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 seigneurialrights 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 unlikeany 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 wasborn 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 heightenedby 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 deSade, a cleric and scholar of notorious dissipation, a trait shared by the Marquis's own wastrel father. At 22, the penurious young dandy was forcedby his family to marry a plain, prim young woman of the wealthy Paris bourgeoisie, Renée-Pélagie de Montreuil. She worshiped him for the nextquarter-century of their marriage, and the couple had three children.
Sade's Paris years were tainted by a few arrests caused by his orgies, whichincluded 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 roughly10 minutes by car from Ménerbes, the setting of Peter Mayle's Provenceseriesand you will find the village of Lacoste, surmounted by the Marquis'sancestral castle. Far less exploited than nearby tourist meccas such asGordes or Roussillon, Lacoste has changed little since Sade's time: evenits population, approximately 400, is about the same. Its rocky terrainhas always made it poorer than neighboring settlements; here the economyis based on stonemasonry rather than farming. The only commercial establishmentsin 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 rockytwo-acre plateau that dominates the cliffside village like a hovering eagle.Sacked in 1792 during the revolutionary era, and plundered repeatedly intothis century, the castle retains only its moat, sections of its walls andramparts, and a few half-demolished rooms. From a distance the structureevokes the toothless face of a ravaged colossus, and the climb to it canbe arduous ("accès pénible," as French guidebooksput it). But the nearly 360-degree views are as breathtaking as those fromany other summit in Provence. Looking down and east from Sade's castle inthe glorious month of April, you will see, for miles on end, groves of pinkand white cherry trees, budding vineyards interspersed with crimson poppies,and violet Judas trees. A few miles beyond, the handsome village of Bonnieuxtumbles down its hillock toward the Lubéron range, whose slopes yieldsome of the Vaucluse's loveliest wines. To the north, majestic forests ofspruce and oak, more hilltop hamlets, and orchards redolent with rosemary,thyme, and lavender stretch toward the white-capped peaks of the Ventouxrange.
The shell of Sade's castle, ever so tauntingly sinister, offers fresh insightsinto his enigmatic personality and his work, for these ruins retain thesavage, feudal aura that sparked the Marquis's muse. Along with his familydomain at Saumane, the far more forbidding 12th-century château wherethe young Marquis spent part of his childhood, Lacoste may have helped toinspire the settings of Sade's most famous novels: Justine, Juliette, andthat monumental catalogue of sexual perversions The 120 Days of Sodom. Thesegothic narratives of persecuted damsels, bloodthirsty monks, and gruesomelydebauched noblemen are most often set in places strikingly similar to theancestral estates where Sade lived during his Provençal yearslandscapesfilled with isolated fortresses, dizzying precipices, and impassable moats.In the archaic vistas of Lacoste, Sade could retain that illusion of anarchicautonomy he bestowed on his fictional characters, feel like the feudal suzerainwhose 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 hypocriticalfawning of court life, disdaining most of his aristocratic peers (his delusionsof grandeur made him feel vastly superior), Sade was a rather domestic man.For one thing, his marriage was outstandingly harmonious. His wife, thesturdy, homespun Marquise, hated Parisian society as violently as her husbanddid, and shared his passion for Lacoste. She calmly endured his debauches,being so enamored of the Marquis that she even abetted some of his deviantpractices. Though Sade was hardly even-tempered, part of the time theirdevotion was mutual. In his letters from jail the Marquis called his wife"ambrosia of Olympus," "miracle of nature," "lightof my life," "dove of Venus," while the Marquise most frequentlyaddressed him as "my good little boy."
So, during his years in Provence, when not partying with strumpets, theMarquis felt far more at ease with his doting spouse and a few Provençalcronies than with urban high society. He hobnobbed with his doctor, wholived in the village of Bonnieux, a 15-minute canter from Lacoste, and withhis lawyer in the nearby city of Apt, the site of one of Provence's mostcolorful weekly markets. Despite his virulent atheism, he enjoyed discussingtheology with local priests, particularly the vicar of the lovely littlevillage of Oppède, just beyond Ménerbes.
But above all Sade loved to tend his estate, having personally planned andsupervised its remodeling, down to its decoration and its landscaping. "Iwish to enjoy the fruits of the garden next summer, and this will not happenif you neglect to follow my directions concerning the plantings"; thushe scolded his business agent in Provence shortly before he moved therein 1771. "Garden, farmyard, cheeses, firewood, etc.get all that moving."
