In the countryside north of Aix, the abstract palette of Cézanne finds a new expression in the art park, the vines and the spa nested in the luxurious Villa La Coste in Provence. From its vineyards converting into biodynamic through the organic “potager” of the chefs to “clean” cosmetics, the modern toxic lifestyle gets a break in this nest of eco pampering for the body and the urban mind. Now, in spring is the best time to stay, but fall’s calming hues are pleasant too.
Shaded from the summer’s solar inferno, dug into a pine and oak forested ridge, the contemporary art cum architecture project lights sustainability as its mission and the wise step into the future. Bathe in the forest as the Japanese do (Shinrin Yoku), meditate on Tadao Ando’s chairs, reflect on the pebble-paved pool surrounding his art centre and contemplate light at Ando’s Modernist (a remake of a 16th-century chapel) tribute to Henri Matisse’s Chapelle du Rosaire in Vence. The chapel overlooks organic vineyards and gently flowing hills of Luberon. Behind the closed doors where a play with light awaits your wonder, still I was even more intrigued by the foursome tree spiking up in its yard. The Provencal spring scent of rosemary guided me further into the forest paths. Introspection while feeling the connection with nature, even the universe, organically weave into your mindset.
Beauty, balance, nature
Balance also permeates some of the art installed at Château La Coste, the vast property covered with vines, olive groves, art, architecture and a hillside forest that ushers you into the guest Villa. Tunga, a Brazilian artist, raised a sculptural allegory titled “Psicopompo” (2011). A trio of steel, Chinese magnet, Bohemian crystal and Peruvian quartz named after a mythical Greek scale used to measure a man’s soul. Timeless art. Less naturalist, the grandson of the great French painter, Paul Matisse installed his mechanised “Meditation Bell”. Its deep sound vibration echoes in a creek paved with lanterns. Lit at night for a contemplative stroll, this was a fine stroke for those after-hours reserved to the hotel’s guests.
The 28-suites and studios housing Villa La Coste is the most luxurious accommodation in Provence. You would have to travel to the Mediterranean coast to find anything comparable (like La Reserve de Ramatuelle). The most contemporary amenities were designed by the French Tangram and Hong Kong–based architect André Fu, complete with inserts like the glass and steel table by Jean Nouvel. Fu also created the airy bar, a cosy – with art, design, travel and classic literature books filled library, and the spa. Light enters every inch of the Villa La Coste. An outdoor heated pool for leisurely laps, and more lounging on the sun in the gardens by the restaurant keep you relaxed.
Spa time at Villa La Coste
The organic spa awaits your check-in. An east-meets-local ingredients concept by Aman’s former spa director Greg Payne (London’s Connaught) embraces Provence into a spacious holistic escape. Organic oils, natural salts, grains, seeds in customised scrubs, scented muds tinted by natural pigments, and cosmetics by the British brand Ilá to pamper your face welcome all seeking rejuvenation and rest.
Across two floors, a dozen of treatment rooms include one couples and a solo vaulted hamam for the scrubs and floating mud wraps. Inside the Villa La Coste spa you feel a monastic sense of harmony. Enveloped in a relaxing mud wrap on the zero-gravity flotation bed, the treatment eased my sore muscles and the mind. My query about the sound crystal bowl displayed at the spa lobby, vibrated an extra meditative touch into my zen cure. After showering it off, the therapist spread a nourishing butter all over my body so the skin-drying mud was balanced to perfection.
For anytime release, a common dry sauna and a steam room invite all guests to heat therapy.
Veiled in a blanc muslin enveloping the lounge chairs, we sipped an organic tea and a late-afternoon tisane another day post-treatment prepared by our therapists. Water bottles aplenty all around the property, in-room they are included in your rate, keep you hydrated and plump.
