From the Middle Ages to the Future – Toulouse, La Ville Rose

From the Middle Ages to the Future – Toulouse, La Ville Rose

Sometime in the 2nd century BCE, the Romans marched into Toulouse, or Tolosa as it was then called. Recognizing the strategic potential of the long-established trading hub between the Mediterranean, the Atlantic and the Pyrenees, they set out to turn it into a major military outpost. To compensate for the area’s shortage of building stone, they turned to the abundant iron-rich clay of the Garonne River basin, which they baked into red bricks. La Ville Rose (the pink city) was born.

A Medieval Building Boom

Toulouse - cloister.

Several Romanesque brick cloisters remain in the city center.

Since bricks are easily repurposed, little remains of the antique city. By the turn of the first millennium A.D., as the local population finally emerged from the centuries of Dark Ages that followed the fall of the Roman Empire, a second building boom ensued. Roman bricks found their way into the walls of Medieval monasteries, churches and mansions that still stand today along the tangle of streets of the historic city center.

Toulouse -St Sernin bell tower.

The bell tower of Saint Sernin is a famed city landmark.

The Basilique Saint Sernin is a magnificent illustration of this early architectural recycling. The only remainder of the once sprawling abbey of the same name, it is considered one of the largest and finest examples of early Romanesque churches in Europe. Consecrated in 1096, it became an important stopover for pilgrims on their way to Santiago de Compostella in Northern Spain. Its elegant octagonal bell tower topped by a graceful spear remains a landmark of the city. The wide ambulatory (walkway) that encircles the nave and main altar is lined with chapels where white marble saints stare down from alcoves in the pink brick walls.

Toulouse - Jacobins palm tree.

The “palm tree” vault of the Couvent des Jacobins.

The nearby Couvent des Jacobins is another remarkable monastic building. Built in the 13th century, this former convent for Dominican friars (called Jacobins in France in reference to the location of their first convent, located Rue St. Jacques in Paris) is a jewel of Southern Gothic art. Its now deconsecrated church is unique for its “palm tree” ribbed vault soaring from a central colonnade, 28 meters (92 feet) above the ground. The adjoining cloister with its verdant central garden remains an island of tranquility in the heart of the city.

Toulouse - Augustins

The Musée des Augustins holds a rich collection of Romanesque capitals and Gothic sculptures.

No tour of the great religious complexes of Toulouse is complete without a visit to the Musée des Augustins. The expansive gothic monastery, built in 14th century for Augustine monks, became one of France’s oldest museums in 1975, when it was secularized during the French revolution. As well as an eclectic collection of paintings and sculptures ranging from the early Middle Ages to the start of the 20th century, it houses a wealth Romanesque capitals and Gothic sculptures stunningly displayed in a contemporary setting designed by American artist Jorge Pardo. A stop by its vast cloister and its astonishing colony of gargoyles is also a must.

The Hotel d’Assezat

Toulouse - Assezat

the Hotel d’Assézat remains the greatest Renaissance palace in the city,

The elaborate stonework of interior courtyards is a constant reminders of the city’s Renaissance grandor.

The religious communities were not the only architects of La Ville Rose. Although the fortunes of Toulouse ebbed and flowed through centuries of political and religious conflicts, the city managed to remain one the most important trading centers in France.

During the 16th and 17th centuries, its prosperous merchants commissioned stately residences. The most opulent of them is the Hotel d’Assézat, a grand Renaissance palace built in 1555 for its namesake Pierre d’Assézat. Like most of Toulouse’s private mansions, it features a tall brick tower jutting from the roof, apparently the ultimate status symbol at the time. Today, the fairytale pink palace houses the prestigious private art collection of the Bemberg Foundation. Five centuries of breathtaking paintings from Canaletto, Caravaggio, Brueghel and Bosch to Toulouse-Lautrec (a native son of nearby Albi), Cezanne, Monet, Matisse and Picasso are exhibited in its intimate salons. One room is dedicated to one of the finest selections anywhere of works by Pierre Bonnard.

Dozens of these grand homes survive throughout the old town, though few are open to the public. However, their ornate facades and interior courtyards decorated with elaborate stonework and sculptures remind the passer-by of the wealth that once flowed through the city.

