Years ago, in the middle of a surly storm, we were scouting villages for our Provence Escapes tours. We were checking out Lacoste, site of one of the most infamous castles in Provence – the family home of the Marquis de Sade. Rough gusts of rain pelted us as we climbed up crumbling stone steps leading to the castle doorway high above the village. Heavy storm clouds turned late afternoon sunlight into murky twilight, creating gloomy images in our minds of villagers marching up the cobblestone alleys below us, shouting and waving torches and pitchforks in angry denunciation of the sadistic life on the other side of the castle’s door, like a scene from an early Frankenstein movie.
The castle was in ruins back then, two great walls jutting skyward, the rest in various stages of reckless neglect, with only a suggestion of where Sade committed his erotic dramas of human licentiousness and unrestrained pleasure.
All that’s changed today, thanks to designer Pierre Cardin’s purchase of the de Sade ruins. In philanthropic largesse, he’s restored parts of the castle, turning it into a performance venue for his Festival de Lacoste, a month of ballet, theater, concerts, recitals and opera staged in his partially restored de Sade castle. It’s an event that annually attracts thousands to this small village of less than 500 inhabitants.
But when we returned recently, we found the Marquis’ restored castle ruins lacking the nostalgic impact of those pre-Cardin days. It’s now fenced and sealed away from the rambling explorations that made it such a curious adventure. Sad for us, but what a boon to Lacoste to become a center of haute culture, raising it, on a sophistication scale, several notches above its sister hillside village of Bonnieux nine kilometers across the valley.
On our last visit, we made the pleasant jaunt from Bonnieux to Lacoste. Enroute, a little terrier in front of her owner’s cottage gave us a furious territorial warning – then joined us for the stroll to the famous village. We named her Bijou and enjoyed her doggy Joie de vivre. Alas, with typical French independence, she abandoned us as soon as we reached the cobblestone streets of Lacoste.
Nowadays, Lacoste’s beautifully restored buildings house the Savannah College of Art and Design’s French campus. The clock tower’s still there, along with artists’, weavers’ and potters’ studios, galleries, shops, cafes, the bakery, the sweets shop, the butcher – all the accoutrements that make village life so appealingly fascinating to foreign visitors. Today, Lacoste is many things: a walkable medieval remnant of the middle ages, a reminder of a later madness that gave us the word sadism, a contemporary center for English-speaking students studying art and design, a world-class stage for the performance of live art.
But perhaps best of all, Lacoste is a state of mind, adaptable to the satisfaction of any who visit with the open expectations of a child and the maturity to benefit from the experience.