Provence has got to be one of the most adorable regions in France.
A land of lavender, vineyards, fruit trees, gently rolling hills and the occasional limestone range... Of ancient village centres, narrow cobblestone streets and carved stone fountains... The true paysage, the authentic rural heart of France which has remained unchanged throughout the centuries in its deeply significant traditions and unrelenting adorableness.
Did I mention lavender?
If I'm honest, the self-conscious provincialism can wear pretty thin, especially in the bigger towns where vendors cackle with delight at the commencement of the tourist season, and even on brand new buildings the paint is artfully weather-worn.
While in a moment of weakness I did once purchase a pouch of dried lavender with the word 'Lavender' embroidered on it in lavender thread... I'm generally not the kind of person to wear linen aprons or to make my own paper. Yet the region really is gorgeous and sometimes those cobble-stoned towns just get the better of you.
Lacoste, about 50 minutes drive from Avignon is one of those places.
Charles and I were staying for a few days with his family in the Luberon area, and did a bit of exploring, in a Fiat 500C which is approximately the same size as the go-cart I had as a child, and as much fun to drive.
"Is this where the Lacoste brand is from?" I asked Charles as we walked toward the town from the parking lot.
We never established yea or nea, but unmolested by tiny crocodiles nor jauntily leaping tennis players we continued up the hill. It got very cute very quickly.
I immediately pulled my camera out, and congratulated myself on wearing leather sandals as we walked up the steep lanes. So much stone! So many cobbles! I fit right in!
The lanes were dense with artists ateliers, and we discovered that Lacoste is home to a campus of the Savannah College of Art and Design, the main campus of which is in Georgia, US.
Perhaps due to the heat and the hour, there were very few tourists or students around, and the artists in question simply smiled and uttered a quiet 'bonjour' from their cool sanctuaries.
We kept climbing... toward the castle standing at the top of the hill which was once home to the (in)famous Marquis de Sade.
More than two centuries after his death, we still cant quite decide if he was an abusive sleaze-peddling degenerate or a heroic defender of free speech, persecuted genius and philosopher. I tried to recall information about him from this article that I'd read in the Smithsonian magazine about a year ago.
"Is this where he imprisoned those people that he kidnapped?" I wondered as we approached the castle, ruined during the Revolution. (It was).
We paused beneath the statue of Sade, his head contained in steel bars, erected by the fashion designer Pierre Cardin who now owns and manages the site, and wondered about his legacy.
I snapped a couple of pictures and decided to put philosophical questions aside and enjoy the magnificent sculptures instead.
...some of which rather invited interpretation.
We hesitated before paying 12€ to visit the interior of the Château, then decided 'why not' with a shrug and went inside. The price was way too high, but I don't regret paying it, if only for the magnificent view it gave us over the surrounding hills.
There isn't much to see inside, except a few rooms made up in what I assume to be period appropriate furniture. I had to assume, because there were no signs or information except for the thin photocopied handout we were given at the ticket office.
There was a hole cut into the floor with a bit of perspex covering it. It appeared to lead to a dark cave or cellar. Is this where he locked up those poor women? What happened in this room? And this?
I started to see Sade's influence everywhere. Even the metal studded wooden doors began to look kinky.
Outside in the clear light of day, we found a cute and colourful old carriage that may or may not have had anything to do with Sade or the castle. Again, no information. But we didn't really mind, it was too hot to read, and the view made up for it.
Picking our way back down to the main square, complete with its own pint-sized café, Roman era Church and town hall, we sat for a while in the shade pondering the incongruities of the place.
The town felt more than a little sponsored, by both Pierre Cardin and the Savannah College. Yet there were no tacky souvenirs for sale, ruining the quiet atmosphere of the place. Perhaps they were rendered unnecessary by the rich patronage it already enjoys.
In a way, by placing the figures of the town ahead of the inherent charm of the town itself, it seemed to have escaped the disneyfication that has rendered so many cute Provincial towns unbearable.
For whatever reason, Lacoste was a pleasure to visit. With that settled we went back to the car and put the top down to take a winding route through the vineyards and lavender fields all the way back home.