Le Capitole

Toulouse-Capitole1.

The Place du Capitole is surrounded by renowned brasseries and cafés.

Nothing embodies the evolution of Toulouse better than the Capitole, the heart of the city since the 12th century. When its Capitouls (governing magistrates) embarked on the construction of the original building in 1190, their intention was to provide a seat of government for a province that was growing in prosperity and influence. Little did they know they were setting in motion a 500-year architectural evolution that would change the face of their city and ultimately establish its reputation as one of the most beautiful in France. The current building reflects its successive transformations. The oldest remaining parts are the 16th century Donjon (the Keep, also known as the Archives Tower), and the 117th century Henry IV cloistered courtyard. The dramatic 135 meter (440 foot) long façade of today’s Capitole is an 18th century Neoclassical masterpiece that dominates the entire east side of its eponymous square. In addition to its municipal functions, it houses the reputed Théâtre du Capitole Opera Company and the Orchestre National du Capitole de Toulouse.

In front of it, the sprawling Place du Capitole is now a pedestrian area surrounded by renowned brasseries and cafés, and a favorite meeting point for locals and visitors alike.

Toulouse-Capitole2

The 18th century Neoclassical facade of th Capitole dominates the square.

 

The Space City

Toulouse-Cite Espace

La Cité de l’Espace is located a short bus ride east of the city.

For all its glorious architectural past, Toulouse is resolutely turned to the future. It all began in 1917, when the French government located its first major aeronautic firm here. It subsequently developed into one of the main aerospace centers in Europe. Inaugurated in 1997, La Cité de l’Espace is an interactive center of scientific culture focused on spatial exploration and astronomy. Here you can see the famous Ariane 5 rocket, and take a tour of the original MIR space station used for training astronauts in the days of the Soviet Union. And for hands-on visitors, various virtual reality simulators offer the opportunity to experience what it might feel like to travel through space to Mars.

 

Good to Know

  • Getting there – By air – Located 8 kilometers (5 miles) west of the city centre, the Blagnac Airport has daily flights from Paris and other large French cities, as well as major European hubs. From the airport, the T2 Tramway line: Airport – Arènes – Palais de Justice, connects with the metro service at Arènes (line A) and Palais de Justice (line B) stations every 15 minutes.Additionally, a shuttle bus from the airport to several points in the center of the city operates every 20 minutes from 5:30 am to midnight. By train –There are multiple daily train connections between Paris (5 to 7 hours), Bordeaux (2 hours), Marseille (4 hours) and Barcelona, (7 hours) and Toulouse’s Matabiau central train station. By road – a network of major highways connects Toulouse with Paris, Bordeaux, Marseille and Barcelona.
  • Getting around – Although Toulouse is the fourth largest city in France, its historic center is relatively small and easily walkable. Should you get tired of walking, a free electric shuttle circles the city center every 10 minutes from 9:00 am to 7:00 pm everyday except Sunday. There are no designated stops. If you spot one of the small, white “tisséo” busses, just wave it down.
  • Visiting –Located in the Donjon, at the back of the Capitole, the Toulouse Tourist Office is open from 9:30 am to 6:00 pm Tuesday through Saturday and 10:00 am to 6:00 pm Sunday and Monday. The Couvent des Jacobins, 1 Place des Jacobins, 31000 Toulouse, is open 10:00 am to 6:00 pm, Tuesday through Sunday.  The  Musée des Augustins (or Musée des Beaux Arts), 21 rue de Metz, 31000 Toulouse, is open Wednesday through Monday from 10:00 am to 6:00 pm, and closed on Tuesday. The Hôtel Hassezat, George Bemberg Foundation, Place d’Assezat, 31000 Toulouse, is open Tuesday through Sunday, 10:00 am to 12:30 pm and 13:30 to 6:00 pm, and closed on Monday. La Cité de l’Espace, Avenue Jean Gonord, 31506 Toulouse, is open daily at 10:00 am. Tel. +33 (0) 5 67 22 23 24.

Location, location, location!

