Swirling 70s Architecture at Villa Benkemoun

Just two miles from the center of Arles sits the Villa Benkemoun, a magnificent estate designed by a disciple of the famous Swiss architect Le Corbusier. Visiting it is like stepping back in time.

The villa was the brainchild of Simone and Pierre Benkemoun, who enlisted their friend Émile Sala to design their dream home. Sala took an unusual approach.

Instead of creating an initial set of architectural drawings, Sala began by asking the family to jot down, day by day, how they lived their lives. Where did they take their meals, how did they entertain, did they spend time indoors or out? Then he used this knowledge to design a home that fit their needs, as well as Pierre’s desire to have a home that was “open and transparent.”

The Benkemouns liked Sala’s initial design but thought it had too many sharp edges. They suggested rounding a corner here, creating a curve there, until the house took the form they wanted. The final design was made up of round and elliptical rooms, “full of sensuality,” that seemed to swirl from one to the other. The result is a triumph of 1970s design, a masterpiece of modern architecture.

Read all about it, and see some beautiful photos, at Perfectly Provence!

 

Roman Provence

Way back around 50 B.C., Julius Caesar conquered Gaul (now France) and the area remained part of the Roman Empire for the next five centuries. Today there are Roman sites all over France, but the best are in and around Provence. In fact, ‘Provence’ comes from the Latin ‘Provincia Romana’, the name of the large Roman province along the Mediterranean coast.

Whether it’s Nîmes with its magnificent temple, Arles with its arena, or Orange with its theater, you can find many reminders of the greatness that was Rome. And let’s not forget the Pont du Gard aqueduct, as tall as an 18-story building!

Follow me as I take you on a tour of Roman Provence in My French Life!

Discover Socca, the Delicious Specialty of Nice

“The culture of Nice is based on three things: the sea, soccer, and socca.”

In a city famous for dishes like pan bagnat and ratatouille, socca holds a special place in the hearts of the niçois. A thin, deliciously crispy bread made from chickpea flour, socca was first brought to Nice by Italian dockworkers in the late 1700s. Cheap and filling, it became known as “poor people’s food,” a favorite of workers and fishermen.

Eventually, all of Nice discovered the dish, helped by a socca maker named Thérésa. She began with a pushcart near the beach before opening her own restaurant, Madame Thérésa. Today, niçois of all ages love socca’s rich, crispy taste. You’ll find cafés full of these locals, having a chat over a plate of socca and a glass of wine. It is so popular that some call it “the national dish of Nice.”

Socca’s ingredients are simple—chickpea flour, water, oil, and salt. Its distinctive crispiness comes from the wood-fired ovens where it is baked at a roaring 750 degrees. The secret ingredient—you might call it the magic—is the loving care with which Nice’s chefs make it.

Award-winning filmmaker Scott Petersen now shares a bit of that magic with us in his short documentary We Eat Socca Here. Read all about it and watch the fun trailer at Perfectly Provence. Warning: it might make you hungry.

 

The Animal Kingdom of Provence

Let’s say you are strolling through a French village and come across thousands of sheep bleating in the streets. Or maybe you see horses with flowers in their manes. Or perhaps you are startled by French cowboys charging past with a bull in their midst. Where might you be?

You are probably in Provence.

The people of Provence have a deep respect for nature and for the animals that have long been integral to their rural life. And they maintain their traditions, many of which have to do with animals. Enjoying them is one of the most interesting parts of a visit to Provence.

What are these traditions? Let’s look at a few in My French Life!

Legends of Provence

The world is rich with legends. We still dream of Camelot and King Arthur’s court. We hope to one day find El Dorado and its streets paved with gold. And who wouldn’t love to take a dip in the Fountain of Youth?

Provence, too, has its legends.

Is it true that a terrible monster once lived in the depths of the Rhône River? Did a saint poke his finger in a rock and cause wine to pour forth? And what’s this about Mary Magdalene living out her days in Provence?

Read about these and other legends in My French Life!

Living in Provence and Why We Love It

Annette Charlton is an Australian woman who bought a house in France on her very first trip to the country–true story! Now she’s a part-time Frenchwoman, as she and her family spend part of the year in Brittany. If you haven’t already visited her wonderful website A French Collection, I encourage you to take a look.

Annette asked me to write about what Val and I love about our part-time life in Provence. There was so much to say that I had to keep myself from running on and on–there are the markets, the charming villages, the stunning landscape, and so much more. Best of all are the people, some of our best friends on earth. Whenever we are away from Provence, we long to return.

If you’d like to know what we love about Provence, take a look at this article that I wrote for Annette.

Carrières de Lumières—Only in Provence

Imagine walking into a massive cavern inside a mountain. The walls shoot straight up and the ceiling is high above your head. Here and there are side chambers, and rough-hewn benches are carved into the walls. The whole place looks drab in the dim light—you wonder why your friends keep saying “You can’t miss it!”

Even after having looked at the photos and having viewed the promotional video, the actual experience of the Carrières de Lumières (Quarries of Light) is almost impossible to describe. But once the lights go out and the magic starts, you just know you have to tell your friends, “You can’t miss it!”

Read all about this unique Provencal spot in My French Life. It’s part of my “Only in Provence” series and I hope you’ll enjoy it.

Hilltop Villages of the Côte d’Azur

When most people think of the Côte d’Azur, they think of glamorous spots like Cannes, Antibes, and Nice—beautiful cities, all of them. But this glorious corner of France is also home to charming inland villages that are well worth a visit.

There’s high Gourdon, the Eagle’s Nest. And Saint-Martin-Vésubie in the so-called  Little Switzerland of Provence. And let’s not forget the “Tibetan village” of Saorge.

You can see a garden designed by the same architect who designed the famous gardens of Versailles, a monastery famous for its ancient sundials, and visit a park where wolves roam free. It’s a fascinating region of France.

Read all about it in Perfectly Provence!

The Highest Road in Europe?

In the easternmost part of Provence, near the border with Italy, lies the wild and rugged Mercantour National Park. It is famous for its natural beauty, its Bronze Age stone carvings and its growing population of grey wolves. It is also home to the Route de la Bonette, a road that claims to be the highest in all of Europe. But is it?

The Swiss, Austrians, Spaniards and others would disagree, as they all believe they possess higher roads. But the proud French claim top honors and even have official road signs proclaiming their triumph.

What’s not in dispute is that the Route de la Bonette is a high road indeed and is famous among cyclists–it’s been part of the Tour de France a number of times. My article explores the history of the road, some interesting sights to see, and a link to a short video of this beautiful part of France.

Read all about it in Perfectly Provence!

Brilliant Roussillon

If you love color, you’ll love Roussillon.

This charming village is perched on a hilltop in Provence’s Luberon Valley, the region made famous by Peter Mayle’s ‘A Year in Provence’. But Roussillon’s fame came long before Mayle, as it was once the world capital of ochre.

Ochre is a naturally occurring pigment that comes in an astonishing variety of colors, from bright shades of yellow and orange to vivid red and purple. It is embedded in certain clays and prehistoric people used it for cave paintings. The pigment can be extracted to create dyes, and ochre mining was once a big business, with Roussillon its world center.

The ochre quarries are now abandoned but they are a delightful place to visit, walking though an almost unbelievably colorful landscape. The village is also a pleasant place to wander through, with its buildings all painted in different shades of ochre.

Read all about it in My French Life!