entrance courtyard chateau de lacostePerched high on a hill south-east of Avignon, Lacoste is not as well-known as its neighbours, such as Ménerbes, Bonnieux and Gordes. But this is one of Provence's most extraordinary mediaeval villages.

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As well as its historic features and picturesque location, Lacoste boasts a colourful, scandalous past, an opera and music festival with a wealthy celebrity patron and an international art school.

A THUMBNAIL HISTORY

A colony on this site overlooking the Cavalon valley dates back to prehistoric times. In the Middle Ages, Lacoste was settled by Waldensian (Protestant) migrants, like other villages in the area such as La Roque d'Anthéron or Lourmarin. And, also like them, it was the site of massacres during the Wars of Religion in the 16th century.

Its Château dates back to the eleventh century and beyond, but achieved fame (or rather, notoriety) when it was given to the Marquis de Sade as a wedding present in 1763.

This flamboyant sexual libertine, who gave his name to sadism, undertook extensive restorations there. Then, caught in a series of scandals (and spells in prison), he sold the Château in 1796.

In the 1940s the site attracted leading surrealist artists such as André Breton, René Char, Max Ernst and Jacques Hérold. But, by the end of the last millennium, Lacoste was in decline and the Château a locked and barred semi-ruin.

But everything changed, almost overnight. In 2001 the fashion designer Pierre Cardin bought the Château and launched a summer music festival based there and in the adjacent stone quarry, pictured, which he had converted into a 1000 seat amphitheatre.

festival de lacosteHe has since acquired property all over the village and the surrounding region, converting it into guest houses, bars, galleries, boutiques and even, in Bonnieux, a cinema. (He also attempted, unsuccessfully, to buy the château in nearby Ansouis.)

Cardin's presence here is controversial. Some locals have opposed his grand development plan, claiming that they feel colonised and suffocated: they blocked a project to build a golf course in 2010. Others see his whirlwind make-over as the saving of the village.

The third man to have a significent impact was, of course, the British writer Peter Mayle. His 1989 international bestseller A Year in Provence, which popularised the region, opens with a New Year's Day lunch in Lacoste. Alas, the restaurant where he tucked into a magnificent repast no longer exists.

THE CHÂTEAU DE LACOSTE

The Château is Lacoste's main sight. It perches on a wide, high, grassy plateau overlooking the terraces that cascade down through the village and, beyond it, to the valley and across to nearby Bonnieux. Mont Ventoux looms majestically in the distance.

chateau lacoste sculpture alexander bourganovIt's only open to the public (for a fairly hefty entrance fee) in July and August. At other times you can admire the splendid view and the sculptures keeping guard outside it.

Pictured: outstretched, welcoming arms by the Russian artist Alexander Bourganov. Nearby stands another piece, also by Bourganov, of the Divine Marquis with his head in a cage.

We visited the Château in an atmospheric March snowstorm. The weather is bound to be better for you on your visit!

To enter, you cross the moat (now dry) along a little drawbridge before passing through a gate framed by a silver silhouette of the Marquis's head and the cour d'honneur (entrance courtyard), where a vintage horse-drawn carriage, pictured top left, awaits passengers.

The Château originally consisted of 47 rooms on three floors. Cardin has restored a handful of them. (Note that this tour is not suitable for wheel- or push-chair users.)

They are decorated with an eclectic array of furniture and artwork. Bringing down new pieces constantly, Cardin likes to mix and match. So some items date from the Marquis' period, while some are contemporary, either from the couturier's private collection or designed by him.

His other big project in Lacoste is the village's annual music festival. The first edition was in July 2001, four months after Cardin moved in: the space was barely converted in time for the opening performance. Since then the Festival de Lacoste has become an annual fixture, running for around two weeks in mid July.

It, too, is a melange of elements which might typically include opera, swing music, literary readings and dance. Some productions might be directed and/or designed by Cardin.

 

Amazingly the village hosts another major cultural institution: an international art school. It was founded in 1970 by Bernard Pfriem, an American painter and sculptor, and was then called the Lacoste School of the Arts. It was taken over by the Savannah College of Art and Design (SCAD) in 2002 and has been another key factor in Lacoste's recent revival.

This is one of SCAD's several outposts around the world: there are others in Atlanta, Georgia, and Hong Kong; the main school is, of course, in Savannah, Georgia.

In Lacoste SCAD holds three month courses throughout the year in everything from photography to textile design for between 80 and 100 students.

They help keep the village lively outside the main season, with events such as a Halloween party or an annual festival de craie sur trottoir (festival of chalk pavement art) each May.

The campus occupies several dozen buildings, from tiny houses carved into the rock to the school's main centre, the Maison Basse, an immaculately restored farmhouse in the valley between Lacoste and Bonnieux.

shopscad lacosteThese spaces are used for classrooms, galleries, a college library, restaurant, shop and accommodation.