Toulouse

Musee du Quai Branly, Paris – Peru before the Incas

Musee du Quai Branly, Paris – Peru before the Incas

Of the dozens major national museums in Paris, one of my personal favorites is the Musée du Quai Branly. Located in a lush garden environment a mere five-minute walk from the Eiffel Tower, it is unique for its collection of over 350,000 works dedicated to the indigenous art and cultures from Africa, Asia, Oceania and the Americas, ranging from the Neolithic period to the 20th century.

Paris-Branly facade.

In addition to its lush gardens, the museum also features a luxuriant vegetal façade designed by botanist Patrick Blanc.

Since only one percent of the collection can be displayed at any given time in its permanent and thematic temporary exhibits, each visit is a journey of discovery to remote corners of the planet and the long ago cultures that thrived there.

On a recent late fall afternoon, after enjoying a peaceful stroll around the lush wilderness created by noted French botanist and landscape artist Gilles Clement, I made my way toward the enigmatic building rising bridge-like above the gilded autumn foliage of the tree tops. I was on my way to pre-Columbian Peru.

Peru before the Incas

Paris-Branly Moche bottles.

The Moche civilization flourished from 100 to 700 AD. Their fine ceramic bottles speak of the importance of water as well as the flora and fauna of their food supply.

Doubtless because they had the misfortune of playing hosts to their uninvited Spanish visitors in the mid-15th century, the Incas and their Cuzco Empire have long been held as the crucible of pre-Hispanic Andean culture. While there were traces of previous pre-Columbian cultures going back as far as 1500 BC, these had long been eclipsed in the collective imagination by the powerful Inca narrative. But over the past three decades, extensive archeological excavations on the northern coast of Peru, especially at the Huaca site near Trujillo and at the royal tombs of Sipán, have provided a new insight into these ancient cultures, revealing how they, and  most notably the Mochicas, first laid the foundations for pre-Hispanic civilization over 1500 years ago.

Moche bottles (circa 300 to 400 AD) depicting marine life.

These revelations are the basis for the current exhibition, curated by archeologist Santiago Uceda Castillo, who has been directing the site excavations since 1991. “Peru before the Incas” takes visitors on an archaeological investigation into the origins and evolution of power and political systems within these ancient societies. Who held power? The celestial gods, the kings, the urban elite, the warriors, the priests and priestesses? And how did it manifest itself?

A Journey of Discovery

The exhibition spans time from the 8th century BC to the conquests of the Chimú by the Incas in 1470 AD. During that time, in the absence of a written language, successive civilizations left us a rich heritage of remarkable potteries and sculptures, gold, copper and silver ornaments, and funeral furnishings that illustrate their way of life and evolution.

Paris-Branly totems.

Moche bottles representing mountains and totemized animals.

The journey begins with a focus on the natural environment and everyday life of the area. Wedged at the foot of the Andes, the northern coast of Peru is one of the most arid deserts in the world. Owing to the combined presence of the cold Humboldt Current and the mountains, it virtually never rains. For the populations that settled in this inhospitable land, water took a central part in their rites and beliefs, as is represented in a stunning collection of ornate ceramic bottles that document the flora and fauna of their food supply, and their divinities. Theses works speak of a strong connection between the animal and human worlds. As man seeks to acquire the strength, reflexes or speed of specific animals, he deifies them or turns them into the totems of his community.

Divine Power

Paris-Branly God of Mountain.

The God of the Mountain is an anthropomorphic figure.

As the community develops and organizes into a state, totemism evolves into a more formal concept of the existence of superior beings, endowed with powers over the human condition. Temples are created, where the presence of these divinities can materialize. The main god, which will endure under various forms until the Inca period, is the God of the Mountain. An anthropomorphic figure with feline fangs, clawed hands and feet, and carrying a double specter, it represents the sun, fire and water that come from the mountain. It requires human sacrifices to ensure bountiful harvests and the prosperity of the community.

Ancestral divinities are worshiped at the clan level

Much power is also attributed to ancestral divinities. These more personal gods worshiped at the family or clan level are the link between men and the gods. Especially at the time of funerals, they are recipients of food, drink and metal objects offerings.

