In the southern Luberon 32 km / 20 miles north of Aix en Provence, Ansouis is a pretty, off-the-beaten-track hill village with one superlative sight and a second (in its own word) "extraordinary" one.
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Pronounced (roughly!) "on-swee", Ansouis was named one of the Plus Beaux Villages de France or Most Beautiful Villages of France in 1999. But it doesn't seem to have pushed itself too hard as a tourist destination and remains one of the lesser-known Luberon villages. And this is certainly a major part of its unassuming, sleepy charm.
Ansouis' immediate pleasures are the traditional ones. Old stone houses (some dating back to the 15th century) cluster around an semi-circular bell tower with an open ironwork campanile. They're criss-crossed by lovingly restored calades, those steep, narrow, cobbled back alleys typical of the Luberon.
Large reproductions of historic postcards dotted around the village evoke the even more leisurely pace of life in Ansouis back in the olden days. However, Ansouis also has a rare jewel: a magnificent Château dating back over a thousand years, which you can visit on a fascinating tour.
The Château d'Ansouis has, as you'd expect, a colourful history. In the early 14th century, its owners, a young couple named Elzéar and Delphine de Sabran, pledged themselves to a life of austerity and were later canonised by the Avignon popes (they are buried in the village church and celebrated at a mass each September).
In later centuries the Château fell into disrepair. But restoration began in the 1930 and it hit the spotlight in 1969 when the ultra-elegant Gersende de Sabran-Pontevès, married Prince Jacques, Duke of Orléans.
Their glamorous three-day wedding reception at the Château, studded with European aristocracy and media celebrities, filled many pages of glossy magazines. Pictured: Ansouis seen from its Château.
A few years later the Château faced a fresh fate. After a typically French and complicated squabble over the family inheritance, it was sold at auction, amid great controversy, in 2008.
One bidder was the couturier Pierre Cardin who has been furiously buying up property in the region, notably in nearby Lacoste and Bonnieux. Thanks to a legal technicality, he withdrew at the last minute and the Château d'Ansouis was acquired by Gérard and Frédérique Rousset-Rouvière, an Aix-based couple.
They have been continuing its restoration with tremendous love, flair and imagination ever since. The result is simply exquisite, and the few rooms still under renovation suggest just how much time and expense have been poured into the project)
Madame Rousset-Rouvière leads the guided tours herself. She's a great fund of knowledge and anecdotes about the history of the Château d'Ansouis, its conversion, provençal customs and her own personal passion for furniture and design.
We've described below some of the details she pointed out to us. But each tour is likely to be a little different, depending on the visitors' particular interests and questions. (Madame Rousset-Rouvière doesn't speak English, but she can arrange a translator if needed.)
Like many châteaux, this started life as a strategic mediaeval fortress overlooking and guarding the route between Apt and Aix en Provence. A "well" at its centre was, in fact, an escape chute and the soldiers would slot temporary wooden steps into pre-formed holes in the sides, so that they could descend without the enemy's following them.
Two underground passages linked the castle to a house in the village, enabling people and food supplies to move back and forth at times of siege.
In the Age of Enlightenment, the military fortress was gradually converted into a gracious country house, with a 17th century facade. Pictured: the Renaissance façade and front entrance of the Château d'Ansouis.
You go in through a very grand Italianate entrance hall, whose staircase with a clever trompe l'oeil ceiling and wide, shallow steps was designed to facilitate le pas du roi, a properly regal, gliding ascent.
At first the new and old wings were entirely separate. But roofs were added later over the open-air areas to join them up into a single unit, and parts of the old fortress are now embedded within the Renaissance Château. Moving constantly between them, the time-travelling guided tour weaves through the centuries.
The severe mediaeval castle faced north, while the Renaissance part of the Château has Versailles-style rooms en enfilade (opening on to each other along a long corridor). These all look south over a broad terrace shaded by chestnut trees, the Château's enormous, 6 hectare / 15 acre grounds and the surrounding countryside. You can even see as far as the Mont Sainte Victoire.
Many are decorated with the aristocratic version of les indiennes, the traditional patterns of Provence.
The tour may pause in the almond-green salon to admire the fine, detailled white plaster-work, or in the dining room under a Murano glass chandelier. Pictured: a view along the Renaissance wing through the salon.
The tablecloth on the dining table is knotted to prevent demons from climbing up to grab a bite to eat, according to a provençal superstition. Some rooms have rounded corners, too, so that the devil can't hide in the shadows.
The two master bedrooms, one for the husband, one for the lady of the château, have a little antechamber in between, "for negotiation", as Madame Rousset-Rouvière tactfully puts it. A cute little indoor kennel for the family dog is covered in brocade, a fashion set by Marie Antoinette.
The tour also goes into the private chapel in the former guard room of the look-out tower, rich with rouge royal red marble from the Pyrenees.
Unusually, its Christ on the cross is depicted as still alive, with open eyes. There's also a small collection of Neopolitan santons, much finer than their rustic provençal cousins.
On the top floor is a totally different living space: an intimate, 18th century ermitage or private retreat.
This delicate, very feminine apartment has an octagonal bedroom and boudoir. The special hairdressing chair has a scooped-out backrest to allow the maid to prepare her mistress' elaborate coiffures.
And the Château reserves one last stunning surprise: a door opens on to a jardin suspendu, or hanging garden, complete with neatly trimmed box hedges, rose bushes, orange trees, statues and more wonderful views. Pictured: a small corner of this huge garden.
