“We had been here often before as tourists, desperate for our annual ration of two or three weeks of true heat and sharp light. Always when we left, with peeling noses and regret, we promised ourselves that one-day we would live here. We had talked about it during the long gray winters and the damp green summers, looked with an addict’s longing at photographs of village markets and vineyards, dreamed of being woken up by the sun slanting through the bedroom window.” ― Peter Mayle, A Year in Provence
British author Peter Mayle wrote this epigraph, but it might just as easily have been written by Canadian entrepreneur and technology guru Peter Schwartz. When Schwartz, owner of the villa, Petit Hopital, speaks of Provence, it is with the exuberance of someone who has just discovered a fine wine. His obvious joy is like that of a child speaking about a secret hideout in the nearby woods or a composer with the frisson of pleasure at adding the final notes to a composition for string quartet: “I just cannot get enough of Provence!”
Schwartz, like Mayle, stole away with his family for a year in Provence. Back in 2007, it was a radical decision to leave his flourishing Toronto private equity firm, take his four daughters, then aged 4 to 11, out of school and rent the 350-year-old villa, Petit Hopital, sight unseen. He wanted his family to face the challenge of learning about a new culture, one for which he already had a fascination. The family saw a few photos of the villa and sent some French acquaintances to take a look, but it was the image of the kitchen, its large doors giving onto a patio, that absolutely sold them on the home. “I just LOVE cooking!” says Schwartz, who is almost as passionate about food as he is about Provence (he has served on the Board of the prestigious Stratford Chefs School and is proud to have been one of the founders of Ontario dining destination Oviinbyrd Golf Club).
Looking back on the very first time the family approached the villa with its ancient stone walls, heavy iron gates, century-old stand of plane trees and the air rich with the odor of roses, black earth, and wild thyme, Schwartz remembers how they were smitten. It was a time capsule. “I walked to the center of the courtyard where the troughs and hayloft once stood,” he says, “and it stopped me for a moment. I remember thinking, ‘Everything is so simple, so secure, demeurre, the French word for the feeling of home.’”
Enamored of the architecture and simplicity, the family began its one-year stay, falling in love with the area and the house a little more each day. By the end of the year, they had decided Provence was “magical” and that they just had to buy Petit Hopital to use when they could and share with others when the house was vacant.
“The plumbing, the pipes, the fountains that didn’t work, and the water heaters that didn’t heat – there was a lot of work to make everything function perfectly”
Solid, clad with limestone rock and an ochre clay tile roof, Gallic to its core, Petit Hopital was a tranquil enclave surrounded by trees—lots and lots of trees—apple, cherry, plum and gnarly olive. The reality, of course, was that this 10,000 sq-ft old house needed a careful update. The reverie was one thing but in fact the villa needed a lot of attention. “The plumbing…” Schwartz says laughing. “Of course the plumbing, the pipes, the fountains that didn’t work, and the water heaters that didn’t heat – there was a lot of work to make everything function perfectly.”
With the utmost respect for the villa’s history and with the help of talented local artisans, Schwartz removed some walls, and re-tiled the vanities and showers with period-appropriate tumbled marble tiles. Next, after much haunting of nearby antique shops, he replaced the broken doors with 200-year-old walnut antiques complete with their original iron handles and locks, keys still intact. And, of course, he replaced all the furniture with carefully chosen pieces that reflect the history of the house. “Fortunately the nearby village, L’Isle Sur la Sorgue, is the antique capital of France,” smiles Schwartz. And fortunately for future renters, the family Schwartz has impeccable taste in antiques.
Inside the home proper, with its flagstone floors and tall shuttered windows, a long open space pairs the salon and dining areas. Done in a palette of creams, grays, and taupe, the salon has two large and welcoming sofas where guests can settle in with a fine local wine and read, or daydream to music from the villa’s music collection that runs from Debussy and Bizet to iconic French phenom, Johnny Hallyday. It is, however, the dining area with its 19th-century 5-meter long Tuscan harvest table that exerts a magnetic pull on the Schwartz family and villa guests (eighteen people can be seated comfortably). The table is the stage for congenial dining, leisurely late-into-the-night dinner conversations, and, for Peter Schwartz, food aficionado extraordinaire, the reason to try out new recipes or enjoy the fruits of an ad hoc cooking class with friends in the villa’s most fabulous, professional kitchen.
Petit Hopital is a perfect place for socializing and for private reflection. Each of the 8 bedrooms with its period touches offers singular solitude and views of the surrounding countryside. The home sits on 3.5 acres of fruit trees and manicured flower and herb gardens, so for wanderers—those who want to escape and sit quietly outdoors with a pot of espresso on a small wrought iron table–landscape architect Michel Simini has created fragrant paths leading to a variety of petits coins, little enclaves with tables and chairs. Some are under grape or wisteria arbors next to fountains, others nestle behind circular hedges.
For those who want to venture further afield, L’Isle-sur-la-Sorgue, a picturesque town surrounded by the river Sorgue, is just a few miles away. Picture-postcard perfect, there is a beautiful church, cafés, and of course antique shops and market stalls. “I didn’t know how much I would love the town,” Schwartz says. “I got to know everyone: the butcher, café owner, and the wine merchant.”
And wine, of course, is one of the major draws of Provence. Schwartz spends considerable time sampling the wines and cheeses at Caveau de la Tour de l’Isle and he recommends his guests do too. At the Caveau, Sommelier Stephane Fina has a chalkboard with almost two dozen modestly priced wines listed and is happy to talk wine until the sun goes down.
Whether eating at home at or out at a favorite restaurant like Le Moulin, a little bistro known locally for its roasted fish and camargue rice, or at Michelin-recognized Le Jardin du Quay of Chef Daniel Hebet, it is impossible to go wrong. “The food and house wines at the local restaurants are spectacular,” Schwartz explains.
In fact, speaking to Peter Schwartz is like reading the best guidebook of Provence or seeing the very best film set in the region. From the tours of the hilltop towns to the most under-the-radar winery, Schwartz wants to share his passion, knowledge and experience with others. And most of all, he wants to share his home. Asked if it isn’t just a bit of a love affair, a coup de foudre, he admits it. “It’s just magical. Every time I go, it’s like the very first time” C’est l’amour!
Find out more about Petit Hopital