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

Christian Dior – Designer of Dreams

Christian Dior – Designer of Dreams

The main event of this fall’s fashion season didn’t happen in the rarified runway atmosphere of the Paris Couture Week. It’s been going on through the summer and will continue until the end of the year in the Rohan and Marsan Wings of the Palais du Louvre, home to the prestigious Musée des Arts Décoratifs. And it is a stunner!

Paris-DC red

Some thematic layouts explore the many facettes of fashion.

Billed as the largest fashion exhibition ever staged by the museum, Christian Dior, Couturier du Rêve (Designer of Dreams), is celebrating the 70th anniversary of the creation of the House of Dior with a lavish retrospective featuring more than 300 couture gowns by Dior himself and the six designers who led his house after his death in 1957. All are represented in the show, in a layout that is both chronological and thematic, to weave the story of the man, the house, and couture within the broader concept of art and culture.

Christian Dior, The Man

Paris-CD art gallery

The exhibition begins with an evocation Christian Dior’s early years and his Avant Garde art gallery,

Step through the double doors of a glass interpretation of the façade of the townhouse at 30 Avenue Montaigne, the iconic home of the House of Dior, and the exhibition begins with the making of Christian Dior. Documentary photographs, video clips, sketches, letters and trinkets compile a visual digest of a young man who was born to a bourgeois family in Grandville, on the Normandy seashore and came of age in the Paris of the Roaring Twenties and the Avant Garde art world. Symbolically, the starting point of the exhibition is a bust by Salvador Dali and a photographic reproduction of the progressive art gallery Dior ran from 1928 to 1934, showcasing works by the likes of Calder, Giacometti, Cocteau and Max Jacob.

Paris-CD Margaret.

In a series of wall-size black-and-white photos of women, here a young Princess Margaret, wearing Dior. As the image dissolves, the original gown appears behind the picture.

In turn those artists attended Christian Dior’s fashion debut in 1947, eager to see what this man of eclectic artistic taste would do for a fashion industry devastated by the Second World War. The juxtaposition of Dali and Dior suggests that while they both pushed the boundaries in their respective fields, they also shared tastes for things as outmoded as Art Nouveau and the 18th century. Throughout the exhibition we are reminded that Dior thought of himself as a reactionary, rather than the revolutionary he is widely credited to be. His work as a fashion designer was guided by the romantic influences of his youth. The voluptuous femininity of his designs was his reaction to the drab frugality of the wartime years. In that, he was coincidentally innovative.

The Golden Age of Couture

Paris-Dior daytime debut.

A classic daytime dress from the 1947 Christian Dior debut collection.

The actual couture display begins with a classic daytime dress from 1947. Wasp-waisted, with soft shoulders over a fitted bodice and a full pleated skirt, in a brilliant crimson wool crepe, it stands like a beacon against the gallery’s black-lacquered walls. This is Dior’s “New Look,” the silhouette that brought him instant fame and spread throughout the world of fashion the new post-war ideal of hourglass femininity.

Paris-Dior Colorama.

The “Colorama” gallery is a rainbow of jewel-toned couture treasures.

The visual extravaganza begins with “Colorama,” a treasure-trove labyrinth of dresses, both in full size and miniature, hats, shoes, bags, jewelry and all manners of accessories arranged in a graduated rainbow of colors. It’s a jewel-tone representation of the fashion universe that Christian Dior set in motion with his agreements to start licensing the Dior name and image as early as 1947. Some of the windows are so overflowing with riches that it would take an hour to take in every detail.

Paris-Dior Versailles.

This 18th century Versailles-inspired exhibit illustrates how Dior’s designs chartered the course for his successors.

