Nestled in the far South of France sits Provence's Luberon Valley. A favorite warm-weather destination for vacationers, it's an area rich in creative traditions like boutis quilting and painting (think van Gogh and Cezanne). Join Aria Tudanger on a virtual tour of some of the region's crafty gems.
By Aria Tudanger
It is no secret that the southern region of France known as Provence has the uncanny ability to sweep visitors off their feet. Years ago, I came upon this breathtaking countryside by accident, thanks to the suggestion of a friend. Like a lover caught in the fever of a new relationship, I wasted no time packing my bags and moving into a house in a small village called Goult, located in the Luberon Valley (an expanse of land, nestled between three mountain ranges, that includes a number of towns and villages).
Unable to buy a car, a bike served as my main form of transportation for nearly two years (much to the open-mouthed amazement of the local paysans). Through all kinds of weather, I labored over rich green hills of wheat, past sprawling vineyards, and through stone-housed villages permanently lodged in an age long past.
Via bike, I became familiar with the back roads seldom seen by the car-bound tourist. This exposed me to local treasures I would never have found otherwise. We crafty individuals tend to have a nose for unique places that offer inspiration for future projects, be they places to purchase materials (i.e. fabrics, yarns, beads, etc.) or sources for ideas.
Consider the locations listed below a solid starting-off point to begin your own personal crafters love affair with all the Luberon Valley has to offer. Please, do not hesitate to take my lead and add to the list, because the selection of wonderful markets, stores, and home-based ateliers can take any art-lovers breath away.
Let us begin the tour in a large village called L'Isle-sur-la-Sorgue (Island-on-the-Sorgue in English), which hosts a yearlong Sunday morning market (from 8:30 a.m.-12:30 p.m.) that is not to be missed. The village itself is absolutely picturesque, surrounded, and in the town center, bisected by a crystal-clear, fast-flowing canal studded with footbridges and banked by countless restaurants and boutiques.
There is no shortage of markets in Provence, but for a crafter this one is of special note because it hosts multiple stands selling handmade objects by local artisans, and amazing (though often overpriced) antiques. One can spend many a Sunday following an endless trail of beautiful clothing, jewelry, and unique household items.
A note to those reading this article who are passionate about quilting. There is a long history of hand-embroidered quilts originating in Provence over 300 years ago. This photo shows a stand displaying an array of quilts crafted in the traditional style titled boutis. The word boutis has two origins: the first from a small metal sewing tool that was commonly used in Sicily, Italy and the second from a Hindi word for flower that was adopted in Southern France, as a result of the commerce that brought fabrics from the Orient to Europe.
Boutis quilts are composed of two whole pieces of either cotton or silk, which sandwich a piece of cotton batting. Once the pieces are sewn together, elaborate designs are hand-stitched into the fabric, creating a sculptural, nearly three-dimensional surface that is solid to the touch. In the households of Provence, one of these blankets took easily six months to a year to sew. They provided a warm, durable hand-me-down, treasured from generation to generation, just as American patchwork quilts were revered as family mementos.
Today, the craft of boutis is almost a lost art. Antique boutis quilts, unparalleled in the beauty of their color and design, usually sell for large sums of money. However, local vendors (such as the one above) find ways to combine modern methods with hand-sewn touches, which greatly reduces the price of the quilts while still retaining some old-world charm. Nevertheless, if you fall in love with the real thing, make the investment! You wont regret it.
La Boutique de Francine
20, rue Julien Guigue (rue face a la Gare)
84800 L'Isle sur la Sorgue
Telephone: 04 90 38 55 81 / 04 91 68 86 70
Hours: 10:00 a.m.-6:00 p.m., Saturday and Sunday.
For those die-hard authentic craft-hunters, determined to acquire a bona fide boutis quilt, then L'Isle-sur-la-Sorgue is, coincidentally, the place to be. Next to La Gare (the train station) is an antique store, known as Le Boutique de Francine. This store is a must-see, a labyrinthian space filled from floor-to-ceiling with antique clothing (linge ancien, in French), jewelry, and other bric-a-brac. Most notably, it houses an impressive collection of antique fabric and trimmings that will leave any crafter melting in a pool of their own drool.
The store owes its origins to the passion of Mme. Francine Casalta. After years of expanding her personal antique collection, she decided to open it to the public. The store is testimony to how an owners love of high-quality crafts and antiques can transform a space from merely charming to truly inspiring.
Mme. Casalta is an extremely informative person to speak to about the history of fabrics and clothing in Southern France. She has countless books, in both French and English, and is more than happy to show them to any passing crafter who happens to share her interests. In a period of about half an hour, I acquired a fountain of knowledge on the origins and crafting of fabric in France.