So, when one visits this barren ruin today, one must imagine it the waySade had renovated it by the 1770's: a 45-room residence staffed by some20 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 toiletsand bidets. The walls were hung with tapestries depicting popular 18th-centurythemes: the death of Alexander the Great, the story of Mary Magdalene. Sadewas an avid reader and scholar, and, though he remained deeply in debt throughouthis life, his library included all the pornographic best-sellers of thetime, and most of the classic writersVirgil, Pascal, Cervantes, Montesquieu,Diderot. Sade also lavished much expense on the "park" he designedfor the northern end of his estate, with its labyrinth of evergreens copiedfrom 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; almostevery gentleman of substance in France had a theater on his estate (Sadehimself had been stagestruck since adolescence). One of the first amenitieshe added to Lacoste was a 60-seat salle de spectacles. In 1771 he hired12 second-rate but thoroughly professional actors and actresses and inaugurateda repertory theater season that shuttled between Lacoste and another ofhis family domains, the Château de Mazan, in the town of that name.The energy involved in these voyages is mind-boggling: Mazan, which adjoinsthe 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 least12 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. Whilepreparing 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 creditorsto find additional funds for his extravaganzas. Then he would head backto Lacoste. As we follow Sade's footsteps on this demented project, we passthrough some of the most gorgeous landscapes of the Vaucluse.
Sade's route from Lacoste to Mazan is easily traced, because few stretchesof flat valley lie between the two towns. His cortege would have headedto 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 preservedRoman bridge from the third century b.c. that is still used today, and thenturned northwest toward L'Isle-sur-la-Sorgue. Called "the Venice ofProvence," this gracious, airy city is crisscrossed by tributariesof the Sorgue River, which originate a few miles away in the resurgent springof Fontaine-de-Vaucluse. (The Sorgue today offers some of the best troutfishing in France.) For centuries "Isle" throve on the weaving,dyeing, and oil-pressing industries empowered by the water-driven wheelsthat still adorn its beautiful canals. Since it was the market town forsurrounding communities, the young Marquis must have visited L'Isle severaltimes a month while living with his uncle the Abbé de Sade at theChâteau de Saumane, just three miles outside of town.
The romantic hilltop settlement of Saumane-de-Vaucluse, where the Abbéde Sade could have offered refreshments to the Marquis's cavalcade, is crownedby yet another crenellated feudal fortress, which had belonged to the Sadessince the 15th century. It was given to them by one of the Avignon popesas 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 partof the papal territories.) Vaster and more forbidding than Lacoste, thecastle of Saumane has been restored recently and opens to the public inthe middle of this month. The château's brooding exterior almost certainlyserved as the model for the fictional Castle of Silling, in which the morbidorgies of Sade's 120 Days of Sodom are held: "A very narrow, very steepspiral staircase with three hundred steps…descended into the entrailsof the earth and a kind of vaulted dungeon sealed by three iron gates andcontaining all that the cruelest art and most refined barbarity could inventin the way of atrocity."
The trip north from Saumane or L'Isle-sur-la-Sorgue to Carpentras wouldhave been the longest leg of Sade's journey. The most handsome medievaltown in the Vaucluse after Avignon, Carpentraspopulation 30,000still containsvestiges of its large community of Jews. Tens of thousands of Jews wereexpelled from France by King Philip IV in the late 13th century and soughtrefuge in Provence's papal territories. They were warmly welcomed by theshrewd pontiffs, who saw, besides the possibility of new conversions, financialadvantages in these émigrés' talent for banking and commerce.(Sade himself often borrowed from Carpentras's moneylenders.) The synagogueof Carpentras, built in 1367, reconstructed in the 18th century, and superblypreserved, is the oldest in France; the equally beautiful one in the townof Cavaillon, 20 minutes from Lacoste, followed it by a few decades.The Château de Mazanbirthplace of Sade's father and uncleswas thetroupe's ultimate destination. But only the most hard-core Sade aficionadoswould find it worth a detour. A spacious but dreary 17th-century dwellingset in the middle of an equally lackluster town, it now serves as a resthome 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'sheart.
