Our wine scribe Jim Walker’s wife Hélène needed a new base for her popular O! France Tours de Provence. She found just what she was looking for – a château in the hilltop town of Goult in southern France.
That accommodating bastide tucked away in the countryside near Châteauneuf-du-Pape (see That Bastide Near Châteauneuf-du-Pape for the whole story) was the scene of many joyous gatherings. But it was no longer available. We needed to find another place in Provence to host our friends and paying guests alike. So we scoured the Internet for likely suspects and came across something called the Château de Goult located very near one of the wineries we represented, Domaine de Tara in a region called the Luberon. Peter Mayle, via his wonderful novel A Year in Provence, brought the world’s attention to this very special place. If you haven’t already read this little gem, I highly recommend it.
The Luberon is a vast fertile valley awash with vineyards, cherry, olive and apple orchards and countless other agricultural enterprises whose produce can be found in the local markets. It also contains numerous charming hilltop villages including Gordes, Bonnieux, Oppède le Vieux, Lacoste, and our personal favourite Roussillon.
The Château de Goult is located near the top of one of those charming villages that is called, not surprisingly, Goult. It is a pleasant little place, not nearly as well-known as its perched neighbours and until recently a favourite spot of the Brits for their summer residences before Brexit put a wee damper on things.
There is a delightful restaurant smack dab in the middle of town called Café de la Poste where we have whiled away many the hour over a leisurely lunch or pichet of Rosé. There are several other very decent restaurants, the requisite boulangerie, a butcher shop, a small grocery store, lots of cats and an ancient church that frequently hosts concerts and whose bells ring twice at the top of each hour (the first to let those working in the nearby fields know the time and the second to make sure they heard it and aren’t late for lunch (quelle catastrophe!).
Now then, the château wasn’t at all like those magnificent edifices found in the Loire Valley region of France (click here for a virtual tour of Le Château de Goult). Basically, it was a huge pile of rocks with a single tower and a beautiful inner courtyard that featured a smallish but very deep swimming pool. Its owner Malo Gallagher, who at the time was living in Grenoble, gave us a brief history of the property.
She told us that the earliest parts of the castle dated from the 11th century and served basically as a fortress – its square tower base, watchtower and guards’ room still intact. It was owned by the noble families of Simiane de Agoult (from whom the village got its name) and de Sade (yup, that de Sade family) and then by the Doni family from Florence.
The Donis transformed the castle during the 17th century by adding an additional building with three floors of residential rooms, a monumental staircase with stone balusters from the Louis XIII period and a 17th century Italian-style façade, onto the original medieval section of the castle. A cavernous cellar was used to store ice from distant glaciers for the entire village.
The castle became the communal property of the village in the early part of 20th century and was transformed into a school. Then Malo’s father purchased it some 40 years ago and started restoring it, a monumental task indeed. It was one of his main passions but unfortunately he developed Alzheimer’s and passed away before his work was completed. Malo and her brother decided to continue his work and spent several years and many Euros modernizing and restoring the building. In that it would only be used by the family for holidays and vacations, they decided to rent it out to those wishing a truly unique gathering place in the heart of Provence.
The château was loaded with all kinds of antique furniture and paintings, a full suit of armour and a life-size replica of a Terra Cotta Warrior that stood guard just inside the front door. The latter would mysteriously move about the château following particularly liquid evenings. But the best part of the Château de Goult was an energetic, engaging chap named Joël Abraham. He lived full-time in a secondary building on the premises and served in numerous invaluable capacities including caretaker, decorator, contractor/restorer, scullery person, porter, errand runner and chief trickster. He absolutely delighted in making everyone’s stay a pleasurable and memorable experience. Malo found us another gem in Djamila Azzouz, an excellent cook who specialized in the fare of North Africa and Provence. Each evening Djamila would prepare a multi-course feast fit for the denizens of any castle.
The Château de Goult served admirably as our base for daily excursions to various destinations throughout Provence. We would hire a Mercedes coach from Autocars Lieutaud, a venerable transportation firm founded in 1875 in Avignon. Hélène would arrange to have our favourite driver Armand behind the wheel. Armand, besides being an excellent driver, was a bit of a fashion plate. Every day he would wear a different solid coloured tie with shoe laces to match.