From there, a succession of thematic galleries are dedicated to the diverse periods and places that inspired the master and charted the course for the designers that came after him. From 18th century Versailles to ancient Egypt and from Masai Africa to Goya’s Spain, everything is anchored by related paintings and artifacts. By now, I have stopped glancing at the discrete captions explaining which dresses are by Dior himself or Gianfranco Ferré or John Galliano. Some are easily recognizable as they play off each other, like the extravagant ball gowns of Dior’s Trianon collection and Galliano’s surreal gold corset and bustle. I go in a dizzying state of sensory overload from gem-encrusted, silk velvet, Ballets Russes-inspired kimonos to the pure lines of a long, Palladian-style sheath of white pleated silk with an intricately embroidered bust, and a startling white taffeta coat gown as a canvas for Hokusai’s Great Wave.

A Dazzling Journey

The  Bar Suit, of the 1947 Sping-Summer collection became the embodiment of the New Look.

I reemerge into the central hall, feeling I’ve been wandering through a world where over-the-top is just the beginning, only to be confirmed that it is. The soaring space is dominated by one creation, sitting right in the center of it in a slick glass case: the seminal Bar Suit, the black and white ensemble with its soft shoulders, nipped-in waist and the undulating corolla skirt that came to embody the New Look. And beyond it, at the entrance of the second half of the exhibit (yes, all of the above is only half of it!), a towering three-tiered glass case displays various iterations of the look that triggered a golden age of fashion.

Paris-CD YSL trapeze.

The 1958 Spring-Summer Trapeze collection by Yves Saint Laurent. It was the 22-year old designer’s first collection for Dior.

The journey continue, chronologically this time, with a succession of six exhibit rooms, one for each of the designers who followed Monsieur Dior: Yves Saint Laurent, Marc Bohan, Gianfranco Ferré, John Galliano, Raf Simons, and most recently Maria Grazia Chiuri. Here the focus is on analyzing how their designs contributed to the evolution of the house while staying faithful to Dior’s vision of haute couture.

Through the Looking Glass

Paris-CD toiles.

An entire hall is dedicated to the toiles of over 100 creations throughout the decades

The next space is a narrow, soaring hall with mirrored walls and ceiling, covered with a multi-level display of the original white toiles of over a hundred creations, their ghostly reflections fading into infinity.

Paris-CD finale.

Gowns are displayed under a rolling video stream of the celebrities that wore them.

As for the grand finale, it is staged in the ultimate ballroom, the cathedral-like nave of the palace with its arched 50-foot high ceiling, and an elaborate light projection that evokes the Hall of Mirrors in Versailles. The sheer number of sumptuous gowns, some of which have been worn by famous customers, is surreal. At the far end of the gallery, video screens project a rolling stream of royalties from Princess Grace of Monaco to Princess Diana, and film stars from Marlene Dietrich and Elizabeth Taylor to Charleze Theron and Jennifer Lawrence, who wore these dream gowns.

 

 

 

 

 

Good to Know

  • Visiting – Christian Dior, Designer of Dreams , is on view through January 7, 2018 at the Musée des Arts Décoratifs, 107, rue de Rivoli , 75001, Paris. Opening hours are Tuesday through Sunday from 11:00 am to 6:00 pm and Thursday until 9:00 pm. Closed on Monday. Contact: +33 (0) 1 44 55 57 50. On-line ticket purchase (in French only)
  • The exposition is enormously successful. The queue for those without advance tickets can stretch into hours on some days. The line for those with advanced tickets is significantly shorter (about 20 minutes on the day of my visit).

Location, location, location!

Musée des Arts Decoratifs

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

In the Land of Lavender – The Best of the Luberon

In the Land of Lavender – The Best of the Luberon

It was well into autumn when I visited the Lubéron for the first time. Tourists were thin on the ground in the medieval villages perched atop craggy limestone ledges rising from the rolling valleys of this idyllic corner of Provence in the southern foothills of the Alps. I was in a photographer’s paradise! Until I caught my first glance at the lavender fields that are the symbol of the region. By now they were just sad rows of neatly trimmed dull green pincushions ready for the onset of winter.

