50 Before 50: City #4 Orquevaux, France
Nestled in gorgeous countryside of the Champagne region of France, the little hamlet of Orquevaux, once a bustling village centered around the iron industry, has been in slow decline over the past century, as villagers left seeking bigger cities and more opportunities. Orquevaux itself boasts not a single restaurant, bar, or shop. The closest town is Charmont, a good 25 minutes away.
So why, exactly, I am I, a self-proclaimed city-dweller, here? Because when life makes it possible for you to spend two weeks doing nothing but writing & eating & living with other artists in a chateau…you say yes and figure out the details later.
The Chateau D’Orquevaux is one of three standout structures in this village of around 60 (?) people. The other landmarks are a small castle (more on that in a minute) and a church, whose 7pm bells signal us to dinner, because of course. Situated at the top of a slight hill, the front porch overlooks acres of lush green pastures with cows and sheep and goats within eyesight. This is where I walk down the middle of the street singing Belle’s opening number in Beauty and the Beast. As you will see by the pictures, the setting is as enchanting as it looks.
The Chateau and surrounding grounds were completed by 1890 and full of historical significance:
*one of the owners and the mayor of the town of Orquevaux in 1941 was Guy de Saint Exupery, part of the Saint Exupery family which included Antoine de Saint Exupery, who, anyone who took some basic French could probably tell you, wrote Le Petit Prince.
*Albert de Vandeul, who lived in the Chateau and Orquevaux most of his life, died in 1911 (in Paris). He was the last remaining descendant of the French philosopher Denis Diderot. In fact, the Chateau had housed some unpublished works from Diderot for almost 150 years and finally published in 1951.
*During WW2, the chateau was commandeered by the Germans to serve as a headquarters
*The “petite castle” (now an adorable B&B) is, as the name suggests, a small castle-like dwelling that was built along with the Chateau to accommodate Vandeul’s mistress. Oh la la. Having started binge-watching Versaille (a fantastic series on Netflix which centers around Louis XIV and his many political and personal dramas, such as his many mistresses), I can only imagine that conversation between Monsieur et Madame de Vandeul. “Monsieur, but what is that cute little castle on that nearby hill over there?” “It is nothing, cherie. *pause* Never go there.” Ah, l’amour.
So, what’s going on with the Chateau now? Enter Ziggy, an Israli-born New York artist in his own right. Long story short, his father bought the property in 2006. It eventually fell into disrepair and was vacant until around 2016-2017 when Ziggy took it over, fixed it up, and turned it into an artist residency hosting some 10-15 painters, writers, and composers per month. This is the stuff of Ziggy’s dreams, and it is glorious. The residency fee covers accommodation and most meals. It is a perfect and magical place to come and let yourself steep in creation while maintaining daily connection with other artists. There are trail walks, bonfire nights, trips in Charmont, a studio hop night (where you tour each artist’s studio space to see what they’ve been working on), a poetry night (original or just share a piece of writing you love), and other happenings.
A couple of my favorite things were the trip to the thrift store in Charmont and the studio hop. I love a good thrift store, and the one in Charmont did not disappoint. There was already a small traffic jam of cars when we arrived shortly after 2 pm. Down a short gravel road (as all good thrift stores should be), this place was huge and it had everything. I spent most of my time in the clothing section where I scored a much needed jacket and 3 shirts for a whopping 7 ½ Euros. I had to put a few items back lest I run out of space in my suitcase. I regret that I didn’t look in the housewares or furniture sections, though if I lived nearby I would 100 percent be furnishing my house from this place. Amazing antique wood furniture from someone’s forgotten attack going for 30-50 Euro. Incroyable. The studio hop/concert night was a blast. After a week and a half of dedicated work time, all the artists open up their studio spaces and the group walks from studio to studio, with the artist telling us about their work. From graphite sketches to large oil paintings to full landscapes painted on pennies (“small is badass”), the quality and variety was astounding to see. I took part at the end by sharing an original poem. Since we were blessed with a few composers/singers in the group, we were treated to an amazing mini-concert after dinner. Since Ziggy’s aim is to resuscitate the artistic heartbeat of this little gem, he invited about 10 or so people from the town to join us. It was very much like a modern Downton Abbey evening come to life, minus gowns and tailcoats.
Artists need, above all, time to work. Time to fail. Time to process. Time to experiment. Time to grow. That, along with being surrounded by other creatives, is what is so nurturing about a residency. The daily pain au chocolates didn’t hurt either. I come away with about 5 poems in good shape and a couple others that need some work, as well as 2 blogs and the almost 80% completion of a project I am ecstatic about and looking forward to finishing up over the next 6-9 months. Would I return for another 2 weeks? No. Would I return for a whole month? Absolument oui.
Alors, on that note, since it’s not so much what I’ve seen, but what I’ve been up to here, I end this post before leaving tomorrow with a couple of poems that I wrote while here, as well as some luscious pictures! Au revoir and a la prochaine fois!! xo