Bertrand Pillivuyt came to occupy the Château de la Barben, a 1,000 year-old castle in Aix en Provence, the old fashioned way: “I inherited it,” he said. “It was passed to my wife and myself in 2006.” Pillivuyt is the latest in a long and illustrious string of owners to occupy the castle, which is a combination of fortress, renaissance palace, and 19th century mansion. Now, though, he’s put it on the market for 15 million euros ($17 million) via Sotheby’s International Realty, ceding the castle’s lineage to a future buyer.
The earliest record of the property is from 1064, when it was owned by the monastic order, the Abbey of Saint Victor de Marseille. According to castle historians, within a century later, it made its way into the hands of a medieval lord, Pierre de Pontevès, and remained in his family until the late 1380s, when—according to Nostradamus—a descendant, Guillaume de Pontevès, participated in an ill-advised revolt against Louis II de Anjou, King of Naples. (The revolt was said to be put down by Louis II’s mother, who pawned her jewelry to raise an army of mercenaries.) It then bounced around the French royal family for a century or so, until 1474, when it ended up in the possession of the noble Forbin family. Among the largest landholders in southern France, the Forbins managed to retain control of the castle for 500 years. But by the 1960s, the Marquis de Forbin “had a lot of estates around Provence, and he couldn’t maintain them all,” said Pillivuyt. “My father in law, André Pons, was friends with him and agreed to buy the château.”
Pillivuyt said he has no idea how much Pons, whom he described as someone who had “vineyards and lavender fields,” paid for the property, but estimated that it cost from 1 million to 2 million francs. “The château was in very bad shape, and it was a big job to renovate it,” he said.
Pons set about restoring the building’s 50,000-square-foot interior, spread across 60-odd rooms. There are elaborate frescoes, hand-painted ceilings, massive tapestries (when Pons bought the house, he kept most decorations), antique silk wallpaper, and decoration by painters, including Marius Granet. The castle has its own chapel, guard rooms, subterranean passages from its time as a fortress, and a massive kitchen that appears to have remained largely unchanged for the better part of 300 years. The house is surrounded by traditional French gardens (designed by the royal gardener to Louis XIV), and, from its vantage point on the tip of a ledge, has sweeping views of the property’s 760 acres. “The property is close to two rivers, so the land is very green,” Pillivuyt said. “And it’s is fantastic for hunting deer and boar.”
Today, the castle is less the site of noble folly and more a thriving tourist destination. Since inheriting the property, Pillivuyt and his wife Ghislaine have opened the house and garden to tour groups (the cost of a standard tour is 9 euros; opting for a tour of the dungeons and tunnels “in the company of a medieval knight” will set you back 16 euros), rented out several of their 15 rooms as a bed and breakfast, and made public spaces available for events. The gardens, said to be the private refuge of the Princess Pauline Borghese during her visits to the castle in the early 19th century, can host more than 400 guests. The outdoor terrace can entertain 300, and the interior a still-substantial 200.
Located about 12 miles from the city center of Aix en Provence, about a 30-minute drive from the city’s international airport, the castle has proved a popular destination. “We were running it as a family business,” said Pillivuyt. “It’s relatively profitable, and we’ve maintained the home in the best condition possible.”
Including his wife and himself, Pillivuyt said, the castles was run by a staff of 12. “It’s mostly people for the tours,” he said, “but the gardeners are one of my big expenses.” Pillivuyt is selling, he said, “because I’m 74 and my wife is 70, and we want to relax,” he explained. “I’m sure we can adjust to a smaller house.”