 

 

 

Earthly Power

Paris-Branly huacos.

Ceramic portraits represent priests and shamans.

Earthly power is bestowed by the gods to the king, who controls the armies and the state.Through a rich array of Huacos (portraits realized in ceramic), statues, emblems of function or power and personal ornaments, the exhibition document the various powers that support this theocracy: the priests and priestesses, the warriors, the shamans and healers.

 

 

Paris-Branly ornaments

Personal ornaments reveal the power achieved by women.

And surprisingly, the final part of the exhibition reveals the power held by an elite of women. At the time of the conquest, Spaniards had documented coming across some villages (called Capullanas) that were under the authority of women. But recent excavations at major Andes sites show that, in the pre-Columbian past, some women achieved much greater power, as proven by the presence in their funeral monuments of the emblems of their functions (including crowns and specters) and iconographic representations.

Even for the most casual “archeophile,” Peru before the Incas is a fascinating exhibit. The almost 300 artifacts on display cast a new light on the development of the early Andean cultures and demonstrate that in South America, the Incas are only the end point of an elaborate social evolution of native culture before the Spanish conquest.

Paris-Branly huacos/

Ceramic portraits (or Huacos) represent high functionaries.

A Few Souvenirs

Location, location, location!

Musée du Quai Branly

Homage to a Couture Icon – The Yves Saint Laurent Paris Museum

Homage to a Couture Icon – The Yves Saint Laurent Paris Museum

It all begins with paper dolls, for which the adolescent Yves Saint Laurent creates entire couture collections to the delight of his two younger sisters. This early passion for fashion design leads him straight to Paris, where he enrolls at the Chambre Syndicale de la Haute Couture (school of the official trade association of French high fashion). His designs quickly gain the notice of Michel de Brunhoff, the then editor of French Vogue, who introduces him to Christina Dior. Monsieur Dior hires the barely the 19-year-old on the spot.

Paris YSL-sketches

The process of creation begins with sketching and swatches

For the next two years the young prodigy works at the side the master. He learns every aspects of creating a collection of some 200 designs, from original sketches to final fittings. He earns his mentors’ trust to the point that when Christian Dior suddenly dies of a heart attack in October 1957, it is revealed that he has named the young man as his successor. Yves Saint Laurent, age 21, is now artistic director of the most prestigious couture house in France. His first collection, unveiled four month later, is an immediate success. Side-stepping the cinched waists and voluminous skirts of the past decade, he introduces his Trapeze line of fluid dresses that flare from fitted shoulders. Its easy elegance appeals to active women everywhere. In retrospect, It changes the course of fashion.

His tenure at the House of Dior is cut short when he is replaced upon being drafted for mandatory military service in 1960.

Saint Laurent Paris

Paris YSL-1962 collection

The Saint Laurent Couture 1962 inaugural collection.

Fast-forward two years, and Yves Saint Laurent decides to create his own couture house with his partner Pierre Bergé. Saint Laurent Paris opens its doors at 30 bis, rue Spontini, in the tony 16th Arrondissement. His first collection in January 1962 is an unmitigated success. For the next twelve years he will continue to create here, inventing the modern woman’s wardrobe. The pea coat and trench coat of his first collection are followed by the first women’s tuxedo in 1966, then the safari jacket and the first women’s pants suit in 1968.

Paris YSL-iconic pieces.

A display assembles the emblematic early pieces.

These female adaptations of mainstays of the male attire are enthusiastically adopted, not only by the wealthy clients of the couture brand, but by all women. Now they can express their confidence and boldness while maintaining their femininity. For them, he opens his Saint Laurent Rive Gauche boutique in 1966. This first ready-to-wear store to bear a couturier‘s name paves the way for ready-to-wear fashion as we now know it.

5 Avenue Marceau

Paris YSL-jeweled jacket 1990.

Jeweled jacket from the Spring-Summer 1990 collection

In 1974, the Yves Saint Laurent couture house moves to a mid-19th century mansion at 5, avenue Marceau, a stone throw away from the Pont de l’Alma. For the next three decades, it remains a symbol of fashion excellence. In his fourth floor studio he creates designs that are then brought to life by the nearly two hundred tailors and seamstresses of the in-house workrooms.