Lavender Season

Luberon-lavender tourist.

My friend Ligaya strikes the de-rigueur pose in a lavender field.

For lavender, the blooming season starts around the summer solstice, peeks in early July and culminates with the harvest by the end of the month. It took me almost a decade to manage a return visit within this propitious timeframe. But finally, on a recent July morning, I am heading north from Aix-en-Provence at the wheel of a tiny cherry red rental car, the kind that gets laughs in Hollywood comedies about Europe. My co-pilote is a friend, who with impeccable sense of timing, recently announced her visit for precisely this week. This is her first time in the Lubéron. I am delighted to share with her the most spectacular spots of the region.

Picture Perfect Gordes

Luberon-Gorde village.

Gordes is the most visited village of the Lubéron.

Even in an area famous for its abundance of picturesque villages perchés (hilltop villages), the first glance at Gordes is guaranteed to take your breath away. Coming from the south, the narrow road leading to the crest of a cliff suddenly reveals, on the opposite side of the chasm, one of the most spectacular villages ever. Its tall white limestone houses are anchored to the rock face along lanes that wind upward toward the castle and church at the very top of the promontory. Don’t be surprised if the site looks vaguely familiar. It has scored a supporting role in several movies over the time, most notably the BBC mini-series, “A Year in Provence”, and the popular 2006 Ridley Scott movie, “A Good Year”, starring Russell Crowe.

To be honest, the view is the most interesting part of Gordes. We soon leave behind its quaint cobbled streets lined with souvenir shops and continue on to the main event of our itinerary, the lavender fields of the Abbaye de Sénanque.

Sénanque Abbey

Luberon-Senanque vista.

A bend in the road reveals a bird’s eye view of Sénanque.

It’s a slow-going four kilometers (2.5 miles) north from the village, via a steep downhill road cut into the rock face, to Sénanque. Halfway down the cliff, a vantage point reveals a bird’s eye preview of the 850-year-old abbey wedged into the narrow valley floor below, surrounded by it famous purple fields of lavender in full bloom.

Luberon-Senanque church

Our Lady of Sénanque is one of the finest examples of medieval Cistercian architecture in Provence.

Built in the twelfth century by Cistercian monks, Sénanque is one of the finest and best-preserved examples of Romanesque monastic architecture in Provence. The stark beauty of its limestone façade, weathered by the centuries to a pale heather gray, provides a perfect backdrop for the dense rows of purple flowers undulating in the warm summer breeze. This time of year, hundreds of visitors from around the world make their way daily to the abbey, eager to experience first hand and get their own shots of this unique place.

Luberon-Senanque gift shop.

The gift shop is adjacent to the medieval dormitory.

In spite of this influx of tourists, who are welcomed by lay people, the abbey maintains its monastic life, following the medieval cycle of prayer, silence, study and work of the cloistered Cistercian order. In addition to the cultivation and processing of lavender, the monks also keep hives. A wide range of lavender and honey products is available in the gift shop.

The church, reputed for its harmonious Romanesque lines arching toward a gently pointed barrel vault, is open to visitors. Also notable is the absence of main a portal. In keeping with the Cistercian ideals of simplicity, the entrance consists of two modest doors that open onto the side aisle. A guided visit of the adjoining twelfth century cloister and monastic buildings is also possible.

A Blazing Palette

Luberon-Roussillon.

Roussillon owes its vibrant colors to the nearby ochre quarries.

Leaving behind the fragrant lavender fields buzzing with honeybees and tourists, we head eastward along a shady country road to Roussillon. Situated atop one of the richest ochre deposits in the world, this tiny hilltop village emerges from a forest of lush green pine trees like a life-size Post-Impressionist painting. The ochre-tinted facades of the houses lined along the maze of narrow cobbled lanes create an astonishing palette of flaming colors ranging from subtle yellows to dark reds, set off by the vivid blue Provencal sky. Other than this spectacular sight, the main attraction of Roussillon is the Sentier des Ocres (Ochre Trail), a relatively easy hiking trail through the former ochre quarries and surrounding woods, which starts just at edge of the village.

