Secrets of Provence

Secrets of Provence

The haunting ruins of the Marquis de Sade's once-imposing château and the legends of excess give this bucolic landscape an edge of wildness that time hasn't tamed.

The Marquis de Sade is one of the few men in history whose names have spawned adjectives: Machiavelli, Plato, and Masoch are others who come readily to mind. The books of this 18th-century debauchee have received more mixed reviews than any other writer's; he has been called "the freest spirit who ever was," "a professor emeritus of crime," "the most lucid hero in the history of thought," an "abominable assemblage of all crimes and obscenities."

And although his physique remains nebulous we know only that he had blond hair and a round, winsome face and stood approximately five feet two Donatien-Alphonse-François, Marquis de Sade, is one of those public figures whose geographical origins are easily traceable. His most cherished landscapes, his emotional terrain, lie in the Vaucluse, the ravishing region of Provence east and north of Avignon. There, for centuries, his ancestors had exercised their seigneurial rights with legendary hubris, seldom letting anyone forget that they belonged to Provence's most exalted aristocracy and were among its largest landowners.

To his credit (and he had few redeeming graces), the Marquis was as candid about his inherited hauteur as he was about his unleashed libido. "Haughty, despotic, and choleric," he described himself, "imperious…extreme in all things, with a disturbance in the moral imagination unlike any the world has ever known.…Kill me or take me as I am, because I will not change."

Like most men known primarily as sexual ogres, Sade has inspired so many lurid tales that the basic facts of his life tend to be obscured. He was born in Paris in 1740 at the home of the Condés, his mother's distant cousins and princes of the royal blood. (Sade's arrogance was heightened by his remote kinship with the French crown.) He spent six childhood years with relatives in Provence, first with his paternal grandmother in Avignon, in the beautiful mansion that now serves as the Musée Calvet, and later in the nearby castle of Saumane with his uncle the Abbé de Sade, a cleric and scholar of notorious dissipation, a trait shared by the Marquis's own wastrel father. At 22, the penurious young dandy was forced by his family to marry a plain, prim young woman of the wealthy Paris bourgeoisie, Renée-Pélagie de Montreuil. She worshiped him for the next quarter-century of their marriage, and the couple had three children.

Sade's Paris years were tainted by a few arrests caused by his orgies, which included such activities as whipping women. Fleeing from his disgraces, the 31-year-old Sade moved with his family to his château at Lacoste, his favorite among the several Provençal estates he had inherited. It is at Lacoste that any meditation on the Marquis de Sade must begin.

Trace your way across a road map some 25 miles east of Avignonand roughly 10 minutes by car from Ménerbes, the setting of Peter Mayle's Provence seriesand you will find the village of Lacoste, surmounted by the Marquis's ancestral castle. Far less exploited than nearby tourist meccas such as Gordes or Roussillon, Lacoste has changed little since Sade's time: even its population, approximately 400, is about the same. Its rocky terrain has always made it poorer than neighboring settlements; here the economy is based on stonemasonry rather than farming. The only commercial establishments in this austere, steep-pathed pinnacle of pale golden stone are a tiny bakery, a stamp-size newspaper-and-tobacco store, and a few quiet cafés, of which the most popular is called the Café de Sade. The château itself, whose foundations date from the ninth century, once served as a stronghold against Saracen invaders. It is set on a rocky two-acre plateau that dominates the cliffside village like a hovering eagle. Sacked in 1792 during the revolutionary era, and plundered repeatedly into this century, the castle retains only its moat, sections of its walls and ramparts, and a few half-demolished rooms. From a distance the structure evokes the toothless face of a ravaged colossus, and the climb to it can be arduous ("accès pénible," as French guidebooks put it). But the nearly 360-degree views are as breathtaking as those from any other summit in Provence. Looking down and east from Sade's castle in the glorious month of April, you will see, for miles on end, groves of pink and white cherry trees, budding vineyards interspersed with crimson poppies, and violet Judas trees. A few miles beyond, the handsome village of Bonnieux tumbles down its hillock toward the Lubéron range, whose slopes yield some of the Vaucluse's loveliest wines. To the north, majestic forests of spruce and oak, more hilltop hamlets, and orchards redolent with rosemary, thyme, and lavender stretch toward the white-capped peaks of the Ventoux range.