Sustainable art born of luxury
Villa La Coste is an oenophile dreamscape of Irish real estate magnate Paddy McKillen. With stakes at London’s top tier hotels (Claridges, The Berkeley, and The Connaught) he is not a newcomer into the luxury accommodation sector. Nevertheless, here in Provence, the vineyards are the centre artworks. Getting back to nature in a sustainable business model is the halo for the future. Tadao Ando’s PAVILLON “FOUR CUBES TO CONTEMPLATE OUR ENVIRONMENT” massively illustrate the damaging vanities of modern humans. As if underlining the importance of climate, most of the artworks are unashamedly exposed to the natural elements – frost, heat, wind, rain – they all collaborate on the evolution of each installation. In a way an unfinished art, the change will draw you back.
The art park in the vineyards, olive groves, and rosemary patches surrounded by chestnut and oak forests is a work in progress. The world’s most astute artists are invited to propose their vision, some succeed in having their oeuvre realised, others may wait for years before their sketch is brought to life, some will not leave their mark on the estate. The most naturalistic and meditative is the damp cave, darkness-invites-light “Oak Room” (2009) by British environmental artist Andy Goldsworthy. Weaved inside the estate’s ancient Roman walls, untreated salvaged oak wood from Burgundy was used as the organic material in this minimal waste artwork. Previous yoga retreats at Villa La Coste reportedly used it for a morning practice, but I cannot imagine keeping my limbs aligned and still inside this cold cellar.
Château La Coste is a truly international project of the greatest creative minds.
The French landscapist Louis Benech (Tuileries in Paris) created the orderly organic gardens, while the Chinese dissident Ai Weiwei recycled the cobblestones from Marseille’s recently renovated old port. The “Ruyi Path” symbolises power and good fortune, while it bridges the old Roman and the new estate routes.
Nurturing art at Villa La Coste
Frank Gehry’s open-air “Pavillon de la Musique” hosts concerts each June. Dug bellow the vines, the Château La Coste Art Gallery by Renzo Piano Building Workshop, invites regular exhibitions in its glass cum concrete underground structure. A photo gallery near the wine tasting room allows space for the camera art. Strolling with my Leica, capturing the objects and moods that flirted with my eyes, I realised that so much at the Château and Villa La Coste is a play with light, an exchange between art and nature. I was mesmerised.
So much more awaits you. Get some sneakers ready for the gravely stroll and participate in the two hours lasting Art & Architecture Walk in English daily at 2:30pm.
Inside the villa, the art, design and travel focused library nourishes your intellect, while a playroom behind awakens the inner child.
Dining at Villa La Coste entitles the staying guests to a healthful, delicious breakfast served in the lobby cafe or laid in your room on a glass table by Jean Nouvel topped with a polished stainless-steel sculpture by Tom Shannon (the artists behind the “Drop”). Local dairy, creative assortment of breads – I love that loaf with figs, incredible house jams with slivers of oranges and chunks of peaches, Bordier butter (!), daily smoothies served with custom-made eco bamboo straws, poached, scrambled or eggs Benedict, all prepared with the greatest care. The minibar’s almonds and daily refreshed fruit basket make for ideal, balancing snacks. In chocolate-coated almonds and estate wines are ripe for the indulgent moments.
The generous Sunday brunch buffet at the Mediterranean restaurant heaves with an excellent salmon and seasonal vegetables straight from the chefs’ organic garden (green beans, asparagus, radishes et al. in spring). Indulgence is encouraged with champagne, foie gras, cold cuts, freshly baked cakes, an intriguing French cheese selection (I had to taste them all), even a roast. The restaurant is no longer helmed by the Marseille three Michelin chef Gérald Passédat, but the original team serves a decent French cuisine. The wine cellar is pretty good and international. A wonder teases tastebuds just a short Jeep ride on the property, where Francis Mallmann’s Patagonian fire cuisine rock and rolls any palate in a casual in and outdoor setup. Even vegetarians and vegans find some superb plates in Mallmann’s Argentina meets Provencal cuisine. Way beyond the Miami superficiality and I dare to say better than his 1881 restaurant in Mendoza where I dined almost a decade ago.
I will return, hopefully to my favourite suite where the pines seclude me behind the desired inches of privacy set apart from the public field of art. The olive tree planted just behind the bathroom window soothes you as you bathe in the extra large marble bath. Aaah, balance feels so good!