Published 7 December 2003 News Review 543rd article
Michael Winner and Alberto Boada in La Mirande's breakfast room (Geraldine Lynton-Edwards)
La Mirande, a hotel in Avignon, is the worst-run establishment I've come across. A pity, because there's a lot going for it.
It's the second most beautiful hotel I've ever visited. The ﬁrst being Chateau de Bagnols, owned by Lady Helen Hamlyn, who first pointed me towards La Mirande.
Dating back to 1653, it was opened as a hotel in 1990 by Achim and Hannelore Stein, Germans who'd settled in Provence. It's now run by their son Martin.
He produced a splendid book on La Mirande, illustrating exquisitely furnished and wallpapered rooms. The photo of my room, number 29 and cramped, featured a fetching oil painting above the bed which had been replaced by two naff flower pictures.
Martin looks like a bewildered art student. He's good at book publishing, bad at hotel management. He was hardly visible at all. At our first breakfast the buffet offered everything except butter. When I asked for it we eventually got two cups of coffee. It was 12 minutes before butter arrived. The home-made jam was like water.
The next day the basket for croissants was empty bar one raisin roll. When the croissants and brioche ﬁnally arrived they were all burnt.
There were never more than six people at breakfast. A Spanish man, Alberto Boada, spoke in distress, "Please take these eggs, they're cold. This is the first time I've had fried eggs cold. I don't want to spend all day waiting for them to come back. I want to visit your beautiful city."
"I'd like to congratulate you on your egg speech," I said. After a while, with no replacement eggs, Alberto saw a waitress (not a common sight in the breakfast room) and said, "I'm going." As he passed us he muttered, "I'll take the eggs outside."
I later saw him complaining to Martin and refusing to pay for breakfast. He also claimed they tried to charge him more for his room than he'd been told on the phone.
To compensate for his disappointments we offered a photo of him and me in the breakfast room. Alberto asked Martin to take a photo of Geraldine and me with him and his wife. Then off he went in his Lexus station wagon back to Barcelona
Then next day the breakfast room was empty of staff or customers. I searched the hotel, at last finding a waitress. It took 24 minutes before coffee arrived.
La Mirande is not ruled with a rod of iron. It's run, atrociously, with a wisp of straw. At £300 a night in high season for a single room ex breakfast, it's not good value.
Avignon is the most difficult city in the world to drive around. The one-way streets are only wide enough for a single vehicle.
The receptionist offered a map showing how to reach the road to Arles. The same one-way road couldn't be used for coming back. The tiny map was useless because it didn't show the one-way system. It took 50 minutes to drive two miles from city walls to the hotel.
I requested Martin draw a detailed map of how to reach the hotel from Les Halles, a much sign posted site nearby. The receptionist produced the same tiny map. Martin had drawn a red line, covering the street names, on streets he recommended. It was unreadable in a car at night. Difficult by day.
"Take me to your photocopy machine!" I said, discovering Martin in the street. "I wish to blow up a map section so it's readable." Why can't he offer guests proper maps of how to get to and from his hotel?
Dinner in their one Michelin starred restaurant was ludicrous. Geraldine ordered Jerusalem artichoke soup. I ordered puy lentil soup with poached quail eggs. Both described on the menu as "chaude", meaning hot. They arrived below tepid. "Even the soup bowls aren't heated," observed Geraldine.
The next night I said to the restaurant manager, "I don't want cold soup again." We both ordered cream of pumpkin soup. "I'll tell the kitchen to make sure they're hot," said the restaurant manager. They came cold as the night before.
"Ask the chef why he can't heat soup," I demanded. The chef, Jerome Verriere, duly appeared. "Why can you not serve hot soup and why don't you heat the soup bowls?" I asked.
Jerome looked baffled. I repeated my question. Another silence. Then, "The soup dish was cold?" he asked me. "There were 10 people in the dining room and you don't know if your own soup is hot or cold!" I observed.
The next night Geraldine's soup was steaming. "It's too hot for me," she said. Ah well, you can't win 'em all.
Mr Winner told us last week he didn't like to see businessmen in restaurants. I suppose he spots them by their well-cut suits, shirts, ties and leather shoes. Some people don't like to see pensioners, wearing light-coloured trousers, dark loafers, no socks, dark jackets and ill-fitting shirts worn outside the trousers with large open-necked collars and showing no cuff.
Harry Sibley, Berkshire
I'm a rather small lady, I suspect of Mr Winner's age. When I lunch with a female of the same age restaurants find us invisible. I was with my friend Erica in a restaurant, considered to be the bee's knees, in Exeter. The tables were much too close together. A group of large businessmen came to the next table. One took off his overcoat and the sleeve slapped into my starter sending most of it onto the floor. The waiter, who noticed, raised his eyebrows and shrugged his shoulders. Normally I'd have made a big fuss, but Erica was confiding a most important and traumatic circumstance to me and I didn't want to interrupt. The businessmen remained totally unaware of our presence and ruined the rest of our meal with their loud voices in the "I've been headhunted aqain" mode. I'm sure it's much nicer to be Mr Winner in a restaurant than to be me.
Maeve Creber, Devon
I was forwarded a collection of your columns. They demonstrated, to my surprise, that you're much more entertaining in print than in person. Why don't you tackle Eurostar, which has the most uncomfortable first-class seats on either side of the channel and sub-pro service as well? As for Virgin Atlantic - nothing prepared me for the utterly inept service, nor for being entombed from London to LA in their form-hugging seats. It was like a mainland Chinese airline I flew in 1979, except Virgin's was yellow.
Charles Ziarko, Hollywood
I called to make a lunch booking at the Wolseley in late November to be told there were no tables that day. I asked when a lunch table would be available and was told not before Christmas. There was no question of how many, or what time, or of early lunch or late lunch or the possibility of cancellations. Just "No." I guess you, Michael, have a different number to call.
Gerard Connolly, London
Send letters to Winner's Dinners, The Sunday Times, 1 Pennington Street, London E98 1ST or e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org