Château La Coste is a winery combined with an outstanding art and architecture trail and has earned a star in the Michelin travel guide. It sits in gently rolling hills north of Aix en Provence.
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Lightly landscaped with bridges, walls, steps, a complex irrigation system that originally dates back to Roman times and the occasional stone bench, the grounds are well-tended while being allowed to remain a little wild, and so a long ramble around them is already a pleasure.
Named for the provençal word for hills, Château La Coste produces respected wines: click here to read about the winery tour. But what makes it extraordinary is the stunning collection of modern art and architecture assembled there.
This includes important pieces by Tadao Ando, Jean Nouvel, Frank Gehry, Norman Foster and Renzo Piano, all winners of the Pritzker Prize, one of the highest awards in world architecture. A large tapestry by Le Corbusier hangs casually in the corner of the café.
Elsewhere you will find work by Louise Bourgeois, Andy Goldworthy, Tracey Emin, Alexander Calder, Richard Serra and many more. Here is a gallery of some of our favourite pieces, photographed on a peaceful, mild spring day in March 2014. Scroll down to read more about them.
In some cases, these are the only examples of the artists' work in France and most have been created in situ especially for this location (a notable exception is Gehry's music pavilion which started life in 2008 at the Serpentine in London before being transported here).
The collection reads like a roll-call of the cream of contemporary artists and architects. But there is space here for new talent too. We take a closer look at some of the pieces below.
The man behind it is Paddy McKillen, a property tycoon from Belfast in Northern Ireland, whose portfolio also includes office blocks, shopping centres and luxury hotels.
McKillen bought Château La Coste in 2002 and had been busily embellishing it ever since, adding up to five major new artworks a year.
Publicity-shy, he kept Château La Coste closed to the public for the first few years. It quietly opened its doors in June 2011 and the atmosphere remains low-key and casual.
There are entrance charges to visit both the grounds and the winery and it's hoped these will cover the running costs but the project remains a colossal investment and clearly a labour of love.
You can either go on a guided visit of the art and architecture in the grounds or walk around on your own (the entrance charge is the same for both). The guided visit at present takes two hours and the self-guided one takes... well, as long as it takes.
We're intentionally vague here because this is not one of those sculpture parks where the art is neatly signposted and labelled and lined up in a row. Each artist was allowed to pick his or her own location, and the creations are scattered all over the grounds at wide intervals.
Some are tucked away and blend in with the landscape to the point where they're not obvious to find, even with the help of the little map supplied at the ticket desk. Few have plaques, though they are named on this map with helpful mini-icons to help you identify them. Pictured above: Foxes (2008) by Michael Stipe, formerly of R.E.M.
The idea is to wander around in a spirit of discovery. However, you can also carefully follow the suggested route if you're keen to see everything. The full circuit as marked on the map is about 3.5 km / 2 miles.
Several pieces are interactive and some visitors, especially those with children, might want to linger and play with them.
This is encouraged, though dad will probably have to help move such weighty pieces as Paul Matisse's Meditation Bell(2012), part booming bell, part muscle training device.
The same goes for Tom Shannon's shining, spinning Drop (2009), pictured. which swivels and tilts on its axis to reflect the countryside in a distorting mirror.
If you have small kids with you, bear in mind that there are no toilets on the route! Dogs (on a leash) are allowed on the estate too, if you want to take the family pet for a walk.
The circuit is constantly expanding. We passed a number of construction sites when we visited in March 2014. At that time we saw around two dozen completed sculptures, installations and buildings, but there should soon be at least two or three new things to see.
You could easily spend a whole day at Château La Coste - including the winery tour - though you can also get a quick sense of the place in a couple of hours if your time is more limited.
There are gravel paths throughout, so wear comfortable shoes. Part of the route involves a gentle climb and a couple of places are accessed by steps.
If you have restricted mobility, you might consider hiring the three-seater electric buggy with a guide that's available at reception, though it won't be able to take you to the more tucked-away spots.
The art is enormously varied. Some pieces have a vinous theme, such as Nouvel's metallic winery, shaped like a barrel, or Guggi's giant wine chalice, Calix Meus Inebrians (2009),pictured top left, (the name is a quote from the 22nd Psalm and Latin for "my cup makes me drunk", or "runneth over"!)