Sade's attachment to this village was derived from his fascination witha favorite ancestor: the 14th-century beauty Laure de Sade, the fabled museof the poet Petrarch. It was in Fontaine-de-Vaucluse that Petrarch livedfor 16 years while nursing his chaste passion for "Laura," andwhere he wrote his famous sonnets to her. A charming little museum, saidto stand on the site of Petrarch's house, commemorates the poet's devotion.The many visits the young Marquis made hereSade's uncle the Abbéwas then writing a pioneering biography of Petrarch seemingly made a strongimpression 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 appearedto me…I saw her! The horrors of the tomb had not impaired the brillianceof 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 villagethat bears its nameoffers a gripping allegory for anyone interested in theMarquis de Sade.
Set in a narrow gorge, the fontaine-de-Vaucluse, one of the world's mostpowerful resurgent springs, first appears as a calm pool of eerie greennessalustrous peacock-feather green, the most radiant green I've seen in anyliquid element. And then, from the edge of that deceptively tranquil basin,its waters bound down the mountain with thunderous speed, generating hugemounds of white spume, surging over rocks and wooded banks with a forcethat seems supernatural. This foaming green fury eventually flattens outand flows into the plain, becoming the Sorgue River, which rushes throughmiles of Provence with an imperiousness that always strikes me as Dionysianand utterly male. Until early medieval times, the Sorgue's numerous tributaries created thousandsof acres of swampland noisome to the local population. But eventually thesewaters were coerced into irrigating some of Provence's richest valleys,land that yields the cherries, melons, pears, apples, and wines that aboundin the markets of Apt, Gordes, and Lacoste itself. As I stood at the Fontaine-de-Vaucluseone day, watching the green cascade romping savagely from its clandestinesource, 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 ofenergy that society must curb and rechannel in order to survive. This isthe 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 oforgies, he had offered aphrodisiac candies to some prostitutes, which madethem ill.) He was cleared of the first charge because he was a high-rankingnoble with influential relatives, and exonerated of the second through dueprocess of court. But in the eyes of his mother-in-law, the vindictive,consummately proper Madame de Montreuil, Sade was guilty of dishonoringher family, a crime that in her estimation deserved nothing less than alife sentence. Enraged by the Marquis's increasingly lewd escapades, shehad him imprisoned through that most despised legal feature of the AncienRégimea lettre de cachet. This was a royal decree that could mandatethe incarceration of any citizen for life without trial, and was frequentlyused by powerful families to dispose of their more fractious relatives.The Marquis spent 13 years in jail, during which time he wrote or outlinedsome of his major texts. He was liberated only in 1790, following the onsetof the Revolution of 1789. Upon his release, his once adoring wife, in anenigmatic turnabout, decided she wanted no more of him; the couple separatedand probably never saw each other again.
After his long prison term the Marquis was never again able to live at hischerished Lacoste. The château was eventually sold to a local peasant.Sade died in 1814, aged 74, at the mental institution in which he had beenimmured for more than a decade under Napoleon's ordersthis time on chargesthat he had written and published immoral books ("novels that mustbe read with one hand" as the French demurely refer to pornography).Throughout Sade's incarcerations, the most poignant nostalgia expressedin his letters concerned his longing to return to his cherished corner ofProvence. ("How is my poor cherry orchard?" was a typical queryabout 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 otherswhosepublication was forbidden for more than a century after his death. It wasnot until after the Second World War, after he had been championed and rehabilitatedby the Surrealists and all taboos on his work were lifted, that the writerand his village finally had their renaissance. Though Lacoste had grownincreasingly poor since Sade's time, the lurid reputation of his texts beganto draw thousands of tourists there. Several struggling farms were convertedinto 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 eventuallysettled there. (Nearly half of Lacoste's official residents are foreigners.)In the 1970's an American art school was founded a few hundred feet belowSade's castlethe School of the Arts in France, administered by the ClevelandInstitute of Art. And unlike their prudish forebears, contemporary Costains,as natives are called, express opinions that range from bemused toleranceto outright pride when queried about their views of Sade.
To Liliane Ségura, who owns and manages the community's most popularrestaurant and bar, the Café de Sade (where she always displays aregional wine called Cuvée du Divin Marquis), the titillation evokedby the ghost of this native son brings the town plenty of visitors: "Thousandsare 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'smost 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, likemany, finds the Marquis's works "boring and repetitious," he comesto Sade's defense: "He never committed the crimes he describes in hisbooks. …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 Sadeand Saint Theresa of Avila, and in whose dénouement the saint follows the accursed writer into hell. The 1995 production, which originated atLacoste, received enthusiastic reviews and went on to tour in Berlin, Rouen, and Bucharest.
Strolling through the ruins of Sade's château, I often imagine theMarquis'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.