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What exactly is a "bastide" or a "mas" in Provence?

The word bastide evokes a country house in Provence. This word is a commercial siren song in Provence today, but what does it really mean? Thirteenth century manuscripts used it to describe fortifications, but by the seventeeth and eighteenth centuries, it had come to mean an elegant estate. Specialist Nerte Dautier compares the Provençal bastide to the Tuscan villa, both being « “a kind of rural habitat which combines an aristocratic or middle-class residence with a working farm and gardens.”

She adds that “the bastide was a sound and lucrative investment, a country home and a place for leisure and repose. By the luxury of its appointments and the charm of its gardens, it betokened membership in the class privileged by Fortune.”» She lists hundreds of examples surrounding the city of Aix-en-Provence where Parliament met, seat also of the lawcourts and tax authorities until the French Revolution of 1789. Owners here first imitated foreign fashions—primarily Italian and Parisian—before evolving a style of their own. In the nineteenth century, bastides clustered mainly around the thriving port of Marseille. Émile Garcin, a real estate agent who specializes in this type of property, explains that owners of prestigious urban townhouses always had country bastides as well.

In Provence then, as in Italy, every city had a peppering of stately homes outside town, summer retreats whose owners escaped the heat of town to supervise the farming. Their elegant living was largely financed by the harvest. In Grasse, however, families owed their fortunes largely to the perfume industry. As the city expanded, the medieval stronghold was surrounded by a ring of bastides, each named for a saint. The Bastide Saint Antoine is now the home of chef Jacques Chibois.

Country estates in Provence remained modest compared to Loire Valley châteaux, built for kings, their families, and followers. The southern version is much smaller, in part due to laws that distributed wealth among heirs rather than giving all to the eldest son. But southern homes were also retreats for private pleasures, not rather than as ostentatious statements of power. In the seventeenth century, the French minister Colbert reported bitterly to his king: “These degenerates in the vile holes they call stately homes in this country would rather give up the best deal in the world than miss some entertainment at the bastide.” The nineteenth century novelist Balzac, who was from Touraine, was equally scornful. “A bastide : four walls of pebbles held together by a yellowish sort of cement, covered with a roof of hollow red tiles, and sinking under the weight of all that brickwork!” he wrote. Today, however, northerners are buying up bastides at a great rate.

Lafourcade-Confines_0.jpg Les Confines by Bruno Lafourcade

The word mas also designates country houses in parts of Provence. Originally this was the working farm, attached to an estate or independent. There is some overlap between the terms mas and bastide, however. Provençal gentry never separated beauty and productivity, so that orchards and vineyards spread around their homes like vast parterres. At the same time, an independent farmer of humble origin might himself become quite wealthy. Frederic Mistral, a Provençal poet who won the Nobel prize in 1904, described his father as belonging to this sort of peasant aristocracy. “The old bastide where I was born was called the Mas du Juge,” he says.

Nonetheless, there are important distinctions. A mas is built near a spring, usually in a hollow, while the bastide sits on a rise from which it can command the countryside. Its owners can afford to have water piped in if necessary. The mas usually is made of rough- hewn stone, whilewhereas the bastide covers these with a kind of cement and lime wash,— either rose-, golden-, or ocher- toned. The bastide is generally square or rectangular and has a second story. Its windows are placed symmetrically around a central entrance which that often opens under a wrought-iron balcony. In front of the bastide stretches a long esplanade matching the proportions of the façade, embellished with large, glazed Anduze pots and a fountain, and shaded by majestic plane trees. A mas usually has a broad trellis decked with a mix of vine and wisteria attached to its south wall to protect the entrance and provide summer shade, decked with a mix of vine and wisteria. There’s Nno statuary or parterre here, but usually clipped broadleaf evergreen laurel or laurustinus hedging (laurel or laurustinus) which that also acts as a windbreak.

There are, of course infinite combinations, and today, many newcomers to the region are actively transforming mas into …bastides. «“You need an experienced eye to avoid a tasteless mishmash,” » insists Bruno Lafourcade, a specialist in elegant restoration. And above all, he feels owners? need to know master the traditional skills in order to preserve the essential harmony of each place. Victor Papernak, an architecture historian, writes about vernacular construction in a way that just suits the bastide ideal : “Vernacular buildings are ecologically apt, that is they fit in well with local climate, flora, fauna, and ways of life. … They recede into the environment rather than serving as self-proclaiming design statements; they are human in scale. …They tend to blur the differences between the dwellings of the aristocracy and the gentry, the home-workshops of artisans, the homes of the very poor, farmhouses and barns.” He attributes “sensuous frugality that results in true elegance” to vernacular structures all over the world. Provence has inherited this tradition, still very much alive still today.

Excerpt from Provence Harvest (see book list)


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