 

 

Jewelry is displayed in the Cabinet de Curiosités gallery.

After Saint Laurent announces his intention to end his career in 2002, the building undergoes extensive renovations before re-opening its doors two years later as the Pierre Bergé – Yves Saint Laurent Foundation for the preservation of the couturier’s body of work. After functioning for a decade as exhibit space dedicated to fashion and then further extensive renovations, the mansion re-opens in October 2017 as the Musée Yves Saint Laurent, a permanent temple dedicated the French haute couture icon.

 

The YSL Museum

Paris YSL-Salon.

The visit begins in the Salon.

Today, the museum offers a unique opportunity to experience the designer’s world. The visit starts on the first floor, in the salons where clients once sat for private showings of his work or were received by their personal saleswomen when they came for fittings. Then we experience YSL’s process of creation, thoroughly documented with sketches, drawing and swatches, before entering a display of his most emblematic designs.

 

Paris YSL-Picasso evening.

The Picasso evening dress from the autumn-winter 1979 collection.

In addition to the highlights of his 1962 debut collection, there are also nods to collections that pay homage to an era, intricately decorated jackets, theatrical designs and stunning custom jewelry. The last gallery includes his iconic Mondrian dress, other dresses inspired by great painters, including Picasso, Van Gogh and Matisse, and his Africa and Russia-inspired ensembles.

 

 

Paris YSL-Studio2.

The studio is recreated in minute details.

Then on the fourth floor, we reach the heart of the house, his exactingly reproduced studio, filled with drawings, scraps of fabric, boxes of buttons and finished designs, which offers a vivid picture of the life and practices of a haute couture atelier. His signature glasses are still on the desk near his sketch pads and freshly sharpened pencils. His portrait by his friend Bernard Buffet hangs over the worktable. We can still feel the creative energy of the place. It’s clear that everything happened here.

 

Paris YSL-Home.

The projection room shows images of Saint Laurent’s home.

The visit ends in the screening room, where a multi-image diaporama brings Yves Saint Laurent, the man and his career to life, narrated by Pierre Bergé, his partner in work and life. Bergé was the driving force in bringing the museum to completion, but sadly died just four weeks before the inauguration on September 28, 2017. A second YSL museum opened in Marrakech, Morocco on October14, 2017 near the former home of the two men.

 

A Few Souvenirs

Location, location, location!

YSL Museum

A Corsican Road Trip – Bastia to the Gulf of Porto

A Corsican Road Trip – Bastia to the Gulf of Porto

The overnight ferry from Toulon, the main naval and commercial port of the French Riviera, pulls into Bastia harbor in the bleak November dawn. Corsica rises from the Mediterranean like the lost continent of an old fairytale. Dull yellow lights haloed with fog outline an imposing fortification wall. Above it, a sleepy medieval town blend into the dark shadow of a mountain.

First Glimpse at Corsica – Bastia to Saint Florent

Corsica-Bastia dawn.

The port city of Bastia emerges from the Mediterranean dawn.

By the time my long time friend Kathleen, an expert and enthusiastic driver, has extracted our rented car from the jaws of the ferry, the pale morning sun has brought the waterfront to life. We leave the now bustling port city and head west into the mountains, snaking up the southern edge of Cap Corse, the narrow peninsula at the northern tip of the island. The scenery emerges from the morning mist, revealing ever-changing vistas with every hairpin turn.

Corsica-Patrimonio.

The village of Patrimonio is famous for its vineyards.

It’s a mere 17 kilometers (10 miles) from Bastia to the ancient mountainside village of Patrimonio, but due to the combined effects of the narrow squiggly mountain road and my constant requests for photo stops, it takes us almost one hour to cover the distance.The village finally comes into view, a cluster of sturdy stone houses overlooking a vast expanses of vineyards famed since Antiquity for their red, white and Muscat wines. Considered by many as the finest wine region on the island, Patrimonio was the first to gain the coveted AOC (Appelation d’Origine Controlée or protected designation of origin) status in 1968.