Tourists can't visit the school, but you may well see its installations around the streets. And you can buy the work produced there in the "shopSCAD" on the rue Saint Trophime.

Pictured, it's an Aladdin's cave of funky student art as well as more conventional souvenirs such as ceramics and cards.

The Tourist Office has created a short self-guided walking tour of the village, starting at the church, the twelfth century Église Saint Trophime right next to the Tourist Office itself. Note the delicate aerial sculpture above the altar by the Swedish artist Curt Asker, who had a second home in Lacoste until he died there in 2015.

The rest of Lacoste's modest, pretty attractions are the usual provençal ones: ancient ramparts and gates, cobbled streets, a bell tower, fountains and public washing troughs. But watch out for other modern sculptures and installations dotted all around the village.

ALSO OF INTEREST

The beautiful 13th century Abbaye Saint Hilaire is on the D109 between Lacoste and Ménerbes, on your left about 3 km / 2 miles out of Lacoste. Click here to read our full guide.

The surrounding countryside is full of gorgeous spots to explore, on foot, by bike or by car. The Forêt des cèdres (Forest of Cedars) is a huge park of North African trees planted in the 19th century: the route through it starts 2.5 km / 1.5 miles south of Lacoste, at the junction of the D3 and D106 roads.

The Grande Randonnée GR97 from Saint Saturnin lès Apt to Lourmarin passes through the Luberon mountains around 20 km / 12.5 miles south of Lacoste. Buy a large-scale hiking map IGN 3142 of the Lacoste area.

Lavender fields are all around. A recommended circular lavender route passes close to the north of Lacoste. Click here to read more about lavender in Provence.

Set between the Ventoux and Luberon appellations, Lacoste is also in the heart of wine country. Click here to read more about the wines of Northern Provence.

Dating back to the 13th century, the Château de Mille, 13 km / 8 miles north east of Lacoste, is one of the oldest wineries in the region. Vins des Copains is a collective of some 60 local wine-growing enthusiasts, 5 km / 3 miles to the north west.

Restaurant Maison de la Truffe et du Vin MenerbesIn nearby Ménerbes the Maison de la Truffe et du Vin du Luberon is a lovely old 17th-18th century mansion that combines a restaurant, shop, wine cellar, truffle museum and a training, information and conference centre.

It also has a delightful formal French garden, pictured, where you can eat a truffle-infused lunch or sip a glass of wine while enjoying stupendous views.

You can buy the wines by the bottle here too, at vineyard prices: there are some 2,000 bottles to chose from, representing over 50 local producers.

 

PRACTICAL INFORMATION

The tiny Tourist Office also does duty as the village library and post-office. It's on the place de l'Église, 84480 Lacoste. Tel: (+33) 4 90 06 11 36.

The official regional website Vaucluse Tourism in Provence includes a guide to Lacoste and other attractions in the area.

How to get to and from Lacoste: Lacoste is in the heart of the Parc Régional du Luberon (the Luberon Regional Park) between the villages of Bonnieux and Ménerbes, 43 km / 27 miles south-east of Avignon. Note: Lacoste should not be confused with the Château La Coste vineyard and art and sculpture park near Aix en Provence.

It is served by one bus route, no.18 from Cavaillon or Apt. Click here for the current timetable (look for the link marked "horaires des lignes", then choose the relevant timetable from the list).

However the bus service to Lacoste is irregular (not all buses stop there) and you would be better advised to drive. There is a large free car-park at the bottom of the village on the road from Apt.

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The weekly market in Lacoste is held on the place de L'Église on Tuesday mornings from May to September. Note that Lacoste has no bank or cash dispenser (ATM).

The Espace La Costa on the rue Basse near the Tourist Office is an information point about the Festival de Lacoste and a village shop, open all year round.

It sells erudite studies of De Sade, glossy books about Provence and Cardin designer merchandise as well as local produce and the everyday things (newspapers, bread, soap, tinned food) you expect from a small convenience store. Tel: (+33) 4 90 75 93 12

Where to stay and where to eat and drink: There are no hotels in Lacoste but the village does have a good sprinkling of nice B&Bs. We stayed at Le Clos des Lavandes up the hill near the Château.

Lacoste is equally short of restaurants and bars outside the summer season. Basic brasserie food is served at the traditional Café de France (book ahead to reserve a table on the small terrace with terrific views across the valley). The contemporary-styled, Cardin-owned Café de Sade is the other option.

Photo credits (from top): © SJ for Marvellous Provence, Alain Hocquel for CDT Vaucluse, SJ for Marvellous Provence (two images), Maison de la Truffe et du Vin du Luberon.

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