The shell of Sade's castle, ever so tauntingly sinister, offers fresh insights into his enigmatic personality and his work, for these ruins retain the savage, feudal aura that sparked the Marquis's muse. Along with his family domain at Saumane, the far more forbidding 12th-century château where the young Marquis spent part of his childhood, Lacoste may have helped to inspire the settings of Sade's most famous novels: Justine, Juliette, and that monumental catalogue of sexual perversions The 120 Days of Sodom. These gothic narratives of persecuted damsels, bloodthirsty monks, and gruesomely debauched noblemen are most often set in places strikingly similar to the ancestral estates where Sade lived during his Provençal yearslandscapes filled with isolated fortresses, dizzying precipices, and impassable moats. In the archaic vistas of Lacoste, Sade could retain that illusion of anarchic autonomy he bestowed on his fictional characters, feel like the feudal suzerain whose most deviant whims could remain unpunished. Yet a close study of Sade's life at Lacoste reveals a surprising, quieter aspect of his characterhis strong ties to family. Abhorring the hypocritical fawning of court life, disdaining most of his aristocratic peers (his delusions of grandeur made him feel vastly superior), Sade was a rather domestic man. For one thing, his marriage was outstandingly harmonious. His wife, the sturdy, homespun Marquise, hated Parisian society as violently as her husband did, and shared his passion for Lacoste. She calmly endured his debauches, being so enamored of the Marquis that she even abetted some of his deviant practices. Though Sade was hardly even-tempered, part of the time their devotion was mutual. In his letters from jail the Marquis called his wife "ambrosia of Olympus," "miracle of nature," "light of my life," "dove of Venus," while the Marquise most frequently addressed him as "my good little boy."

So, during his years in Provence, when not partying with strumpets, the Marquis felt far more at ease with his doting spouse and a few Provençal cronies than with urban high society. He hobnobbed with his doctor, who lived in the village of Bonnieux, a 15-minute canter from Lacoste, and with his lawyer in the nearby city of Apt, the site of one of Provence's most colorful weekly markets. Despite his virulent atheism, he enjoyed discussing theology with local priests, particularly the vicar of the lovely little village of Oppède, just beyond Ménerbes.

But above all Sade loved to tend his estate, having personally planned and supervised its remodeling, down to its decoration and its landscaping. "I wish to enjoy the fruits of the garden next summer, and this will not happen if you neglect to follow my directions concerning the plantings"; thus he scolded his business agent in Provence shortly before he moved there in 1771. "Garden, farmyard, cheeses, firewood, etc.get all that moving."

So, when one visits this barren ruin today, one must imagine it the way Sade had renovated it by the 1770's: a 45-room residence staffed by some 20 domestics, filled with cozily upholstered sofas and bergères, replete with creature comforts such as card tables, copper water heaters, a bathtub, andthe 1778 inventory is specificmore than a dozen portable toilets and bidets. The walls were hung with tapestries depicting popular 18th-century themes: the death of Alexander the Great, the story of Mary Magdalene. Sade was an avid reader and scholar, and, though he remained deeply in debt throughout his life, his library included all the pornographic best-sellers of the time, and most of the classic writersVirgil, Pascal, Cervantes, Montesquieu, Diderot. Sade also lavished much expense on the "park" he designed for the northern end of his estate, with its labyrinth of evergreens copied from the black-and-white design of the floor in Chartres cathedral.
Another of Sade's indulgences at Lacoste was his passion for the theater. Amateur dramatics had been the rage since the late 17th century; almost every gentleman of substance in France had a theater on his estate (Sade himself had been stagestruck since adolescence). One of the first amenities he added to Lacoste was a 60-seat salle de spectacles. In 1771 he hired 12 second-rate but thoroughly professional actors and actresses and inaugurated a repertory theater season that shuttled between Lacoste and another of his family domains, the Château de Mazan, in the town of that name. The energy involved in these voyages is mind-boggling: Mazan, which adjoins the historic city of Carpentras, lies some 28 miles northwest of Lacoste, even now a 50-minute drive. The trip must have taken the entourage at least 12 hours by muleback or horse-drawn coach.

Once arrived in Mazan with his retinue of family, servants, and actors, Sade had barely two or three days to mount a brand-new production. While preparing to take a leading role in each play, he had to rehearse his actors, attend to sets and lighting, and, being always nearly broke, approach creditors to find additional funds for his extravaganzas. Then he would head back to Lacoste. As we follow Sade's footsteps on this demented project, we pass through some of the most gorgeous landscapes of the Vaucluse.

