For lovers of history and architecture, Arles is a compelling destination. There’s its superb Roman arena and more obviously ruined Théâtre Antique, splendid Romanesque cathedral and magnificent 17th-century Hotel de Ville, where the vaulting in its vestibule is truly to be wondered at. Walk further and you’ll find its quintessentially Provençal Place du Forum and other surprises embedded in its labyrinth of medieval streets.
There is plenty for art lovers too, what with the Fondation Vincent Van Gogh Arles, an exhibition space that commemorates the 15 months the Dutch painter spent in the city with temporary exhibitions and regular loans from the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam; and Luma Arles’s Parc des Ateliers.
The latter is a 25-acre former railway yard where various industrial sheds have been transformed into vast galleries as well as studio space and residences for artists; a 185ft-tall stainless steel tower and gallery complex by Frank Gehry is under construction.
The visionary behind Luma (and also president of the Van Gogh foundation) is the art aficionado and Hoffmann-La Roche heiress Maja Hoffmann. This autumn she opened her second hotel in the city, L’Arlatan opened this autumn. (She opened her first, the bohemian, three-star Le Cloître, in 2012.) It’s safe to say there’s nowhere in the world quite like it.
Originally built in the 15th century as the seat of the Counts of Arlatan de Beaumont and still filled with original features, the building stands on the site of a Roman basilica and shares a fourth-century Roman wall with the neighbouring Baths of Constantine.
Over the intervening centuries, it has been extensively added to, especially during the 1700s. (You can identify the listed parts by the copper guttering and downpipes; the less architecturally significant areas have stainless-steel piping.)
So it was always going to be a challenge to unify it aesthetically. Hoffmann’s idea was to harness the vision of an artist rather than an architect, specifically the Cuban-American Jorge Pardo, whose work she had collected for some time.
His first idea was to unify the hotel’s various parts by means of a giant mosaic floor, covering an area of almost 65,000sq ft, that flows through all 34 bedrooms, the coffered-ceilinged gym (where none of the equipment is motorised), the restaurant and various sitting rooms across all three storeys and out into the swimming pool in the garden. It’s a phenomenal feature, incorporating about two million pieces in a palette of 18 colours and 11 different geometric shapes laid in a pattern that never repeats itself.
This isn’t Pardo’s only intervention. Most of the light fittings and furniture are his work, as are the 400 paintings – mostly figurative and many inspired by the Japanese prints that proved such an influence on Van Gogh – you find on almost every door, not just to the rooms, but the wardrobes, drawers and minibars.
Of course just because a hotel is beautiful, original and extraordinary doesn’t automatically make for a great guest experience. (Some of the least comfortable hotel rooms I’ve ever slept it were those notionally “designed” by “artists”.) But I found very little to fault here.
Yes, the bath towels could have been more generous; I’d have appreciated some body lotion (though the locally made soap, shampoo and conditioner were heavenly); and guests who prefer showers to baths should note that only a minority of rooms have overhead showers. But with rates that start at just €99 (£89), this is not pretending to be a luxury experience in the conventional sense.
On the ground floor there’s a bar and buzzy brasserie, popular with locals since day one thanks to their exceptionally good-value menu, with starters from €8 and mains from €12, even though the chef in overall charge is Armand Arnal of the Michelin-starred restaurant La Chassagnette, also owned by Hoffmann, 12 miles south of central Arles.
There’s nothing very fancy here – braised oxtail, roast monkfish, home-made pasta and a tempting trolley of traditional desserts (I loved my île flotante, though my companion thought they’d been a little heavy-handed with the alcohol on the rum baba). In essence, the menu features French classics alongside Provençal specialities such as panisse croustillantes (like thick-cut chips but made from ground chickpeas), which you dip in a puree of piquant peppers.
Not everyone will share Pardo’s aesthetic – though I loved it – and appreciate his occasionally outlandish juxtapositions of colour or the way he sculpts with light. (By practical standards, some of the rooms are quite dark.) But for those who get it, to stay in an installation on this scale is a treat. My days there were the highlight of this year.
Rooms at L’Arlatan in Arles cost from €99 to €449 a night.