The Madness That Made Lacoste

remains of de Sade's castle in LacosteYears 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.

de sade's castle, Lacoste valleyAll 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.

Doggie escort on path between Bonieux and LacosteOn 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.

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French Words To Travel By: In the Café – le café au lait

le café au lait

French coffee served at a cafe
No matter where we are in France or home in the states, we love to go by a cafe and have a rich and creamy café au lait. It’s the perfect drink to sip while we’re doing some people watching along the village streets in Provence.

le café au lait, m. (coffee with milk), a French coffee drink made with espresso coffee and steamed milk and usually served in a white porcelain cup or bowl.

Pronunciation:

Illustration by Judi Janofsky

Dining Protocol In France

Eat Like a French Native …

plate with silverware

As hosts of our Provence Escapes tours, we’re often asked about what cultural differences Americans should be aware of when traveling in France. No one wants to make an embarrassing “faux pas” in a foreign country.

Well, in a country where food is king it’s good to have courtly manners, especially while dining. So here are a few cultural differences between eating styles in America and France that we’ve picked up over our years traveling in France.

– You’ll notice that most Europeans use the fork in their left hand, the knife in their right. It makes sense, especially if you’re cutting something – why keep switching hands every time? Try it; you’ll quickly feel comfortable with the new arrangement.

– Don’t cut your salad with a knife or fork. Instead, fold your salad on your fork (in your left hand) using your knife. (This will take a bit of finesse, so practice at home to get the hang of it.)

– Never cut bread. Break it with your fingers. And because there usually aren’t bread/butter plates, it’s OK to place your bread on the table above your dinner plate on the left.

– Good news: it’s OK to sop up your plate with a small piece of bread!

– Cut cheese long ways, not across. (For example, don’t cut off the point.)

– Never eat fruit whole – always peel and slice it before eating.

– When you’re finished eating, place knife and fork side by side on the plate at the 5:20 position. The fork should be on the left and the knife should be on the right with the blade of the knife facing the fork a la the photo above.

silverware message on a plate– To signify that you would like more food, cross your knife and fork across your plate.

Bon appétit.

Walking in the Footsteps of Cezanne

Jas de Bouffon, Paul Cezanne Home

Jas de Bouffon, Paul Cezanne’s house in Aix-en-Provence

“When I was in Aix, I thought I would be better off elsewhere. I miss Aix. When you’re born there, that’s it. Nothing else appeals.   – Paul Cezanne, July 23, 1896.

Inspired by deep blue skies, bright red poppies and quaint honey-hued villages, Van Gogh, Renoir and Monet came to Provence to capture on canvas the intense light on the bucolic scenes of this beautiful region. They all traveled south from Paris to paint coastlines, villages, mountains and vineyards. 

All but Paul Cezanne. For him, this beauty was just outside his door. Born in Aix-en-Provence, Cezanne had only to step out of his home to capture tree-lined avenues, ochre-colored houses and the mountain that loomed over the town and surrounding countryside. Mont Ste. Victoire was such a draw for Cezanne that over the years he painted and sketched it 88 times.

During our Provence tour this year, we’ll be spending a day in Aix walking in the footsteps of Cezanne, visiting his home, studio and the quarry where he painted.

Jas de Bouffan
“A work of art which did not begin in emotion is not art.”    – Paul Cezanne.

Our tour starts in Jas de Bouffan, the house where Cezanne lived for a number of years. The red-roofed house and lush grounds set back from the street is as picturesque now as it was when he lived there more than a century ago. Walking through the house and grounds is like stepping into some of Cezanne’s paintings. Between 1866 and 1895, Cezanne painted 36 oils and 17 watercolors of the house, farm, groves, chestnut-tree lined paths, the ponds and its statues.

The Bibemus Quarries
“I have to know the geology. The geological colors.”   – Paul Cezanne on the Bibemus Quarries.

Eleven million years ago, Aix-en-Provence was under water. The area where the Bibemus Quarries now stand was the beach. Over the millions of years that followed, the sand was transformed into calcified stone ranging in colors from grey white to deep ochre. The Romans were the first to extract the stone and for almost 2,000 years the quarries’ limestone was used to build homes and churches. The quarries were abandoned at the end of the 18th century and what was left is a maze of arches and valleys. Deep within the quarry the walls of warm-colored rock are marked with long rectangular striations – evidence of blocks of rock being extracted by picks. Cezanne found the angular stones inspirational as he moved toward cubism, creating 27 paintings within the quarry and beyond to his beloved Mont Ste. Victoire.

The Studio
“Little Marie has cleaned my studio which is now finished and I am settling down there little by little…”     – In a letter by Cezanne written to his niece Paule Conil.

Of all the places to track Cezanne, it’s in his atelier (studio) that you’ll find him easiest. Hanging on hooks, sitting on tables and propped against walls are many of the objects he used in his still lives. A glimpse of just a few invokes many of his paintings. Scattered across the room are his tools of the trade – brushes, easel and flasks. At the end of one long wall is a tall narrow door through which Cezanne slid his oversized canvases so he could work outdoors. Dozens of works, many his masterpieces, including his last “Large Bathers,” were painted here. After his death in 1906, the studio was bought by Marcel Provence who lived there until his death in 1951. To save the studio, 114 American donors rescued it by buying the property and giving it to the Universite d’Aix-Marseille.

More info at http://www.ProvenceEscapes.com.

French Words To Travel By: In the Café – a croissant

Le Croissant

French CroissantOne of our favorite things to do in Provence is to go to a local café for breakfast (le petit dejeuner) and order a coffee and a croissant, the wonderful fragrant and decadent pastry that literally melts in your mouth. Life is good.


le croissant
, m, (croissant) a flaky, buttery crescent-shaped French puff pastry often served with jam for a continental breakfast.

Pronunciation:

Illustration by Judi Janofsky

French Chocolate Bombs in Asheville

French Chocolate Pastry
Chocolate bombs are these wonderful ganache covered cakes that often have a cream filling – kind of like a truffle with a layer of cake between the rich filling and ganache covering.  We found this version of the chocolate bomb at the Donatelli Cafe and Bakery in Asheville, NC. Not only are they beautiful but they taste just as good as the ones we’ve had in France.

Provence Escapes Goes Underground For Art

There’s a fascinating place in Provence, France, that’s unknown to most Americans. It’s an underground quarry deep beneath Les Baux-de-Provence, one of the most-visited villages in France.

Carrieres de Lumieres entrance

The massive entry welcomes visitors to the underground light and sound spectacle.

Deep within the caverns that gave their stone to build the medieval castle, fortress and walls on Les Baux’s mountain plateau high overhead, is the spectacular Carrieres de Lumieres (“Quarries of Light”). It’s an apt name for one of the most unusual light and sound spectacles in all of France. It’s one of the places we take our Provence Escapes tour guests. 

Carrieres de Lumieres interior

Art and sound surrounds visitors in the quarry’s cavernous chambers.

Through a combination of high-tech imagery and surround-sound music, visitors are immersed  among over 2,000 super-sized projections from paintings by Monet, Renoir, Matisse, Chagall and others as images sweep across 40-foot walls, floors and ceilings in the quarry’s cavernous chambers.

But underground galleries aren’t the only art highlights of the tour this year. included is a visit to Aix-en-Provence where Cezanne lived, with a tour of his home, his

studio (filled with original items he included in some of his paintings) and the quarry where he painted. Plus a day in St. Remy, where Van Gogh, committed to its asylum, painted his provocative Starry Night and many of his best known pieces.