PROVENCE: LADY OF LET­TERS

Track­ing the tell­tale of Ver­sailles to a chateau in Provence

The Weekend Australian - Travel - - DESTINATION TRAVEL - Bar­bara San­tich

With its Ro­man-tiled roofs, warm stone walls, cob­bled streets and com­mand­ing chateau, Grig­nan could be any other me­dieval Proven­cal vil­lage. Like so many of its neigh­bours, its streets have com­mon­sense names: Grande Rue, Rue des Ecoles and Rue du Four, with its 14th-cen­tury oven. Grig­nan, how­ever, has a trump card. It boasts a link with Madame de Se­vi­gne, France’s First Lady of Let­ters.

Had it not been for Madame de Se­vi­gne, we might never have learned the in­ti­mate de­tails of life at Ver­sailles un­der Louis XIV, its pol­i­tics and scan­dals, fash­ion and food. We might never have known about the craze for fresh young green peas. Even af­ter din­ing at court, she wrote, ladies will go home and eat peas be­fore go­ing to bed, risk­ing in­di­ges­tion.

These tid­bits were not part of a daily jour­nal but rather were con­tained in the reams of let­ters Madame de Se­vi­gne wrote to friends and fam­ily and, in par­tic­u­lar, to her daugh­ter, Fran­coise-Mar­guerite, who had mar­ried the Count of Grig­nan and ac­com­pa­nied him to far­away Provence. Her mother was heart­bro­ken and over the next 25 years, un­til her death at Grig­nan, she sent three or four let­ters a week.

What with manag­ing and ren­o­vat­ing Chateau de Grig­nan, I can imag­ine the new count­ess hav­ing bet­ter things to do than con­stantly fol­low her mother’s ad­vice — cut your hair, but not too short; use Nar­bonne honey in­stead of sugar to sweeten your cof­fee; drink choco­late if you’re not feel­ing well and not sleep­ing. But not too much choco­late, she warns, as she tells her daugh­ter about the mar­quise who con­sumed so much choco­late dur­ing her preg­nancy that she gave birth to a lit­tle boy as black as the devil.

In her three vis­its, to­gether amount­ing to nearly four years, Madame de Se­vi­gne changed her ini­tial opin­ions and came to ap­pre­ci­ate Provence. She ad­mired the sweep­ing views from the chateau, as far as Mont Ven­toux, and praised the su­perbly sweet mel­ons, grapes and figs. And, she wrote, she had never eaten more suc­cu­lent par­tridge, nour­ished on wild thyme and mar­jo­ram.

A mere in-law perhaps, but she has been en­thu­si­as­ti­cally adopted as Grig­nan’s favourite daugh­ter. Pre­sid­ing over the 19th-cen­tury Fon­taine Se­vi­gne in the Place Se­vi­gne is a statue of Madame her­self, quill in hand, poised and re­flec­tive as she pre­pares for yet another epis­tle. The Ho­tel Se­vi­gne, Brasserie Cafe Le Se­vi­gne and Tabac Presse Le Se­vi­gne con­firm her stamp on the vil­lage.

I’m here to pay homage and to visit the chateau, soar­ing above the blue fields of laven­der in late spring. Not even the lo­cal spe­cial­i­ties at Au Se­cret de Madame de Se­vi­gne bou­tique dis­tract me as I climb to the en­trance. An el­e­gantly balustraded stone stair­case leads to the first floor but then I have my first dis­ap­point­ment as this is not the chateau Madame de Se­vi­gne knew. Stripped and pil­laged dur­ing the Rev­o­lu­tion, sys­tem­at­i­cally de­mol­ished un­der gov­ern­ment or­ders, it was a ruin for most of the fol­low­ing cen­tury. Im­ages from 1855 show a tum­ble­down wall, rem­nants of the Re­nais­sance fa­cade and frag­mented sculp­tures scat­tered in the grounds.

The first at­tempts at re­con­struc­tion failed for lack of funds, and it was not un­til 1902, when the chateau was bought by Marie Fon­taine, that se­ri­ous restora­tion started. Over the next 20 years she de­voted her con­sid­er­able for­tune to sys­tem­at­i­cally re­build­ing, re­fur­nish­ing and re­dec­o­rat­ing, re­ly­ing on paint­ings and sketches of the for­mer chateau to achieve his­tor­i­cal au­then­tic­ity.

Her own apart­ment, how­ever, was more con­tem­po­rary in style. And it is to Marie Fon­taine’s apart­ment that vis­i­tors are first directed. This is my sec­ond dis­ap­point­ment. Madame de Se­vi­gne has to share the hon­ours, and might even have to be sat­is­fied with sec­ond best.

Yet as I stroll from room to room, I have to agree Marie Fon­taine de­serves the bou­quets. The vast stone fire­place and painted ceil­ing beams in La Salle du Roi, or the King’s Room, could have been there for­ever. The 17th-cen­tury Aubus­son ta­pes­tries, for­tu­itously res­cued as walls crum­bled, have been re­stored to their right­ful places. Look­ing at the chateau from the in­ner court­yard, it’s al­most im­pos­si­ble to tell that the long west­ern gallery, now used for sum­mer con­certs, is a 20th-cen­tury re­con­struc­tion.

Still, por­traits of Madame de Se­vi­gne en­sure she is not for­got­ten. In the Saint-Sau­veur Col­le­giate Church ad­join­ing the chateau, a sim­ple mar­ble plaque pays respect to this re­mark­able woman.

A bust of Madame’s grand­daugh­ter, who edited and pub­lished the first of­fi­cial vol­umes of the cor­re­spon­dence, has pride of place in the for­mal re­cep­tion room in the eastern tower. And in May, the apart­ment re­served for Madame de Se­vi­gne will be opened to vis­i­tors — both the bed­room in which she died and the writ­ing al­cove where she com­posed her let­ters — thanks to con­tin­u­ing restora­tion by the Drome de­parte­ment, which ac­quired the prop­erty in 1979.

But the most poignant sou­venir, left un­til last, comes as a sur­prise. Stand­ing on the ter­race, gazing across to the neigh­bour­ing hill­top vil­lage of Chamaret, I hap­pen to look down. There be­low me, in­side a walled gar­den, is a kind of puz­zle in which I can make out the shape of an elon­gated S,a G, an N. Then I re­mem­ber read­ing about the Jardin Se­vi­gne, a box hedge maze com­posed of the let­ters of her name that com­mem­o­rates the 300th an­niver­sary of her death. This ever­green sculp­ture is a fit­ting trib­ute to the en­durance of her words. • avi­gnon-et-provence.com/en

The vast stone fire­place and painted ceil­ing beams in La Salle du Roi, or the King’s Room, could have been there for­ever

Chateau de Se­vi­gne, top; vis­i­tors can tour the royal apart­ments, above right; Madame de Se­vi­gne, above left

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