La Musee du Jouet & de la Poupee Ancienne
26, rue Carnot (centre-ville)
84800 - LIsle-sur-la-Sorgue
Telephone/Fax: 04 90 20 97 31
Hours: 10:30 a.m. 6:00 p.m., Tuesday - Sunday, June - September
1:30 p.m. 5:00 p.m., Saturday and Sunday, October - April
1:30 p.m. 6:00 p.m., everyday in May
Now that we have sampled some of the fabrics the region has to offer, I recommend making one more stop before heading out of L'Isle-sur-la-Sorgue. Just a five-minute walk from La Boutique de Francine is La Musee du Jouet & de la Poupee Ancienne. This is a very long title for what is, simply put, an antique doll museum. Actually, when experienced in person it is more aptly described as a literal doll house, a quaint one-floor apartment in an old house that has been converted into a showroom for the life-long collection of yet another passionate lover of crafts, Madame Huguette Jeanselme.
For a modest charge of 3 euro (1.50 for children) any imaginative crafter can be transported into the fantasy world of an elderly woman who, on her own, has preserved hundreds of collectible dolls, dating back as far back as 1880. The originality of this experience is amplified by the way that this mélange of characters is arranged in all manner of groupings and environments. You will want to get down on your knees, to better see some of the charming details of these arrangements, originally built to be viewed at the height of a two-year-old. Should you lack the ability to maintain this posture, I still recommend you give the tour a try. You will find yourself smiling and sighing more than once at the memories of childhood wonderment, when all the best things in life were too short for adults to ever notice.
Boulangerie Pain dAntan
151, route d'Apt
Telephone/Fax: 04 90 38 91 47
Hours: 6:00 a.m.-8:30 p.m., everyday
There is no shortage of delicious boulangeries (French for bakery) in the Luberon, but if you decided to take me up on my tour of L'Isle-sur-la-Sorgue, then you will be passing Boulangerie Pain DAntan on your way out. Should you happen to be hungry, but prefer not to spend a hefty sum on a restaurant, then this boulangerie will satisfy not only your grumbling stomach, but also your crafters high-tuned aesthetic senses.
Boulangerie Pain dAntan features a large display case, overflowing with a mouth-watering array of sweet and savory delectables from chocolate croissants to quiche to crusty breads so gigantic they can only be sold off in pieces. You can also order a delicious, thin-crust pizza made-to-order (enough for two to three people). An added bonus of this boulangerie is that they do make coffee, for those of us who need our post-shopping cappuccino.
While I have yet to see, or hear, of any area in the Luberon described as particularly ugly, there are some places that stand out as particularly magnificent. One of these locations is the famous 2000-year-old village called Gordes.
Perched on a steep hilltop, overlooking fabulous views of the valley, the wealthy village of Gordes is as majestic a sight as any I can think of. Although it appears large from an outside perspective, the village center is relatively small, circling around an extravagant 16th-century chateau.
I do not recommend stopping in Gordes to eat. Based on my experience, the restaurants are exorbitantly priced and not especially noteworthy. There are also no craft supply stores to speak of, though there are some local artisans that set up shop at the Tuesday morning market in the village square.
However, there are an impressive number of galleries, dotted throughout the narrow streets, hosting work from local and international artists. Not that one really needs to look at art in Gordes anyways. The village itself is art enough.
The village of Roussillon, along with its outlying territories, stands out visually from the rest of the Luberon Valley. This is due to the unusually intense colors of the earth, ranging in hues from yellow to orange to a deep, carmine red. Moreover, a large percentage of the foliage is composed of pine trees, rather then the oak that dominates the rest of the valley. These qualities make Roussillon look, and feel, different from its neighboring villages.
The explanation for the otherworldly colors of Roussillon points back to a period when the valley was submerged under the ocean. Over centuries, the water drained away and left behind a sediment composed largely (90%-95%) of sand, and in small part of a natural pigment (5%-10% of kaolinite + iron hydroxide). It seems that even this small percentage of pigment is enough to spin any color-fanatic into a frenzy.
In 1785, a means of industrially extracting the pigment from the sand was developed. This led to the blooming of a number of pigment businesses. Now, 225 years later, these pigments continue to be mixed into the interior paint and cement walls of countless houses in the Luberon. They are also used for dyeing fabrics and hand-coloring papers, among other uses.
Conservatoire des Ocres et Pigments Appliqués
Ancienne Usine Mathieu
Telephone/Fax: 04 90 05 66 69
Hours: 9:00 a.m.-1:00 p.m. & 2:00 p.m.-6:00 p.m., Tuesday - Sunday
As we crafters know, pigments are useful ingredients for various artistic processes. Of course, many materials we purchase already have the pigments mixed into them, but there is no substitute for the quality of the real thing. For those of you who are truly passionate about color, The Conservatoire Des Ochres is an important stop-off point on your journey through the Luberon.