Pictured above, Emin's Self Portrait: Cat Inside A Barrel (2013) is perched on a high platform at the end of a wooden gantry overlooking the estate; you have to squat and peer through a hole into the darkness to see a tiny ceramic kitten. Did it somehow get trapped there?
We also liked Andy Goldsworthy's Oak Room (2009), a sort of dark underground igloo lined with woven tree branches, and the trademark giant Crouching Spider (2003) by Louise Bougeois.
Pictured, the spider squats in the infinity pool by the entrance to the estate above its own perfect reflection and its nubbly legs evoke the gnarled vines all around.
A highlight is the serene chapel (2011) perched at the top of the hill and absolutely worth the climb: Tadao Ando erected a protective framework embracing - or imprisoning - an existing ancient stone chapel and created some transfiguring effects inside with the help of natural light (be sure to close the door behind you after you enter to experience these).
Ando is one of the most enthusiastic collaborators to Château La Coste: he also designed the angular, luminous Art Centre and several other installations.
Château La Coste is open all year round and has a lively programme of events, from open-air screenings and concerts in summer to mulled wine, mince pies and a Christmas market in winter.
It would be beautiful in any season: we visited in early spring, when the vines weren't yet in leaf, but we enjoyed almond and cherry blossom and banks of wild violets and daffodils instead. But do try to avoid days of high winds and in summer take that uphill art trail in the evening rather than in the middle of the day.
The Art Centre contains a little bookstand with upmarket art books, posters and souvenirs and Château wine is on sale in the winery shop.
Where to eat and where to stay: The most convenient restaurant is Le Café de Tadao Ando. Named after the architect rather than the chef, it offers salads, pasta, simple dishes, home-made pastries and, of course, wine. There's a set menu at lunchtime.
The setting is delightful, though prices are on the high side. In fine weather the more informal outdoor La Terrasse is a cheaper option. And there's plenty of space out in the grounds for you to bring your own picnic.
If you wanted something more substantial and felt like driving a short distance, L'Auberge des Savoyants has been recommended by visitors. It's open for lunch only and you'll need to book.
The Villa La Coste, an exclusive boutique hotel, restaurant and spa has recently opened in the Château grounds (the architects, Tangram, have been involved in many projects in Marseille, including the pedestrianisation of the Old Port and the restoration of the InterContinental Hôtel Dieu).
A small nearby B&B, La Cride, also offers rooms and cottages but you'll need to reserve well ahead in the high season. Book a room at La Cride in Le Puy Sainte Réparade
How to get to Château La Coste: The estate is located 15.5 km / 9.5 miles north of Aix en Provence and 45 km / 28 miles north of Marseille at 2750 route de la Cride, 13610 Le Puy Sainte Réparade. Website for Château La Coste
Note: Château La Coste should not be confused with the village of Lacoste further north in Vaucluse.
By car: From Aix en Provence, take the motorway, leaving at the exit marked Puyricard. From here follow the D14 towards Le Puy Sainte Réparade. Shortly after Puyricard, the road forks: continue on the D14 and the entrance to Château La Coste is on your left at the bottom of a hill.
The Château has a free underground car-park with 90 spaces and an open-air parking lot for overspill.
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By bus: From Aix en Provence bus station, take line 260 to Le Puy Sainte Réparade and get off at bus-stop Coopérative (before you enter Le Puy). This part of the journey takes 35 minutes and you can consult the timetable here (type Le Puy Saint Réparade in the right-hand search box).
From this bus-stop a navette (a shuttle mini-bus, included in the ticket price) will take you right to the Château. The total journey time is one hour.
The only snag is that you do have to order the shuttle bus at least one hour ahead. Telephone 0800 944 040 (a freephone number). The helpful staff at the Château will do this for you if you don't speak French. The Château's telephone number is (+33) 4 42 61 89 98
If you forget, a taxi service is available in Le Puy. Tel (+33) 4 42 50 02 32. Alternatively, you can pre-book a holiday taxi here.