The charming southern French city of Montpellier is brimming with grand architecture, lush gardens and picturesque back streets, but drive 90 minutes’ west and you’ll find yourself in its rural counterbalance; a chic but relaxed retreat surrounded by vineyards, olive groves and rolling Languedoc farmland.
In the small village of Assignan, Village Castigno is a whimsical boutique hotel peppered between old village houses. The village within a village stretches to 24 bedrooms, all dotted around a central square, along with three restaurants, three swimming pools and an art gallery.
And the general vibe?
Crumbling white stone buildings covered in foliage are brightened up by vibrant pink shutters that open out onto flowerboxes in bloom, while wooden tables and wicker chairs give the village’s central square a sociable feel. An air of calm runs through the whole place, in large part due to the encouragement of digital detoxing (wi-fi is only available in one building).
On warm evenings the gentle hum of Nina Simone flows from the open windows of La Petit Table, while chef Pablo leans out of the window, picking fresh rosemary and sage. Guests, staff and locals from the village relax with a glass of vin rouge while children chase each other down narrow-paved alleys until bowls brimming with mussels are bought to the table and all goes quiet.
Which room should I book at Village Castigno?
Velvet furnishings in shades of rich purple, deep red and dusty pink, bowls of rose petals and plush beds with silk covers create a sense of romance in each of the bedrooms. All 24 are decorated with individual trinkets that the hotel’s Flemish owner, Marc, has picked up from his travels. In place of televisions and internet, an iPod is left on shuffle to fill the room with a mellow playlist of Buena Vista Social Club, Aretha Franklin and Ella Fitzgerald. Baskets of flips flops and sarongs are provided for the pool, while the mini fridge is stocked with bottles of white wine and jars of olives.
Choose the Princess room (a former stable) if you want extra indulgence as it comes with a large living area and separate mezzanine level for sleeping. Or, if you’re after stunning views of the countryside, opt for one of the bedrooms in the large villa.
What’s good to drink?
Around the village are 42 hectares of vineyard, all of which produce organic wines. Take an hour and a half’s open buggy ride around the vineyards with Marc and explore hot springs and stunning views before a tasting in the newly opened wine chai (wine store). Our favourite was the Terra Casta, a red wine with a peppery flavour (derived, as sommelier Charlotte explained, through natural infusion from the wild sage, Jennifer and thyme that grow in bushes next to the grapes).
And to eat?
With three restaurants to choose from – bistro-style, Thai and fine dining – Village Castigno cater to most tastes. For a lunchtime snack, or hearty dinner, cosy up in the first of those, La Petit Table, among mosaic tiled floors, dusty pink walls and marble tables topped with jars of flowers.
On a Saturday, the smoky scent of pork belly cooking over open flames wafts through the lanes as chefs prepare the evening’s Gaucho dinner (think South American BBQ). Plates of smoky chipotle sausages in a sweet beetroot sauce sit next to tender pork belly and melt-in-the-mouth beef topped with crisp flaked almonds. Perfectly cooked chunks of sweet potato, roast tomatoes and asparagus add freshness.
On a Saturday afternoon, relax in the sun-dappled square and order a slice of light, cinnamon spiced apple cake topped with a refreshingly sweet raspberry sorbet.
La Thai satisfies those after something a little lighter, from bowls of coconut noodle soup to lightly fried tempura prawns served with sweet coriander mayo. Be sure to order the fragrant jasmine rice topped with crispy fried onions. This comes with a choice of curries and we loved the rich coconut version, with chunks of flaky white fish, and a side of sautéed pak choi in garlic and sesame seeds.
For a blowout dinner, stroll to the top of the hill to enjoy La Table’s fine dining in the form of five- and seven-course tasting menus. Floor-to-ceiling windows look out onto the tranquil kitchen gardens and well-kept bushes strung with fairy lights provide light if you’re dining al fresco. Choose the table by the open kitchen to watch chefs at work preparing delicate plates of beef tartar, or sink into one of the beetroot pink chairs and peruse the 50-strong cookbook collection on show.
It’s hard not to fill up on the slices of warm rosemary fougasse and rich brioche rolls spread generously with seaweed butter which waiters replenish throughout the evening. Highlights of the tasting menu include chargrilled tender scallops in a rich white butter sauce served with sweet peas; stems of al dente, smoky BBQ asparagus with a velvety caper sauce and a refreshing dessert of strawberries soaked in rosé fizz and topped with a coconut cream and sharp-sweet lemon verbena sorbet.
What’s the breakfast like?
Each morning starts with a power shot: a refreshing concoction of ginger, orange, apple and cardamom to wake you up before the feasting begins. Buttery croissants and pain au chocolats (made in the kitchen downstairs) come first along with bowls of freshly sliced crunchy baguettes and chunks of salted butter.
Creamy scrambled eggs oozing with butter are served in individual frying pans. Eat them as they are, or with a cheese platter, charcuterie selection or side of al dente roast vegetables. Sprinkle homemade granola into glass pots of thickly churned yogurt, or keep it light with a bowl of fresh fruit.
Mugs of chocolat chaud will warm you up in the winter months, while jugs of freshly squeezed blood orange, ginger and carrot juice are just the thing on summer mornings.
Any other food experiences I shouldn’t miss?
Step into La Petit Table kitchen on a Saturday afternoon and learn how to make bread with chef Rosina, or Mama China as she’s affectionately called. Inspired by her Italian grandmother and Uruguayan roots, Rosina will teach you how to make focaccia, a country loaf and spelt bread. The secret, she reveals, is duck fat (easily sourced, in this case, from the local farmer) for a rich flavour.
Rosina is more than happy to teach other types of bread too, and after two-hours, classes end with glasses of wine and plates of warm bread being torn apart and drizzled with olive oil in the evening sun.
Is Village Castigno family-friendly?
Yes. There is a village house with two bedrooms that sleeps up to four people and comes with a private swimming pool and garden. While there are no specific menus for children, they are warmly welcomed in all three restaurants. Board games are available to keep little ones occupied if the weather is cooler, but in the summer months there’s plenty of space for them to run around.
What can I do while I’m there?
On a Sunday, hop on one of the bicycles (or the Vespa if you’re feeling brave) and tootle three miles down the road to St Chinian for market day. If you get used to the wind blowing through your hair, take the Vespas into the medieval towns of Pays Haut Languedoc et Vignobles before feasting on a pre-packed picnic of bread, olives and Camembert.
The concierge says…
Hidden in the vineyards is a truffle forest lined with green oak trees and peppered with picnic tables. On certain days chefs will take you up into the fields at breakfast to pick fresh herbs and vegetables before cooking them for you outdoors.
Be sure to spend some time around the pool area. The pebbled walkway leads you to cornered off areas where you can relax on sun loungers while surrounded by clematis flowers. There’s even a rustic looking bar area which comes alive in the summer months.