Over the years, a means has been developed to extract and compose pigments of many more colors of the spectrum than just yellows and reds. You can purchase these pigments at the Conservatoire. They are reasonably priced and absolutely beautiful. The Conservatoire is also a treasure-trove of information on the history of pigments in the region, and the process of extraction and composition. It houses an extensive library of books on artistic techniques related to color.
Moreover, should you have the opportunity to spend a little extra time in the region, the museum hosts courses and demonstrations on different artistic processes involving their pigments. On your way to one of the various ateliers in the basement, you will pass by the Conservatoires gallery. I suggest putting aside extra time to take in the show.
The village of Apt is a central location for many stores and activities. It's a village of paradoxes: sometimes charming but sometimes repellent, often bustling during the day but silent at night. While other villages manage to maintain a constant local community and ambiance, Apt seems to remain largely a place of business. Nevertheless, the village center is not without its charm, with narrow cobblestone streets and many lovely shops. Plus, Apt happens to host the only market that is as widely known in the Luberon Valley as the market in L'Isle-sur-la-Sorgue.
Every Saturday morning of the year (from 8:30 a.m.-12:00 p.m.) the streets of Apt are overflowing with locals and tourists doing their weekly or annual shopping. There are so many beautiful objects to see and touch, such an array of delicious flavors to experience, it is hard to know where to begin or end.
Among the selection of stands are a number of crafters selling their wares. One such stand hosts jewelry created by a group of three artists, named Fabienne, Isabelle, and Vicente. These handmade pieces are crafted mostly in silver, and studded with semi-precious stones (such as turquoise, amber, and quartz) as well as coral, mother-of-pearl, and other natural minerals. The work is simple and elegant, making them perfect as either gifts, or personal souvenirs of an inspiring trip.
Moulin de Gigondas
Telephone: 04 90 65 81 95
Hours: 3:00 p.m. -7:00 p.m., Monday - Saturday
Perhaps the most unique and authentic handmade crafts featured at the market are to be found at the stand Fylou. Here one can order shoes, custom-made to fit any foot, from Monsieur Philippe Pastor. A wide selection of boots (both calf and ankle), Mary Janes, thongs, etc. can be embellished with whatever leathers (in a variety of brilliant colors) take your fancy.
Monsieur Pastor denotes each style of shoe with a proper title (such as arlequin, typi and ballerine), and takes great pride in the quality and attention paid to every detail of construction. Each pair costs 135 euro to make, a substantial but not astronomical sum (most definitely put towards a good cause). Even if you cannot afford to invest in your very own shoes, it's worth your while to drop in on Monsieur Pastor, just to take a gander at his impressive portfolio, and exchange a knowing crafters smile with a true master.
Note: Philippe Pastor also has a store where you can drop in six days a week to see him in action, or get fitted for your magic shoes. It is located in another village, called Gigondas, about a one-hour drive from Apt. The details are listed below.
Marie Laine et Coton
32, rue Estienne dorves
Telephone: 04 90 71 22 78
Hours: 9:00 a.m.-12:00 p.m. & 2:00 p.m.- 6:30 p.m., Tuesday, Wednesday, and Friday
9:00 a.m.-6:30 p.m., Thursday
9:00 a.m.-12:30 p.m., Saturday
While in Apt, one shop worth noting for crafters is Marie Laine et Coton. Madame Marie Crepet is an avid knitter and crochetier. She teaches classes to students at the art school in the nearby village of Lacoste, as well as to anyone who is interested in learning from a pro. Her shop offers an impressive array of yarns (including a variety of wools, bamboo, cotton, and acrylic, amongst other materials), needles, buttons, magazines, and more. Maries yarns are manufactured by Katia. There is also a small but lovely selection of hand-knitted garments. The interior of the shop is a small, very organized, and well-equipped space containing everything a knitter needs in order to keep busy on those calm evenings, after a long day of touring the region.
As I mentioned before, this list only begins to scratch the surface of amazing crafts available in the Luberon Valley. There are markets in different villages every day of the week, and I cannot even begin to describe the huge selection of vide greniers (village garage sales) that make summer weekends a shopping delight.
Note: For information on hours and locations for markets and vide greniers, just drop in on the closest village Marie (the local information center), and request a list.
Beyond the selection of crafters landmarks, there remains the land itself, a spectacular treasure trove of natural resources. What better material for ideas and projects then the view of a fiery sunset, dappling a vineyard in reds? The most I can offer to an interested reader are my own insiders inspirations and recommendations. These have been garnered from a passionate love of the region, and the desire to share that affection with other inquiring artists.
About the author:
Aria Doner Tudanger (MFA) is a mixed-media artist and creative multi-tasker, not to mention a writer, personal trainer, world-traveler, and die-hard admirer of all crafts made by hand and heart. She lives in many places at once, but is currently spending the majority of her time residing and working in Provence, France.