A long weekend in Arles and the Camargue with Maja Hoffmann

The arts patron and Camargue habitué, whose experimental cultural complex Luma Arles has just debuted, shares her haunts with Gisela Williams. Portrait by Tina Hillier

Maja Hoffmann at L’Arlatan hotel, which opens in October
Maja Hoffmann at L’Arlatan hotel, which opens in October | Image: Tina Hillier

Growing up in the Camargue, I had so much freedom to roam. I love the big skies. I love the nature. Since my mother returned there with me when I was a few weeks old, Arles – and the Camargue – have always been the places that I have returned to. I have a very strong connection to the region.

Arles’ old town is home to a world-class pâtisserie and a prominent bookshop
Arles’ old town is home to a world-class pâtisserie and a prominent bookshop

Culture is everywhere in Arles. I’ve almost always had something to do with Les Rencontres de la Photographie, the international photography festival that was founded there in 1970 and has been expanding greatly since it was revamped in 2002. What originally motivated me to renovate the former train depot at Parc des Ateliers – and build [experimental museum complex] Luma there – was partly a lack of quality spaces to show large-scale photography exhibitions or host creative events for Les Rencontres.

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In the past few years I’ve really noticed some exciting energy in Arles. Creative people are coming to the city to settle down and make something special – like the owners of Le Collatéral, an incredible B&B in a former church that’s often used for artistic projects and events. Everywhere you look there is something curious, from digital art to a bespoke, snake-shaped table. It’s more of an experience than a hotel. Of course, L’Hôtel Particulier and Hôtel Jules César are very well known five-star properties in Arles. L’Hôtel Particulier was one of the first to add new life to the old city – they took over an 18th-century building and created a little oasis, with a swimming pool and beautiful garden – and the Jules is an institution that was redone beautifully a few years ago by Christian Lacroix. I myself never meant to be a hotelier, but ended up one due to the fact that I am occasionally asked to save old buildings. Ten years ago I opened Hôtel du Cloître, which I asked India Mahdavi to design and still today the interiors feel very modern. The most recent hotel project, L’Arlatan [which opens in October], is just as much of an artistic project as it is a hospitality one. Almost from the beginning, I knew I would ask Jorge Pardo to design the interiors; he did every surface and piece of furniture, and there are more than 30 different coloured and patterned tiles used for the floors and walls. It’s like a Gesamtkunstwerk.

Le Mas de Peint country hotel and restaurant is set amid a 500-hectare estate
Le Mas de Peint country hotel and restaurant is set amid a 500-hectare estate

One of my favourite places to start Saturday is the outdoor market on Boulevard des Lices, one of the most famous markets in Provence. It stretches more than 2km and is a true meeting place for locals. You can find everything from live chickens to Provençal table linens to dried lavender. From there you can wander through the old city, stopping at a world-class pâtisserie, Pâtisserie-Chocolaterie Masaki Yamamoto, where the baker is from Japan and makes traditional pastries as well as mini cakes with matcha. Actes Sud is a publisher and local bookshop that is one of the biggest job providers and supporters of cultural life in Arles. In its space near the river there are cinemas and a café and, next door, a hammam. Scattered along the streets are some special little shops and artisans, among them the atelier of Sophie Lassagne, who is a talented ceramicist; Moustique, a stylish little design boutique that sells everything from soaps to handmade lamps and glassware; and La Parfumerie Arlésienne, a scentmaker that I would highly recommend. For lunch you can stop at Le Galoubet, a bistro with very good food and a lovely ivy-covered terrace.

The small Chardon restaurant hosts international chefs
The small Chardon restaurant hosts international chefs

One must in the old town is Anne Clergue Galerie. Anne is the daughter of the late photographer Lucien Clergue, one-time artistic director of the Rencontres; she exhibits almost exclusively photography, and is really an example of the kind of person that is contributing so much to Arles. Another gallery worth visiting is Galerie Huit, a small space in a 17th-century townhouse with a sort of secret B&B on the top floors. The owner, Julia de Bierre, is a creative pioneer here and adds an interesting international viewpoint to Arles. Last year, for example, she exhibited a series of photographs inspired by the early life of Marguerite Duras in Indochina.

 Le Collatéral is a B&B in a former church often used for artistic projects and events
Le Collatéral is a B&B in a former church often used for artistic projects and events

I started Luma, my Zurich-based foundation, in 2004 and I purchased several spaces at the Parc des Ateliers in 2014 to be its home in Arles. We want to create an experimental cultural hub that is like a thriving ecosystem, with a school, production spaces, art residencies, a hotel, restaurants, a library and multiple exhibition areas. The industrial spaces were renovated by Annabelle Selldorf, and Frank Gehry designed a 60m tower of glass and stainless steel; among its contents will be a think tank, exhibition rooms and a major archive. Although the entire complex won’t be officially complete until late 2019, many buildings are finished, so there’s already a lot to experience. In July we opened a big Gilbert & George exhibition [until January] and a Pipilotti Rist installation, which is up until November. After a drink at Le Réfectoire in Luma’s Grande Halle, you can have dinner back in the old city at Chardon, a small restaurant that hosts international chefs for a month or two at a time, so the menu is always changing – and always interesting.

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It’s lovely to spend a bit of time just out of town in the Camargue. I grew up here, and my family helped to create the Camargue Reserve, with more than 13,000 hectares of wetlands; you can visit its information centre at La Capelière. Not far from there is the Parc Ornithologique du Pont de Gau. It’s a protected area – they save flamingos there – with hiking trails and a centre for injured wild birds. The Camargue is a beautiful place to horseback ride; you can do so at Manade Jacques Bon, a ranch with lovely Camargue horses where they organise guided riding tours. On this 500-hectare estate, owned and run by the Bon family, there is also a charming country hotel and restaurant called Le Mas de Peint. It’s a very special ecotourism experience.

My husband and I moved back to the Camargue from New York with our children, and in 2000 I started La Chassagnette, which was first an organic farm, then a restaurant. Although creating a restaurant in the middle of an organic garden seems so natural now, at the time it was quite new. Today it’s overseen by the talented chef Armand Arnal, who also oversees the restaurants at Luma.

Back in the city, there are some nice and more classical cultural experiences to enjoy. About a decade ago, a bust identified as Julius Caesar was discovered in the Rhône river. It’s thought to be the only surviving statue of him carved when he was alive, and you can see it at the Arles Museum of Antiquity, also called the Blue Museum. Worth visiting too is the Alyscamps, one of the most famous ancient Roman necropolises, which is where Van Gogh and Gauguin painted together in the late 19th century. Gucci just used the location to show its latest collection – another indication that Arles is attracting international interest. And, of course, one shouldn’t miss the Fondation Vincent Van Gogh – it’s been one of the projects in Arles that has helped spark opportunities and positive changes in the city. The artistic director, Bice Curiger, is very talented, and there’s an interesting exhibition of modernist works up until the end of October.

But one of the most iconic meeting places in Arles is the Grand Hôtel Nord-Pinus, right in the heart of the city. During the photography festival or when there are big concerts in town, lots of people stay here. The hotel and its bar, where the matadors and toreros used to meet, are legendary. Anne Igou, the owner, has cleverly kept things the way they have been for ages; I’ve been going there for years. It’s the perfect spot to end an evening, looking out over the incredible Place du Forum, a spot where you can both feel and see all the vibrant new changes happening in Arles.

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