Picture: The Mediterranean Garden

 

La Carmejane is one of the most spectacular properties in the Luberon region of Provence. Privately owned, it’s gardens appear often in those expensie coffee table books about the Gardens of Provence.

The website The Mediterranean Garden published this series of article during 2014 and they are really worth re-publishing here on LSW. The journalist is E. Kirsten Honeyman.

Visiting the hilltop property of La Carmejane, one feels as though the last small figure in a lovely set of Russian nesting dolls has been revealed. Modern-day France holds tremendous beauty inside its borders: within this beautiful country, the mediterranean-climate region of Provence is a stunning area, known worldwide for its charm; within Provence, the area of the Luberon Mountains, with its many scenic villages, is ravishing; and within the Luberon sits the medieval hilltop village of Ménerbes, designated one of the “Most Beautiful Villages of France.” Beauty within beauty within beauty. After exploring Ménerbes, with its spectacular views over the surrounding valleys, one might well think that beauty has revealed itself fully, but there is one more heart-stopping “doll” to be unveiled: the castle complex of La Carmejane.

Early history of the region
While the beauty of Ménerbes, perched on a hilltop overlooking the Cavalon Plain, is the draw today, its defensive position high on a rocky promontory has attracted settlers since Neolithic times. It would be difficult to determine exactly when the area was first settled, but the nearby coastal areas of Provence have some of the earliest known sites of human habitation in Europe, dating as far back as one million years BC. The dolmen of La Pitchoune (a megalithic tomb) is situated on the outskirts of Ménerbes, so there is evidence of early human habitation in the immediate area.The Greeks arrived in Provence around 600 BC, founding the town of Massalia, modern-day Marseille. These early immigrants brought a Mediterranean civilisation to the area, introducing the cultivation of grapes, olives, and wheat. The Romans followed after the conquest of Provence by Julius Caesar (58-51 BC). Ménerbes, situated on a hilltop with an elevation of nearly 700 metres (or roughly 2,275 feet), became a strategic Roman outpost on the Via Domitia, the major Roman road through the Cavalon Plain linking Italy and Spain. Under Roman rule, a 200-year period of relative peace known as the Pax Romana (27 BC-180 AD) settled over the region. For the first time, all of Provence had the same language, administrative government, currency and culture. In spite of the chaotic years that followed its downfall, the Roman Empire left an enduring cultural signature on the region.

 

History of La Carmejane 

After the fall of the Roman Empire, fear ruled Provence. Waves of barbarian invaders swept over the region, and the local residents moved out of the valleys and into fortified hilltop villages. The stone structures of the Provençal villes perchées, so charming to the modern-day visitor, acknowledge the intense anxiety of those times. Anyone who has ever moved stones in the garden knows that no one would erect such structures on the top of a rocky outcrop without terror gripping his heart. The property of La Carmejane has a fear-filled history, as jumbled as its stones.

La Carmejane was not built all at once, but was erected over hundreds of years beginning in the 11th century. Changes were made according to evolving warfare and lifestyle needs. Around 1020, the first feudal castle was built on the site. It consisted of a simple stone tower with arrow-slit windows and crenellated battlements surrounded by a huge stone wall – all with the sole purpose of defence. In the 13th century, the original defensive tower underwent profound changes, and the property became a fortified residence.

The power of the Catholic Church was ascendant during the 14th century and had a significant impact on Provence and La Carmejane. Political infighting and the election of a French pope resulted in the moving of the papal seat from Rome to Avignon in 1309. The popes brought tremendous power and wealth to Avignon, which had a ripple effect on the region. Even after the papal seat returned to Rome in 1376, the Catholic Church continued to rule a large area of Provence known as the Comtat Venaissin. The village of Ménerbes profited from this association with the church, but then sank under the effects of the plague and the religious wars sweeping all of Europe in the ensuing decades. The region finally emerged from this black period in the 15th century, which saw a revitalisation of Provence.

The first Carmejanes settled in Provence in 1499. Jehan I de Carmejane had been living in Fumel, near Agen in the province of Guyenne and Gascony, now the Lot-et-Garonne département. As devout Catholics, they chose to live in the Comtat Venaissin and settled in Ménerbes. The family came not only seeking protection from the Church, but also wishing to reinforce the papal presence in both Ménerbes and Avignon. They bought the tower, the maison forte, and the residential castle, as well as extensive farm holdings around the village. Soon after taking possession of the property, they began a series of renovations designed to transform the complex from a medieval fortification to a Renaissance showplace. Today, the only evidence of the superb sixteenth-century castle that resulted is a 1577 watercolour found in the Bibliothèque Inguimbertine in Carpentras. Between 1499 and 1830, nine generations of the Carmejane family lived on the property and made their architectural mark on the complex.

Over the 800-year period of its existence, the footprint of La Carmejane underwent countless transformations from defensive tower, to fortified residence, to Renaissance castle, to carved-up apartments. By the time the current owners purchased it in 1987, the house was but a shadow of its sixteenth-century glory, but it still held magic and promise.

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