the premises, and only too happy to show you around his hotel which is also his ancestral home. The tour starts in the lovingly tended vegetable garden his grandfather created all those years ago and which in his honour is named “Jean Rey”. An English garden with Provençal accents, where aromatic herbs, leaves, fruit, berries, and flowers form a serene, idyllic ensemble of colours and scents… mature and recently planted, local and exotic shrubs, all existing side by side in perfect harmony. Jany educates without lecturing, gently, knowledgably, unpretentiously, and with that smile from the heart that is part of his identity. His pride is palpable, but so is his humility. He takes you on a culinary journey right there and then, making you try plants that at first sight might look like ordinary weeds but transform into delicate or pungent flavors on your tongue. This is the place where he not only retreats to from his 14+ hour work day, seven days a week, but where he also goes “shopping” for ingredients for his kitchen.
The tour continues in the main house, passing by art work, antiques, and lots of books everywhere, and on to the guest rooms – 18 of them, all thoroughly modernised but none of them “standard”. Their layout fell into place organically as the house grew over the past century under the three generations of owners. Individually decorated to complement the Provençal ambiance, the rooms are also a bow to his ancestors’ spirit. Antiques, fine fabrics, warm colours and patterns, exquisite marble in the bathrooms, plenty of thoughtful amenities throughout, and gorgeous vistas over the stunning Alpine scenery make you feel comfortable and at home. And even as he walks around to present his hotel, Jany keeps a hawk’s eye on perfection right down to the very smallest detail.
And here it is – the room George Clooney stayed in, and his bed! What did the Hollywood beau think of La Bonne Étape?
The illustrious movie star was by far not the only big name to spend blissful days at this sanctuary ….. the list of celebrities that sejourned here over the years is a veritable Who is Who of show business, sports, and public life, as evidenced in the Bonne Étape’s Golden Book where they all left words of heartfelt gratitude and appreciation. Lucy Liu among them, just like Olivier Martinez, Julia Migenes, Nina Simone, Yannick Noah, Ray Charles, Sigourney Weaver, Jean-Louis Trintignant, Rod Stewart, Juliette Binoche, Barbara Cartland, Catherine Deneuve, Gérard Depardieu, Jean Gabin, Jean-Jacques Goldman, Marc Duret, and so many more…..
Another entry in the Golden Book couldn’t have captured the essence of this retreat, and its location on route Napoléon, where once the Emperor and his troops trekked through, more poignantly:
“Si Napoléon s’était arrêté à La Bonne Étape,
Il y serait resté et aurait évité Waterloo”
(Had Napoleon stopped over at La Bonne Étape,
He would have stayed and avoided Waterloo)
presumably written by French Général François Perrier – but no one remembers for sure: This entry hails from the original Golden Book which sadly went up in flames in a fire that ravaged the dining room in 1985.
On the other side of the painstakingly rebuilt dining room, the tour finally arrives at Jany’s very personal kingdom, the beautifully organized, squeaky clean kitchen. Local products are privileged, coming from bio-ethical sources if possible. The most tender and flavourful lamb imaginable from nearby Sisteron. Seasonal vegetables from the villages around Château Arnoux. Oh what to choose?! Elegant Haute Cuisine at the star-studded fine dining restauraunt or rustic Haute Provence at the more casual onsite bistrot Le Goût du Jour?
We opted for just a sneak preview of Jany’s art at the flagship gourmet restaurant but were charmingly persuaded to indulge in a proper meal…. and rewarded with dishes faithful to the spirit of this place: star quality indeed but no fancy nouvelle cuisine chichi – instead, an honest-to-goodness mélange of thoughtfully composed flavours prepared to perfection, all pleasantly accompanied by charming and competent wait staff, including maître d’hôtel Jessica Vaugier-Clique who has great aptitude to pair food and wine. Speaking of which….. the world’s best sommelier (1992), Philippe Faure-Brac, learned his trade right here. Teaching and training is something near and dear to Jany’s heart, and it shows in the way everyone on his staff of 20, from dining room to reception, is efficient, pleasant, and discrete.
With this beautiful hotel so closely tied to its family history, what is the current and next generation up to? Jany’s wife doesn’t work onsite but he hedges hopes that his daughter Jane might one day follow in his footsteps. At age 17, she is already training with some of the coryphées of French culinary arts: the heirs of Bernard Loiseau, or Christophe Cussac, Joel Robuchon’s disciple, for instance. And naturally, although Jany insists there is absolutely no pressure on her, he would be delighted if Jane were to carry on the family establishment one day. He would certainly be as proud of her as his parents and grandparents must have been of him.
Actually, on the topic of gourmet cuisine….. you can immerse in a culinary class yourself, right here on the premises of La Bonne Étape. Regular Saturday morning cooking and patisserie atéliers throughout the year, tied into seasonal themes, let you into some of the secrets behind a Michelin star kitchen. To complete a perfectly relaxing weekend, go for a dip in the luxurious pool afterwards, or a massage in the health room… or set out to discover this area which is located in one of the most bounteous and culturally rich regions of France. The splendid Gorges du Verdon is nearby for a leisurely kayak tour, as are some unique museums dedicated to prehistory, an epoch which is still felt wherever you step in this magical corner.
The one fly in the ointment? Having to leave La (Magnifiquement) Bonne Étape. Once you spent a day with Jany at his…. and YOUR…. house, you will be reluctant to depart. To leave paradise. To go back to a world that is not reigned by gentleness and beauty. But you know that Jany is your friend and you can come back home to him any time you wish. George Clooney’s bed is awaiting – George Clooney himself, however, is not included.
PS: For those not within easy geographical reach of La Bonne Étape … journalist and film maker Bruno Klimis hosts a TV show, Les Toqués du Sud, which presents the culinary knowhow and products of our region, put together by none other than our star chef Jany Gleize. Definitely to be watched!
To learn more about this jewel of a hotel, or reserve your stay and/or your cooking class, visit the La Bonne Étape website.
Lead image and photo gallery images courtesy La Bonne Étape; all other photos © Natja Igney