Sade's route from Lacoste to Mazan is easily traced, because few stretches of flat valley lie between the two towns. His cortege would have headed to the little river, the Calavon, that now runs parallel to Route N-100. The party might have crossed the stream on Pont Julien, a beautifully preserved Roman bridge from the third century b.c. that is still used today, and then turned northwest toward L'Isle-sur-la-Sorgue. Called "the Venice of Provence," this gracious, airy city is crisscrossed by tributaries of the Sorgue River, which originate a few miles away in the resurgent spring of Fontaine-de-Vaucluse. (The Sorgue today offers some of the best trout fishing in France.) For centuries "Isle" throve on the weaving, dyeing, and oil-pressing industries empowered by the water-driven wheels that still adorn its beautiful canals. Since it was the market town for surrounding communities, the young Marquis must have visited L'Isle several times a month while living with his uncle the Abbé de Sade at the Château de Saumane, just three miles outside of town.

The romantic hilltop settlement of Saumane-de-Vaucluse, where the Abbé de Sade could have offered refreshments to the Marquis's cavalcade, is crowned by yet another crenellated feudal fortress, which had belonged to the Sades since the 15th century. It was given to them by one of the Avignon popes as a reward for their services. (For the five centuries preceding the Revolution

of 1789, a good segment of what we now know as Provence constituted part of the papal territories.) Vaster and more forbidding than Lacoste, the castle of Saumane has been restored recently and opens to the public in the middle of this month. The château's brooding exterior almost certainly served as the model for the fictional Castle of Silling, in which the morbid orgies of Sade's 120 Days of Sodom are held: "A very narrow, very steep spiral staircase with three hundred steps…descended into the entrails of the earth and a kind of vaulted dungeon sealed by three iron gates and containing all that the cruelest art and most refined barbarity could invent in the way of atrocity."

The trip north from Saumane or L'Isle-sur-la-Sorgue to Carpentras would have been the longest leg of Sade's journey. The most handsome medieval town in the Vaucluse after Avignon, Carpentraspopulation 30,000still contains vestiges of its large community of Jews. Tens of thousands of Jews were expelled from France by King Philip IV in the late 13th century and sought refuge in Provence's papal territories. They were warmly welcomed by the shrewd pontiffs, who saw, besides the possibility of new conversions, financial advantages in these émigrés' talent for banking and commerce. (Sade himself often borrowed from Carpentras's moneylenders.) The synagogue of Carpentras, built in 1367, reconstructed in the 18th century, and superbly preserved, is the oldest in France; the equally beautiful one in the town of Cavaillon, 20 minutes from Lacoste, followed it by a few decades. The Château de Mazanbirthplace of Sade's father and uncleswas the troupe's ultimate destination. But only the most hard-core Sade aficionados would find it worth a detour. A spacious but dreary 17th-century dwelling set in the middle of an equally lackluster town, it now serves as a rest home for the aged and, like Saumane, cannot be visited without special permission. Those eager for another Sadean frisson are instead advised to head for Fontaine-de-Vaucluse, only three miles from either Saumane or L'Isle-sur-la-Sorgue; after Lacoste, Fontaine-de-Vaucluse may well have been the place closest to the Marquis's heart.

Sade's attachment to this village was derived from his fascination with a favorite ancestor: the 14th-century beauty Laure de Sade, the fabled muse of the poet Petrarch. It was in Fontaine-de-Vaucluse that Petrarch lived for 16 years while nursing his chaste passion for "Laura," and where he wrote his famous sonnets to her. A charming little museum, said to stand on the site of Petrarch's house, commemorates the poet's devotion. The many visits the young Marquis made hereSade's uncle the Abbé was then writing a pioneering biography of Petrarch seemingly made a strong impression on him. At the age of 38, in a letter to his wife from prison, he recounted a vision he'd had about his forebear:

"Listen to a dream I had of [Laure] yesterday. …Suddenly she appeared to me…I saw her! The horrors of the tomb had not impaired the brilliance of her charms, and her eyes had the same fire as when Petrarch saw them. …`Why do you groan on earth?' she said to me. `Come and join me.'…I flung myself at her feet calling out, `O my mother!' "

The extraordinary sight of the Fontaine-de-Vauclusethe natural phenomenon, rather than the tourist-glutted village that bears its nameoffers a gripping allegory for anyone interested in the Marquis de Sade.

Set in a narrow gorge, the fontaine-de-Vaucluse, one of the world's most powerful resurgent springs, first appears as a calm pool of eerie greennessa lustrous peacock-feather green, the most radiant green I've seen in any liquid element. And then, from the edge of that deceptively tranquil basin, its waters bound down the mountain with thunderous speed, generating huge mounds of white spume, surging over rocks and wooded banks with a force that seems supernatural. This foaming green fury eventually flattens out and flows into the plain, becoming the Sorgue River, which rushes through miles of Provence with an imperiousness that always strikes me as Dionysian and utterly male. Until early medieval times, the Sorgue's numerous tributaries created thousands of acres of swampland noisome to the local population. But eventually these waters were coerced into irrigating some of Provence's richest valleys, land that yields the cherries, melons, pears, apples, and wines that abound in the markets of Apt, Gordes, and Lacoste itself. As I stood at the Fontaine-de-Vaucluse one day, watching the green cascade romping savagely from its clandestine source, I was struck by its affinity with the saga of the Marquis de Sade: sexuality and water power are only two of the countless manifestations of energy that society must curb and rechannel in order to survive. This is the lesson of the Marquis's fate.