After a day of touring the roller-coaster back roads of the Lubéron and taking in its most iconic sites, we leave behind its rugged perched villages to head south into a lovely valley filled with vineyards and olive groves.Our final destination of the day, the charming village of Lourmarin.

Good to Know

  • Getting There – Gordes is located 100 kilometers (62 miles) north of Marseille, 75 kilometers (46 miles) north of Aix-en-Provence and 50 kilometers (31 miles) east of Avignon.. Because of the narrow country roads in the Lubéron and the large influx of visitors during the summer months, driving times can vary widely with the seasons.
  • Visiting – Comprehensive information for visitors to the entire area is available through the official tourism site: Lubéron Coeur de Provence.

Location, location, location!

Abbaye de Sénanque

In the Land of the good life – Château La Fleunie, Perigord

In the Land of the good life – Château La Fleunie, Perigord

Périgord… A word that conjures up medieval castles, precipitous cliffs, intriguing archeological sites and extravagantly rich food. I suspect the good life was born here, as wave after wave of our prehistoric ancestors came to settle in the many shelters conveniently hollowed out of the limestone cliffs by the Vézère and Dordogne rivers. And then there was the all-you-can-eat barbecue potential of the herds of reindeers that roamed the narrow alluvial valleys.

Perigord-Chateau La Fleunie.

Château La Fleunie is a medical castle reborn as boutique hotel.

By the middle ages, our forbearers were building fortresses to keep at bay the hordes of invaders eager to appropriate their good life. And from the bounty of their fertile land, they were creating a gastronomy that evolved into the pride of the region. Truffles and duck confit are traditional fare here.

Many fortified castles still stand on the hilltops, facing each other across the now peaceful banks of the rivers. Others materialize along the back roads that curve up and down the steep hills, when an opening in the foliage reveals turrets and crenellated walls. Some have remained private properties that can only be admired from afar, or historic sites to be visited in passing. But for visitors who yearn for a more personal experience, a number of these beautifully restored châteaux now have a new life as boutique hotels.

Le Château La FLeunie

Perigord - La Fleunie rear wing.

The rear wing of the hotel once housed the stables of the castle.

Little is known of the history of La Fleunie, other than it was built in the twelfth century by the Order of Saint John of Jerusalem, a community of monastic knights (later known as the Knight of Malta), on an estate given to them by the ruler of the area as reward for services rendered during the first crusades. The knights managed to hang on to their château for several centuries, and even enhance it in the fifteenth century (witness the Renaissance dormers). But eventually, local nobility moved in and the surrounding land became a part of their vast agricultural domain. Today, after a complete renovation in 1990 that mercifully preserved its original character, La Fleunie has become a charming 33-room, three-star hotel, secluded within its own 106-hectare (260-acre) estate.

Perigord-La Fleunie reception.

The public spaces have retained a medieval flair.

The first thing that attracts us to La Fleunie, other than the storybook looks of its pale U-shaped sandstone facades and four circular towers topped with sharply pointed slate roofs, is its location. The main purpose of our visit this weekend, Montignac, home to the world famous Paleolithic painted caves of Lascaux and the recently opened Centre International d’Art Parietal (International Center of Rock Wall Art), is only eight kilometers (five miles) away via a scenic back road. And all the other not-to-be-missed sites on our list (troglodyte villages of the Vézère Valley, and medieval gems along the Dordogne River) are all within a 45-minute drive. After a day spent roaming the countryside for prehistoric caves to Renaissance wonders, we enjoy returning to our very own château and relaxing on the lawn with a pre-dinner drink. Life is good at La Fleunie. And it’s about to get better.

La Table du Chevalier

Perigord-La Fleunie dining room.

The rustic dining room décor recalls its medieval history.

