I thought I may have taken a wrong turn as I wound my way through the narrow streets of Arles’ historic (and somewhat gritty) Roquette district. Surely there wasn’t enough space here for a large house with a swimming pool? Then I spotted the discreet name plaque, pushed open the heavy wooden gate and entered the enchanting garden with its raised bassin d’eau fronting an intimate 19th-century townhouse.
Built by Guillaume Meiffren-Laugier, Baron of Chartrouse, when he became mayor in 1824, the house opened as an hotel in 2002 after six months’ renovation and redecoration by the current owner, Brigitte Pages de Oliveira. There are seven bedrooms, and sumptuously decorated public areas such as the deep-red dining room and purple living room with its tall, gilt mirrors that reach towards the high ceilings. Each bedroom is individually decorated: those in the main house are very grand, with four-posters, roll-top baths and marble fireplaces; those in the converted stable block are simpler, with a slight Oriental influence. (Arles has a strong Moorish culture and on special occasions the garden is tented-over, kasbah-style.) My gorgeous room in the main house overlooked the quiet garden and, other than dark-wood floors and a grey-and-white frieze of hand-painted 19th-century wallpaper (by an artist called Zuber, after which the room is named), it was entirely white: walls and cornicing, bed hangings, upholstered seats, bed linen and bedcover.
Despite the grand surroundings and attention to detail (the silver rosewater dispenser in my bedroom, the rose petals scattered on the breakfast table, the LeNotre patisseries from Paris), the atmosphere at L’Hotel Particulier is relaxed and informal, thanks largely to the easy charm of Mme Pages and her staff. Don’t let yourself be so seduced, however, that you forget to explore Arles. The hotel is conveniently located behind buzzy boulevard des Lices and a short walk from the place du Forum;must sees’ include the impressive lst-century Roman theatre and amphitheatre. After a day exploring, you can retreat to the dappled shade of the ancient trees in the hotel garden, and (from October) enjoy the new spa.
4 rue de la Monnaie, Arles (00 33 4 90 52 51 40; fax: 90 96 16 70; www.hotel-particulier. com). Doubles ‚130-‚182;suites ‚153-‚182. Breakfast ‚12.50. Massage ‚70 for one hour rom the sea, in the early morning light, the Old Town of Rhodes rises above the rooftops of the new like a sandcastle built by a toddler god. The rough slabs of buff stone that make up this most organic of walled cities look like fresh, spade-squared blocks of beach. Close to, they are hard to the touch, abrasive; fragments of shell, tiny whorls of marine life, still adhere. Zoom out once more and the stones of Rhodes form a subtle patchwork that shifts with the light, changing from pale parchment to camel-hide to the dark golden brown of soaked sea-sponge.
This is the first thing you notice. The second is the proud separation of the medieval city of the Knights of St John, who made Rhodes their power base in the 14th and 15th centuries before being forced to relocate to Malta. There is no interpenetration of old and new. none of the usual osmosis between centre and suburbs. Inside is Byzantine, overlain but not overthrown by four centuries of Ottoman rule; outside is a scatter of late-Ottoman village-suburbs, connected and provided with squares, post offices and parks by the Italians in the 1920s and 1930s. The walls that divide the two mark the difference by making entry a rite of passage, loading it with the symbolism that underpinned the military architecture of the Crusader age.
Ideally, one should enter on foot from the south-west – the landward side, from where Demetrios of Macedonia besieged the city in 305bc with a 105-ton siege engine called Helepolis, or City-destroyer’. There are only three gates here, each switching back through bastions and over a double ring of dry moats that come alive with poppies in spring. The poppies seem to have picked up on the symbolism: they have a double ring of petals, the inner one coyly shielding the stamen.
The third thing you notice, after stone and separation, is the relentless paraphernalia of mass tourism. As I’m fumbling for something to compare the poppies to, a souvenir-seller approaches and asks me a question I have heard only a dozen or so times so far today: We-yu-fro’?’ Greenland,’ I have taken to replying, just to savour that moment of uncertainty before the hopeful Sprechen sie Deutsch?’ I console myself with the thought that tourism is nothing new on Rhodes. If we know a little about what the city laid out by Greek urban planner Hippodamus of Miletus originally looked like, it is because of the surviving fragment of a Welcome to Rhodes’ souvenir plate picked up by a tourist in the third century bc.
But the Old Town is too beautiful to be ruined by these distractions. Ippoton, the Street of the Knights’, is a wonder: a long, steep, cobbled lane ennobled by Ottoman mansions and the stately inns of the langues, the tongues’ into which the Order of St John was divided: France, Auvergne, Provence, England, Germany, Italy, Aragon-Navarre and Castile-Portugal. In the deserted early morning, this medieval high street looks more archaic still – like a row of Etruscan tombs, or the base of a Mayan temple newly emerged from the undergrowth.