For in 1778 Sade's Provençal idyll was forced to end. Remarkably, during his years in Provence Sade was officially accused of only two offenses: sodomy and the attempt to poison. (At one particularly festive series of orgies, he had offered aphrodisiac candies to some prostitutes, which made them ill.) He was cleared of the first charge because he was a high-ranking noble with influential relatives, and exonerated of the second through due process of court. But in the eyes of his mother-in-law, the vindictive, consummately proper Madame de Montreuil, Sade was guilty of dishonoring her family, a crime that in her estimation deserved nothing less than a life sentence. Enraged by the Marquis's increasingly lewd escapades, she had him imprisoned through that most despised legal feature of the Ancien Régimea lettre de cachet. This was a royal decree that could mandate the incarceration of any citizen for life without trial, and was frequently used by powerful families to dispose of their more fractious relatives. The Marquis spent 13 years in jail, during which time he wrote or outlined some of his major texts. He was liberated only in 1790, following the onset of the Revolution of 1789. Upon his release, his once adoring wife, in an enigmatic turnabout, decided she wanted no more of him; the couple separated and probably never saw each other again.

After his long prison term the Marquis was never again able to live at his cherished Lacoste. The château was eventually sold to a local peasant. Sade died in 1814, aged 74, at the mental institution in which he had been immured for more than a decade under Napoleon's ordersthis time on charges that he had written and published immoral books ("novels that must be read with one hand" as the French demurely refer to pornography). Throughout Sade's incarcerations, the most poignant nostalgia expressed in his letters concerned his longing to return to his cherished corner of Provence. ("How is my poor cherry orchard?" was a typical query about his estate at Lacoste. "See to it that the park be well tended. …Tell them to replace that little hedge of hazelnut trees.")

Sade left behind scores of manuscriptsexecrable to many, admirable to otherswhose publication was forbidden for more than a century after his death. It was not until after the Second World War, after he had been championed and rehabilitated by the Surrealists and all taboos on his work were lifted, that the writer and his village finally had their renaissance. Though Lacoste had grown increasingly poor since Sade's time, the lurid reputation of his texts began to draw thousands of tourists there. Several struggling farms were converted into bed-and-breakfasts. Whether they had ever read a word of his or not, many visitors found the village such an amiable place that they eventually settled there. (Nearly half of Lacoste's official residents are foreigners.) In the 1970's an American art school was founded a few hundred feet below Sade's castlethe School of the Arts in France, administered by the Cleveland Institute of Art. And unlike their prudish forebears, contemporary Costains, as natives are called, express opinions that range from bemused tolerance to outright pride when queried about their views of Sade.

To Liliane Ségura, who owns and manages the community's most popular restaurant and bar, the Café de Sade (where she always displays a regional wine called Cuvée du Divin Marquis), the titillation evoked by the ghost of this native son brings the town plenty of visitors: "Thousands are drawn here by the romance of his namethe romance of the illicit." Bernard Lamy, a native of Strasbourg, who runs Bonne Terre, one of the village's most attractive B&B's, concurs: "His odor of sulfur draws the crowds, particularly the Germans." As for the mayor, Gilbert Grégoire, a jovial Socialist who, like many, finds the Marquis's works "boring and repetitious," he comes to Sade's defense: "He never committed the crimes he describes in his books. …Anyone has the right to jazz it up in his own home."

But here is what would give the Marquis the greatest pleasure of all: beginning in 1943, the château at Lacoste and its surrounding terrain were purchased by a progressive-minded local teacher, André Bouer, whose widow still owns it. The Bouers partially restored Sade's domain and built a theater in the stone quarries just below the castle. With a seating capacity of 1,600 persons, the Théâtre de Lacoste now has the largest public auditorium in the Vaucluse, equaled only by the outdoor theater in Avignon's Palais des Papes. Jazz festivals, ballet performances, and avant-garde plays are produced there in summer. So the Marquis's ambition to make Lacoste a mecca for thespians has finally been realized.