We are dining at La Table du Chevalier (the Knight’s Table) tonight, which the property’s website introduces as its restaurant gastronomique, the French code word for seriously upscale in both its cuisine and setting. No idle boast in a place where gastronomy has been a way of life ever since overweight ducks were first turned into foie gras.

Perigord-Table du Chevalier asparagus starter.

The cream of asparagus starter is garnished with foie gras.

 

The dining room is formal, decorated with a medieval flair that recalls the property’s history. The ancient beams that hold the soaring ceiling are adorned with brightly colored hand-painted garlands. The upholstery of the high back dining chairs recalls the faded tapestries hanging from on the rough limestone walls. The white linen-draped tables are set far apart to ensure the privacy and comfort of the guests. The stage is set for a memorable meal.

Memorable Meals

Perigord-La Fleunie spring lamb.

The filet of spring lamb is grilled to perfection.

After a lovely amuse-bouche of salmon tartare topped with a swirl of tangy, cloudlike lime mousse, I start with the chaud-froid d’asperges. The cool cream of fresh asparagus is garnished with paper-thin slices of smoked magret de canard (duck breast) and slivers of foie gras. It’s smooth, light and bursting with interesting flavors. I follow with a filet of spring lamb, grilled to medium-rare perfection, and served with alternating dollops of smoky purée of white beans and mousseline of potatoes enhanced with grainy old-style mustard. Brilliant in its apparent simplicity.

Perigord-Table du Chevalier confit.

The confit de canard is drizzled with nuggets of caramelized duck skin.

One of my dining companions, who can never pass up a duck confit, orders the innocuously listed “Confit de Canard with the chef’s potato purée”. It appears as a mysterious mound of smooth potatoes enhanced by chopped fresh vegetable and herbs, drizzled with bits of caramelized duck skin and topped with a crunchy ball of pastry filled with duck essence. A generous portion of boneless confit is concealed under the succulent potato puree. All it takes is a taste to convince all three of us accomplices on this girlfriends’ escapade to order it the following night.

Yes, we so thoroughly enjoy this first dinner that we reserve our table on the spot for the next evening.

The Knight behind the Table

Perigord -Chef Gregory Lafeuille

Chef Gregory Lafeuille.

There was never any question for Gregory Lafeuille, the inspired young chef of La Table du Chevalier, that he belonged in the kitchen. By the tender age of eight, he had declared himself in charge of preparing his family’s desserts, and had already compiled his own notebook of recipes. Fast forward a decade or so, and this Perigord native is pursuing advanced cooking and pastry studies at the Lycée Hôtelier in nearby Souillac. There, he earns himself internships in prestigious local restaurants, including Le Vieux Pont at Belcastel (one Michelin star) and Michel Bras in Laguiol (three Michelin stars), as well as further afield with the Spanish luxury hospitality chain Parador. Back in Perigord, within three year of starting at Le Château in St Geniès, he works his way up to sous-chef. Another brush with stars follows, in London this time, at Chef Marcus Wareing’s eponymous Marcus restaurant in Belgravia (two Michelin stars) before returning home to join La Table du Chevalier. Here, after two years as sous-chef he assumes the top role in 2016, and now dishes out his own style of masterfully prepared, elegantly presented creations rich with the earthy flavors of the Perigord heartland.

Chef Lafeuille’s imaginative cuisine is so popular with local gourmets at well as La Fleunie guests that reservations are a must, especially on weekends.

Good to Know

  • Getting in TouchChâteau La Fleunie, Rue d’Aubas, 24570 Condat-sur-Vézère, France. Contact: e-mail lafleunie@free.fr,Tel: +33 (0)5 53 51 32 74
  • Getting There – Condat-sur-Vézère is located four hours by car southwest of Paris and 2 hours northeast of Bordeaux (Highway A89, exit n°17 Montignac-Lascaux).

A Few Souvenirs

Location, location, location!

Château La Fleurie