The Château is open from April to 1 November (La Toussaint, or All Saints' Day, a public holiday in France). Check the official website for exact times. Website for the Château d'Ansouis
All visits must be accompanied and you should allow between an hour and 90 minutes to make the most of Madame Rousset-Rouvière's expertise. There's no snack bar, but a cocktail or buffet reception can be laid on for larger groups by prior arrangement.
If you'd like to see some gorgeous images of the Château at Christmas, have a look at this lavish photo-reportage in Elle magazine.
THE MUSÉE EXTRAORDINAIRE
At the bottom end of the village is another, very different but equally unusual attraction: the modestly named Musée Extraordinaire. If the Château is more of a sophisticated grown-up pleasure, this quirky and playful museum is bound to enchant and engage younger visitors. Like the Château, it's open in the afternoons only.
The museum is the brainchild of Georges Mazoyer, pictured, a deep sea diver, adventurer and painter who studied fine arts in Marseille, went diving with Jacques Cousteau's team, met the explorer Paul Emile Victor in Bora Bora and spent years travelling to the four corners of the world... until he fell in love with a girl from Ansouis where he finally made his home.
Here, in 1975 Mazoyer created a sort of personal cabinet of curiosities which united his two (other) great passions, for art and for the sea - even though Ansouis is many miles from the coast.
After he died in 1996, his daughter, Nicole (who speaks English) and her husband, Claude Le Drean, continue to present his treasures to visitors with the same enthusiasm and friendly welcome.
Sculptures of seahorses and dolphins guard the entrance to the 16th century farmhouse where the museum is housed. Mazoyer installed his studio on the first floor, formerly a stable for donkeys (this is a "troglodyte house" set into the rock with entrances on several floors).
Today, these cool, vaulted, lavender-scented rooms contain a fantastical collection of marine-themed paintings, ceramics, glass and sculptures, plus exotic shells, fossils, mineral samples, coral and vintage diving equipment. Pictured: Nicole Le Drean showing us around.
Labelled with hand-written signs, some of these are whimsical, such as the colourful imaginary fish made of pebbles and stones, or a sculpture of a "futuristic frogman", pictured below.
Others are educational, on themes of history, ecology and pollution. It's key to the museum's appeal that it is not always easy to distinguish between the two.
The star exhibit is a blue "underwater" coral grotto, created in what was formerly the first-floor entrance to the farmhouse.
Transformed with blue paint, stained-glass windows, light and sound effects, shells, fish sculptures and other artefacts, it's a simple but surprisingly effective evocation of what it's like to dive deep under the sea.
On the second floor is a little shop and studio, and a rather lovely farmhouse kitchen with a huge dining table, an open fireplace and an ancient olive press. Concealed behind a wooden door is a furnace for firing pottery.
There are also provençal crafts such as intricate knitted petticoats and a rare, four-seater rush and wood banquette.
The only slight downside to the museum is that it hasn't been possible to install a list / elevator inside this steep, narrow old house, so the visit is unsuitable for wheel- or push-chairs. The Musée Extraordinaire, rue du Vieux Moulin, 84240 Ansouis. Tel: (+33) 4 90 09 82 64
ALSO OF INTEREST
Also up by the Château on the rue du petit Portail is a studio of santons (Provence's typical terracotta Christmas crib figures). Its owner, Daniel Galli, is a Meilleur Ouvrier de France, a distinction awarded to the country's best artisans. His workshop is open to visitors from spring until December.
Just over two km / one mile east of Ansouis on the route de Pertuis, the Château Turcan vineyard houses a Musée de la vigne et du vin, a museum of wine-making implements and wine itself. Website for the Musée de la vigne et du vin
Ansouis doesn't have its own individual Tourist Office, but some information (in French only) is available on the Town Hall website.
The official regional website Vaucluse Tourism in Provence includes a guide to Ansouis and other attractions in the area.
How to get to and from Ansouis: Ansouis is located 32 km / 20 miles north of Aix en Provence and 8 km / 5 miles north-west of Pertuis.
It is the southernmost of a small pocket of six Most Beautiful Villages of France, the other five being Gordes, Lourmarin, Ménerbes, Roussillon and Venasque. If you were short of time, you could drive this entire circuit in under two hours.
Ansouis is one of those few villages which are not too difficult to get to by public transport from Aix en Provence or Marseille, if you're prepared to pay for a short taxi ride at the end of the trip.
The closest railway station is in Pertuis. The current train timetable can be downloaded from the SNCF TER (French regional railways) website (in French only). Select timetable no.12 (Marseille-Aix-Meyrargues-Pertuis) from the drop-down menu.
From here a skeleton bus service runs to Ansouis (line no.9.2: it's a 15 minute bus ride). Click here for the current timetables (look for the link marked "horaires des lignes", then choose the relevant timetable from the list). Or take a taxi.
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Where to eat: Among the handful of restaurants in Ansouis is one with a Michelin star: La Closerie on the boulevard des Platanes at the entrance to the village. It's small, so reserve ahead. Click here for a full list of Michelin-starred restaurants in the region.
For simple snacks and sandwiches, the best spot is the Bar des Sports on the very central place des Hôtes. Somewhat to the east of the village, L'Art Glacier on the chemin Les Hautes Terres offers home-made ice-cream in dozens of different flavours.
Photo credits (from top): © Vi Cult for Wikimedia Commons, RWS for Marvellous Provence (four images), vintage photograph of Georges Mazoyer, RWS for Marvellous Provence (two images).