One recent dramatic venture might have particularly delighted him: a "fantastical melodrama" that concerns a love affair between the Marquis de Sade and Saint Theresa of Avila, and in whose dénouement the saint follows the accursed writer into hell. The 1995 production, which originated at Lacoste, received enthusiastic reviews and went on to tour in Berlin, Rouen, and Bucharest.

Strolling through the ruins of Sade's château, I often imagine the Marquis's merriment upon hearing of this rather ironic posthumous success. His laugh might have been savage, cynically amused.

Spring and fall are the loveliest times to visit the Vaucluse; beware of hordes of tourists in the intervening months. Don't forget sturdy walking shoes, for the Vaucluse has a vast network of hiking trails. One of the finest is the Forêt des Cèdres, a 20-mile path that stretches across the crest of the Lubéron and is accessible from Lacoste or Bonnieux. Each town's syndicat d'initiative (tourism bureau) can provide trail maps.

Where to Stay
Relais du Procureur Rue Basse; 33-4/90-75-82-28, fax 33-4/90-75-86-94; doubles from $117. A beautifully renovated 17th-century dwelling, in the village, with views of the valley. All rooms are equipped with TV's, minibars, direct-access phones, and bathrooms with tubsa rarity in this region.
Along with Lacoste, this beautiful medieval village is my favorite headquarters for a visit to the Vaucluse.
La Maison aux Volets Bleus Le Village; 33-4/90-66-03-04, fax 33-4/90-66-16-14; doubles from $76, including breakfast; no credit cards. Elegant Provençal style and superb vistas of Mont Ventoux.
Auberge La Fontaine Place de la Fontaine; 33-4/90-66-02-96, fax 33-4/90-66-13-14; doubles from $156. Five modern duplex suites, all with terraces, fireplaces, private kitchenettes, CD players, televisions, and VCR's. Cooking classes are held here year-round.
Hotel Le Gordos Route de Cavaillon; 33-4/90-72-00-75, fax 33-4/90-72-07-00; doubles from $90. Beautifully appointed rooms; direct-access phones; no dinner service. Half a mile outside Gordes.
Les Bories Route de l'Abbaye de Sénanque; 33-4/90-72-00-51, fax 33-4/90-72-01-22; doubles from $240, including breakfast. Spectacular views and gardens; located about a mile from town, with the finest creature comforts in the Vaucluse.
Domaine Le Moulin Blanc Les Beaumettes, Gordes; 33-4/90-72-34-50, fax 33-4/90-72-25-41; doubles $94. Another inn just outside the town of Gordes, with beautiful grounds distinguished by a dramatic allée of Italian cypress trees leading to the main building.
La Bastide de Gordes Le Village; 33-4/90-72-12-12, fax 33-4/90-72-08-22; doubles $100-$225. The lovely terrace overlooking a hillside is the highlight of this 18-room inn.

Where to Eat
Café de Sade Lacoste; 33-4/90-75-82-29; dinner for two $20. Limited, uneven fare, but the coq au vin is very fine and the general coziness is irresistible.
Le Fournil Bonnieux; 33-4/90-75-83-62; dinner for two $40. The best food in the immediate area of Lacoste. Try the lotte rôtie À l'ail doux.
Auberge La Fontaine Venasque; 33-4/90-66-02-96; dinner for two $85. Gourmands travel from all over Provence to dine here. Magret de canard and parfait glacé aux dattes et sabayon are wonderful.
Auberge du Beaucet Venasque; 33-4/90-66-10-82; dinner for two $62. Homey decoration and cordial service. Specialties: ravioles des baumes, stuffed with succulent truffles, and ragoût de lapin sauce truffée.
Le Vert Galant Carpentras; 33-4/90-67-15-50; dinner for two $50. Great seafood and a thoroughly memorable canette aux coings (duckling with quince sauce).
La Prévôté 4 Rue Jean-Jacques Rousseau, L'Isle-sur-la-Sorgue; 33-4/90-38-57-29; dinner for two $50. Exquisite fare and decoration. The green waters of the Sorgue River running underneath the building can be seen through the floor, part of which is made of thick glass.
Le Jardin du Quai L'Isle-sur-la-Sorgue; 33-4/90-38-56-17; dinner for two $25. The best value in town. I saw the mayor of the town having his Sunday lunch there—always a good sign.
Café Grégoire Apt; 33-4/90-74-10-26; dinner for two $35. The Deux Magots of the Vaucluse, located on Apt's Place de la Bouquiné.

Sade by Maurice Lever, translated by Arthur Goldhammer (Farrar, Straus & Giroux) The best biography of the Marquis to date.
Guide de Charme: Provence (Rivage) A guide to the region's best values; much better than the standard red Michelin.

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