Corsica-Saint Florent.

The mountains of Cap Corse dominate the Gulf of Saint Florent.

From here, it’s 8 kilometers (5 miles) of downhill zigzags to Saint Florent, a small fishing port turned popular tourist destination. At the height of the season its renowned marina is filled with posh international yachts. However, on this sunny November morning the main attraction is the tiny medieval village huddled around its circular 15th Century Genoese watchtower, and overlooking the turquoise waters of its perfect half-moon bay.

From Île Rousse to Calvi

Corsica-Ile Rousse.

The city of Île Rousse takes its name from its offshore outcrops of red porphyry.

We are on the coastal road now, heading south toward Calvi with a halfway coffee break in Île Rousse, another picturesque resort town notable mainly in that, unlike almost every other important city in Corsica, it doesn’t trace back to the Genoese. Rather, it was founded in18th century by Corsican patriot leader Pascal Paoli, in an attempt to steer trade away from Calvi, which had failed to support the nationalist rebellion that briefly brought independence to the island. Even so, just offshore on the Île de la Pietra, the big promontory of copper porphyry that gave the town its name, a typical circular fortified watchtower reminds today’s visitors that starting in the 13th century, the Republic of Genoa ruled over Corsica for half a millennium. And had to defend the island from frequent raids by Ottoman pirates.

Corsica-Sant Antonino.

From its dominant position in the Balagne Mountains, Sant’Antonino overlooks the sea.

By then, the original inhabitants of the island had long tired of the waves of uninvited visitors with pillage on their mind and taken refuge into their rugged mountains to settle atop the highest vantage points available, distant water view preferred. On a whim we decide on a detour by the eagle’s nest village of Sant’Antonino (circa 9th century). This walled village with its picturesque houses, quaint alleyways and covered passages winding around a granitic outcrop some 500 meters (1600 feet) above sea level, is deservedly considered one of the most beautiful villages in France. And that’s not even taking into account the sensational views of the surrounding Balagne Mountains, their flanks covered with ancient olive groves and chestnut forests, all the way to the sea.

From Calvi to Porto

Corsica-Calvi fortress.

The fortress of Calvi stands out against the Balagne Mountains.

It’s past lunchtime by the time we reach Calvi, the largest port city on the northwestern side of the island. Its sheltered bay backing up to the mountains, large marina and five kilometers (three miles) of white sand beaches make it a favorite of cosmopolitan tourists. For the best perspective of the city, we decide on a picnic on the ramparts of the citadel that towers above the port. Built over several centuries, the fortifications enclose an entire small town with vantage points that offer dazzling views across the harbor and along the rocky coast.

Corsica-Scandola Reserve

The Scandola Peninsula is hewn from red porphyry cliffs tumbling into the sea.

Although unsubstantiated, Calvi (along with several other cities including Genoa) steadfastly hangs on to its claim to be the birthplace of Christopher Columbus, and even points visitors to his purported birth home right inside the citadel. We pass on the opportunity and continue south toward the Gulf of Porto.

Corsica-Gulf of Porto.

A Genoese tower guards the Gulf of Porto.

By now, just as we think we’ve gotten used the narrow, constantly winding roller-coaster of Corsican roads, the ride from Calvi to Porto reaches new, stomach-churning heights. Hewn high into the red porphyry cliffs of the Scandola Peninsula, this stretch consists of 80 kilometers (50 miles) of endless switchbacks clinging to the rock face between pinnacles and ravines. This road skirts the edge of the spectacular Scandola Nature Reserve, a UNESCO-listed World Heritage Site covering 900 hectares (2200 acres) of gnarled claw-like inlets, hidden coves and offshore islands rising from 1000 hectares (2500) of crystalline turquoise waters.

Overnight in Porto

Corsica-Porto sunset.

Sunset over the Genoese tower of Gulf of Porto.

This first day of our Corsican adventure ends in the quiet seashore village of Porto, deep in a remote creek of the Gulf. Thanks to its ideal location in the heart of the most scenic landscapes on the western side of the island, it had developed over the past few decades into a laidback tourist destination. From our seaside balcony at one of the small hotels that now line the waterfront, we enjoy watching the sun set over (what else?) the commanding Genoese tower perched on a rocky crag at the mouth of the Porto river.