A very popular destination was the village of Roussillon noted for its ochre quarries that are now interlaced with hiking trails. Mothers could be heard warning their offspring not to slide down the slopes only to see the little urchins exit the site with brightly coloured pant seats. The village itself is pretty special too, but you have to be a bit of a mountain goat to reach all the art galleries, jewelry shops (we possess much evidence) and restaurants – definitely worth the climb. At the top of the town is the Église Saint-Michel dating from the 11th century and a lookout, once the grounds of a long-gone castle that provides spectacular views of the surrounding countryside.
Another delightful day trip, this one involving a much longer coach ride, was to the charming French Riviera fishing village of Cassis. We would begin our visit with a mini-train ride up and down the precipitous village surrounds with all its stunning villas, impeccably groomed gardens and breath-taking vistas and maritime aromas. Then we would ravenously descend upon the many seaside restaurants that featured fresh critters from the Mediterranean and absolutely delicious local white and rosé wines. One did have to take a tad of caution when ordering for some of the local delicacies: take les petites fritures for example. In contrast, virtually every menu featured something called a “tower of seafood” for around €100 the serving. Who would ever spend that much for lunch? Lo and behold it graced nearly every other table and was consumed with envy-provoking gusto.
After lunch and a leisurely stroll around town that usually involved the acquisition of a sizeable helping of crème glaceé, we would board the small cruisers that would take us on a ride to five of the nearby calanques, rocky inlets much like the Norwegian fjords. Here we would find death-defying climbers scaling the tall cliffs and sun-seeking souls in varying stages of undress splayed on the lower rocks and sandy coves.
After returning to the château and freshening up, we would repair to the pool-side patio or main sitting room for what became known as ‘Apéro Hour.’ Djamila would whip up an abundance of awesome appetizers and I would pair them with whites, rosés and bubblies from our local wineries. There could be no better way to recount the day’s events with old acquaintances and new friends under the setting Provençal sun.
Festivities then continued on to the château’s main dining room where Djamila’s culinary masterpieces were paired with our Châteauneuf-du-Pape, Gigondas, Vacqueyras and other exquisite elixirs. Serious conversation, tall tales and deep, dark family secrets flowed freely as the result. One matronly guest remarked after a middle-aged gentleman served up a ribald exposé involving tattoos and private bits: “Does your mother know about this?” After the feasts we would all gather on the raised patio and enjoy a nightcap under the stars, aided and abetted by laser lights courtesy of Joël. Then it was to bed to rest up for our next day in paradise.
Thursday evenings were the climax. The dinner scene switched to the 11th century living and dining rooms. Joël would set the place aglow with hundreds of tea lights. Djamila would prepare her finest dish – gigot d’agneau de sept heures (a succulent leg of lamb that has been slowly roasted for many hours) with every imaginable trimming. I would supply my finest wines, often an aged Châteauneuf-du-Pape Prestige from Domaine Roger Sabon. And, we would have our very own Roi et une Reine by picking those with birthdays closest the day’s date. The merriment would then begin in full force. They were most memorable affairs indeed.
Those glorious days at the château are over and done for us, but the pleasant memories linger. Hélène reluctantly closed down her tour business. Malo still owns the château and makes it available for rent. But, Joël has sadly retired. We have lost track of Djamila, but suspect that she is in charge of a fine kitchen somewhere in the Luberon.
We did hear about an incident at the château that occurred a little while ago. There is a bedroom in the 11th century wing called Le Donjon. It is a huge room all in stone with arrow slits for windows. A large hole was excavated through a very thick wall over to an adjoining chamber in order to create a route to an ultra-modern bathroom. The suite was very dramatic, particularly when the entire outer wall collapsed and fell to the ground blocking the only laneway to the top of the village for days!
Those living above the château were not amused.
PS: If you are interested in some really great wines from the Southern Rhône such as Côtes du Rhône, Vacqueyras, Gigondas and Châteauneuf-du-Pape, you might consider joining my Arthur’s Cellar Wine Club – no fees or other obligations, just marvellous wine.
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