Lou Calen & Cotignac
Two Histories Intimately Linked
Labelled a prominent “village of character” within the Var, Cotignac sits at an altitude of 230m and shelters under the impressive looming limestone cliff. Originally an old waterfall from the Cassole river which is now diverted elsewhere, evidence of the old still lingers today. In the Middle Ages, a fortification was built into the cliff face as well as two Saracen towers at the top of the rock. Many trigologyte dwellings in and around the rock were used as refuge for the villagers during invasions. Then in the 17th century, Cotignac’s lands extended to encompass the original property of the monastery of White Penitents, which is what makes up the village region today.
Religious Apparitions in Cotignac
The village of Cotignac has for many years become a popular pilgrimage destination for those wanting to have children. This is thanks to two religious apparitions seen in the area. The Virgin Mary was seen in the 15th century with the baby Jesus in her arms, on the Verdaille mountain, where the Notre Dame de Graces church and sanctuary now stands. Later, a century later in 1660, a vision of Saint Joseph was seen on Mount Bessillon, which makes Cotignac the one place in the world where the entire Holy Family has appeared.
In the same year, King Louis XIV himself came on a pilgrimage with his mother Anne of Austria. They intended to give thanks to the Virgin Mary for his miraculous birth, and thereby giving the sanctuary in Cotignac and incredible part to play in the history of France.
The Foundations of Lou Calen
In the early 1800s the Templier family purchased land at the entrance of Cotignac from the Duc de Condé and built a house using stones from the Notre Dame de Grâces Chapel, which was destroyed during the French Revolution. Various generations enjoyed the country manor house until the end of the 1940s, when it was turned into a holiday home for young orphan girls.
In 1971, Huguette Caren, local to the area, bought the property which was named “La Providence” at that time. Without any experience in hotel management, Huguette succeeded in turning the old building into an impressive 16-room hotel and restaurant, with a reputation that would extend far beyond the borders of Provence. In 1972, Yvonne de Gaulle stayed at the hotel for a whole month, and got to know the local area very well.
Huguette’s authentic home-cooking, considered some of the best cuisine to be found in Provence, was ultimately recognised by the French restaurant guide Gault & Millau in 1973. For more than 15 years, Lou Calen’s very fortunate guests could enjoy her favourite recipes: pesto soup, stuffed Provençal vegetables and her treat-sized delicious appetisers.
Today, Huguette has passed on her recipes and all her cooking knowledge to Lou Calen’s chef, Benoit Witz, who often uses them on the menu of the hotel’s Jardin Secret restaurant.
The Miraval Studios
By the end of the 1970s the fame of Lou Calen hotel went beyond Provence. The hotel soon welcomed a cosmopolitan clientele, including various celebrities who came to record in the studio of famous jazz pianist Jacques Loussier at Château Miraval, just minutes away.
Not only AC/DC, Pink Floyd, Sting, The Cranberries, The Cure but also Brigitte Bardot, Chantal Goya, Henri Slavador, Jean-Jacques Debout, Maxime le Forestier, Serge Lama – these are many of the greatest French and international stars that have both recorded at the Miraval studios and eaten at Huguette’s table up until the studios’ closure in 1998.
Brad Pitt, the current owner of chateau Miraval since 2011, has taken on a new project and plans to reopen these extraordinary studios ready for musicians to record today!
Lou Calen goes to California
In 1986, the Lou Calen concept travelled to Palm Springs. This ambitious project took 18 years to develop and was initiated by singer Joe Dassin after meeting Huguette Caren.
In 1968, Huguette remarkably managed to convince Joe Dassin to perform a concert in Cotignac in exchange for a piece of communal land. Joe Dassin continued to visit Lou Calen regularly and ultimately got married there in 1978.
Having become close friends, Joe and Huguette often talked about building a Californian Lou Calen in Palm Springs, where the singer owned a house. Huguette eventually fulfilled the dream alone after her dear friend Joe passed away in 1980, and the hotel in California stayed open for six wonderful years.
Lou Calen in Cotignac finally closed its doors in 1999 and Huguette turned her talents towards painting and writing. She is currently working on her third book, a compilation of her best Provençal recipes peppered with entertaining anecdotes about life at Lou Calen.
The Renaissance of Lou Calen
More than 15 years later, the flame of the Provençal “oil lamp”, Lou Calen, shines again. The hotel and restaurant has been reborn and reworked as a unique and sustainable eco-project that looks to nature and our place within it. Much more than a vacation spot, Lou Calen fosters many environmental schemes, as well as working in collaboration with the local village to restore its heritage, preserve the environment, and give back to the community.