Gulf of Porto panorama.

Good to Know

  • Getting there – Corsica is a French island located some 200 kilometers(120 miles) off the French Riviera coast. By air: It is served year round by regular flights from several French mainland airports to Ajaccio, Bastia, Calvi and Figari (north of Bonifacio). From May to September seasonal lowcost airlines also offer frequent flights to and from other European destinations. By sea: Three major ferry lines serve the island’s six ferry ports (Ajaccio, Bastia, Calvi, Île Rousse, Porto- Vecchio and Propriano, that can be reached from Marseille, Toulon and Nice. There are daily overnight and daytime crossings year round, with additional ones during the summer season. On this recent trip, we sailed with Corisca Ferries between Toulon to Bastia.
  • Getting around – There are limited train and bus connections between the main destinations around the island. However the majority of visitors travel by car to make the most of the stupendous scenery.
  • Where to stay – For this first of our four-night trip, we stayed at the pleasant, full-service, 24-room, three-star seaside hotel Le Subrini, La Marine de Porto, 20150 Porto-Ota, France. Contact: tel. +33(0)4 95 26 14 94, e-mail subrini@hotels-porto.com.

A Few Souvenirs

Location, location, location!

Bastia

Golf of Porto, Corsica

An Idyllic Village in Provence – Lourmarin

An Idyllic Village in Provence – Lourmarin

There are two ways to visit the Lubéron, the spectacular corner of Provence in the southern foothills of the Alps. You can “do it” in one day. Drive along its shaded roller-coaster of country roads, following the well documented circuit of its most  breathtaking sites, Gordes, Senanque Abbey, Roussillon, et. al., and be back in time for dinner at a bistro terrace in Aix-en-Provence or Avignon. Or you can go one step better, wrap up your itinerary with an overnight stop in Lourmarin and bask in the laidback joie-de-vivre of this blessed little corner of the world.

A Picture-Perfect Provencal Destination

Luberon - Lourmarin terrace.

The colorful restaurant terraces are an invitation to linger.

Nestled in gently rolling hills covered with vineyards and orchards at the outlet of a small combe (i.e. dry valley between limestone cliffs) that bears its name, lovely Lourmarin is the southernmost village of the Lubéron. A peaceful gem that retains the unique charm of Provencal villages, its tall houses of pale limestone dating back to the Renaissance have long attracted artists and artisans. They have opened interesting boutiques and ateliers along the maze of ancient cadales (cobbled lanes) and handkerchief-size squares that wind up toward the eleventh-century Saint André church. Along the way, bistro terraces spill out of every corner, inviting visitors to linger. After the crush of the hilltop villages, where “most visited of the Lubéron” is often just another expression for trendy tourist attraction, Lourmarin is a charming contrast, a lived-in destination that welcomes its healthy influx of tourists without feeling overrun.

Luberon-Lourmarin.

The eleventh century steeple of Saint André church rises above the medieval skyline of Lourmarin. The more recent Reformed Protestant Church sits at the entrance of the village.

Lourmarin has a long history of making people feel at home. Once an important market center, it was like much of Western Europe, left semi-deserted by the black plague epidemic of 1348. And so it remained for a century, until the lord of the region, Foulques d’Agoult, brought it back to life. He invited the Vaudois (Waldesians), a minority of dissident Catholics that were then mercilessly persecuted in the southern Alps, to resettle in the village. Although the area was not left untouched by the wars of religion, the Waldesians prospered in Lourmarin, their descendants joining the Reformed Protestant movement in the sixteenth century. Their church (circa 1816) sits between the Château and the entrance of the village.

The First Renaissance Château

Luberon-Lourmarin loggia.

The three-tiered galleries of the Gothic loggia surround an enclosed courtyard.

Standing at the edge of a vast prairie, a five-minute walk from the village, the Château of Lourmarin is remarkable in that, while it was built in three stages across four centuries, each wing retained its own individuality. This allows today’s visitor to appreciate the evolution of architecture from medieval fortress to Renaissance castle.

