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Lacoste: A Fight for Its Soul

The hilltop Luberon village of Lacoste, approximately 7km (4 miles) east of Bonnieux, has seen its fair share of controversy over the centuries, not least because it was the former home of the Marquis de Sade. The 18th-century libertine lived in the Château de Lacoste at the top the village, and used it as a refuge when he was on the run from charges of blasphemy and abusive sexual behavior. But he had to flee the château itself when his employees complained of being badly mistreated by their master. The celebrated marquis, who gave us the term sadism, eventually died in a lunatic asylum. The château subsequently became a victim of revolutionary zeal in 1789 and was all but destroyed.

Its ruins formed a haunting part of the picturesque landscape of the Luberon, its outline clearly visible for miles around. It looked ready to crumble into nothing when, in 2001, fashion mogul Pierre Cardin bought what was left of the château and set about restoring it with a similar zeal that brought its destruction. That's when Lacoste's latest controversy started. Cardin wasn't satisfied with simply restoring the château; he proceeded to buy more than 40 of the village houses and renovate them. He launched the Festival de Lacoste (www.festivaldelacoste.com), which puts on opera, concerts, and theater productions every summer in the open-air stage beside the château. His stated intention was to turn this pretty little village into a cultural St-Tropez, but without the showbiz side. He wanted to restore its "truth."

The villagers, meanwhile, felt that Lacoste's spirit was being drained as they watched Cardin buy one house after another. They complain that the restored buildings are used less now than they were when the village was supposedly dying. When Cardin's friends and artists from the festival aren't around, the houses are boarded up and silent.

Controversy aside, Lacoste is worth a stop to admire the village's ancient stone houses and take the cobbled path that leads to the sculpture-strewn garden surrounding Cardin's château. The works of modern art that Cardin has been collecting over the years have since blended in with the glorious views of the Luberon countryside you can see from the top of the hill. In the lower town, the Café de France (tel. 04-90-75-82-25) serves simple lunches on its panoramic terrace and also rents four rooms for 65€ a night.

Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.