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!

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!

Moscow on the Med: The Russian Cathedral of Nice

There are so many fun things to do in Nice—you can walk along the Promenade des Anglais, enjoy the view from one of those famous blue chairs, and dig into a salad niçoise  in the Old Town. Now here’s one to add to your list: visit the most Russian spot in France, the Saint Nicholas Orthodox Cathedral.

This magnificent structure was built in 1912 in memory of Nicholas Alexandrovich, the one-time heir to the Russian throne who died in Nice of meningitis. It was designed in the classic Old Russian style, with five beautiful onion domes. Seeing the cathedral you think you’ve somehow stumbled into Moscow. Today the cathedral is a National Monument of France and one of the most visited sites of the French Riviera.

Read all about this unique site in Perfectly Provence!

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 Surprising History of Jewish Provence

People are often surprised to learn that France has the third-largest Jewish population in the world, after Israel and the United States.

And they are even more surprised to learn that for centuries the center of Jewish life in France wasn’t Paris, it was Provence… thanks to the Pope!

How did this happen?

Jews have long been subject to persecution in France, as in many places.

In the Middle Ages, French Jews were the victims of murders, riots, and outright expulsions. There were few places where they were allowed to live, even fewer jobs they were allowed to hold, and many were forced to wear a yellow star.

Life was intolerable… but hope beckoned in the south.

Learn all about the surprising history of Jewish Provence in My French Life!

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!

Light and Magic in France

What do you do with a giant cavern?

That was the question that vexed the Provençal village of Les Baux-de-Provence. For centuries, giant blocks of white limestone had been extracted from a nearby mountain to build the town and its towering château. But by 1935, competition had forced the limestone quarry to close, leaving behind a massive, ghostly chamber. There it sat for decades, cold and silent, waiting for someone to restore it to glory.

That someone was Albert Plécy, a photographer and filmmaker, who arrived in 1975 with the idea of a “total image.” He installed a few giant projectors that flooded the cavern with color, projecting images that he coordinated with music. For viewers inside the cavern, it was a kind of total immersion that he called the Cathedral d’Images–the Cathedral of Images.

From this modest beginning, the program has slowly become more sophisticated and today it uses hundreds of cutting-edge projectors and complex computer control. Now called the Carrières de Lumières (Quarries of Light), the site is run by Culturespaces, France’s leading private manager of museums and art centers. Carrières de Lumières has become one of Provence’s leading tourist attractions and has led to the creation of “siblings” in Paris, Bordeaux, and South Korea.

Read about these magical siblings in France Today!