Luberon-Lourmarin great hall.

Located in the Renaissance wing, the Great Hall is decorated with replicas and antiques of the period.

Little remains from the original fortress other than foundations and the north tower, to which is anchored the medieval Gothic “old Château,” built in the fifteenth century. Of this, only the superb loggia with its three tiers of galleries surrounding a spacious enclosed courtyard is opened to visitor. Entrance is through the octagonal tower that connects the Gothic and Renaissance parts of the castle, with a stunning staircase made of 93 stone slabs winding around a central spiral column. This Renaissance wing or “new Château,” with its airy façade and mullioned windows, is the first castle of this style to have been built in Provence. Fully restored and decorated with a mix of antiques and replicas of the furnishings of the era, it is opened to visitors. At entrance level, have a look at the kitchen and the concert room. Then let the staircase lead you up through the various aspects of the life daily life of Renaissance nobility. The Great Hall, a pair of intimate salons and the Ladies’ Chamber are on the second floor. Then on the third floor, see the Gentleman’s bedroom, office and music room. And enjoy the bonus of a bird’s eye view of the village.

L’Ancienne Maison des Gardes

Luberon-Lourmarin balcony.

The shaded balcony peers into the courtyard through a riot of trumpet vines.

But to me, the best part of Lourmarin is just being there, whiling away the evening, enjoying a leisurely dinner at the terrace of one of the several good restaurants and sipping the fruity local wine. Then under the starry velvet sky, return “home” to l’Ancienne Maison des Gardes (the Old Guard House). Little is known of this quintessential sixteenth century home in a quiet cul-de-sac alley at the edge of village, other than it was once part of its fortifications. But enter through the arched porte cochère (the heavy wooden double doors that once allow access to horse-drawn coaches) and you are in a place that dreams of Provence are made of.

Luberon-Lourmarin breakfast.

A sumptuous breakfast is served on the private balcony.

Centered on a sunny courtyard overrun by riotous trumpet vines in full vermillion bloom, the intimate guesthouse is the domain of Rose Robson, an English woman who came to Provence a dozen years ago looking for her place in the sun and never left. She promptly turned l’Ancienne Maison des Gardes (Chez Rose for short) into five cozy guest accommodations, each opening onto its own shaded terrace. My personal favorite is the Balcony Room. Accessed by an ancient stone stairway rising from a corner of the courtyard, this light- filled room has all the charm an old-fashion Provencal country bedroom (plus a great twenty-first century shower). And, as you’d expect, its own balcony. It is the loveliest perch one could imagine to enjoy in privacy the sumptuous breakfast dished out by Robin, Rose’s gregarious assistant.

With its secluded location within a five-minute walk of everything to see and do in lovely, laidback Lourmarin, and Rose’s delicious blend of English and Provencal hospitality, l’Ancienne Maison des Gardes is an ideal stop-over when touring the Lubéron.

Good to Know

  • Getting There Lourmarin is ideally located in the heart of Provence, at the southwestern edge of the Luberon Regional Park, within an hour’s drive of Avignon, Aix and Arles, and ninety minutes away from Marseille and the Mediterranean coast.
  • Staying There – L’Ancienne Maison des Gardes, Impasse des Gardes, 84160, Lourmarin, France. Contact: email roserobson@gmail.com. Tel: +33 (0) 4 90 07 53 16.
  • Visiting – Markets. The village has a large market every Friday morning, which takes over the tree-lined avenue in the centre of the village, as well as the square above it, and brings merchants and visitors from all around the area. It also has a small but lively farmers (and vintners) market on Tuesday evenings. This is a convivial event attended mostly by local year-round and summer residents. It includes cooking demonstrations by local chefs showcasing local products. The Château can be visited year round. It also stages a number of art exhibits and concerts during the summer. Visiting hours vary with the seasons and are posted on the official website, as is the program of events. The Cemetery – French philosopher and existentialist writer Albert Camus lived in Lourmarin in the 1950 and is buried there.

 

A Few Souvenirs

Location, location, location!

Lourmarin

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