Provence has its fair share of heart-stoppingly beautiful hill-top villages, most of them crowned by a half-ruined castle from which the visitor looks out in blissful reverie over a landscape of lavender, vineyards and distant mountains. But how many of them can also boast of 18th Century sexual perversions, and of revolutionaries baying for the blood of an orgy-addled literary maverick?

Marquis de Sade’s Lacoste château is now mostly in ruins, but has been transformed in recent years thanks to the philanthropy of another maverick, Pierre Cardin. The story of Lacoste would be worth telling even if it were not also one of the most spectacular spots in southern France. Visitors are treated to views, excellent food and that elusive sensation of stepping into another time.

A little more than two centuries ago, it was where Donatien Alphonse François, Marquis de Sade began his career of erotic scandal. It takes a certain leap of the imagination, but where the cicada now sings there really were orgies with nuns and servant girls. Possibly. We do know the man synonymous with the act of gaining pleasure by inflicting pain on others based much of the action in his later (banned) works on his time in Lacoste.

The de Sade family had owned the château since 1716 (the original dated back to the 11th Century), but in early 1790s, amid the French Revolution, it was torn to the ground by a mob.  Villagers looted stones to build their own houses, and the castle was subsequently abandoned for 150 years. In 1952 a local school teacher began a restoration effort that has made a central part of the castle once again habitable. Then in 2001, Cardin arrived.

Cardin, now age 89, is an extraordinary man. A survivor from the golden age of post-war French fashion, he more or less invented the fashion trend of prêt-à-porter (ready-to-wear), was among the first to start licensing his own brand-name and now controls a fashion empire worth billions. He lavishes his money on the arts, pet projects and property. Lacoste is all three.

Cardin owns the castle, a dozen or so houses in the village and a similar number of outlying farms. He subsidises a bar-restaurant and a grocery store. Several of the buildings he has gutted and refurbished with a view to open them as hotels. He has installed sculptures around the village and every July sponsors an opera and theatre festival in the old quarries next to the castle.

After a hot climb up steep cobbled lanes, visitors emerge among the ruins of the château.  A renovated central section is where Cardin has his home and is off-limits to the public.  Otherwise you are free to wander between broken-down walls and vanished gardens, look down on village roofs and muse on what it must have been like in its earlier incarnations. There is a small area where Cardin stages art exhibitions, and on the hilltop beside the ruins stand two modern sculptures. One is a pair of long outstretched arms. The other – a caged head – represents de Sade.

Until a few months ago Cardin wanted to add a golf course as well.  But for some locals, it was a step too far. They staged a demonstration with tractors and forced him to abandon the project.

How to
Lacoste lies in the heart of the Luberon valley, about 50k east of Avignon. Coming from Paris, the best route is to take the TGV fast train (it is only two and a half hours) and pick up a car at Avignon. It takes 40 minutes to drive from Avignon. From Marseille, give yourself an hour and a half. There are two restaurants in the village, and plenty of wonderful walks in the surrounding area including to Pont Julien, a Roman era bridge which was in use until a few years ago.

Overnight guests can stay inside the village at the Café de France or you can pick one of several excellent chambres d’hôtes in the surrounding area. I settled on the idyllic Domaine de Layaude Basse, an old farmhouse run by Lydia and Olivier Mazel. A room for two with dinner and breakfast costs about 150 euros. There is a pool and the view over the Luberon is magnificent.