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Two-and-a-half hours southeast of Paris, in the part of Champagne that borders Burgundy, is a lovely little village where Pierre Auguste Renoir and his family spent many of their happiest days. (“I like being with the vignerons because they are generous,” Renoir once said. He also noted that the bread and butter produced in Essoyes were much better than in Paris.)
Sometime shortly after the birth of their second child—who would become the famous filmmaker Jean Renoir—Mme. Renoir convinced her much older, bohemian husband that it was time to buy a home. They found a house in Essoyes, more or less halfway between Troyes and Dijon, the town where Aline Charigot Renoir had been raised. This house became the family’s summer home, a place of relaxation, nourishment, and spiritual replenishment.
Today visitors to Essoyes can learn about the life of the Renoir family at the Atelier Renoir, http://www.renoir-aube-champagne.com/index_uk.html and enjoy the landscape, which has changed very little, from vantage points where the artist painted. (Several of the spots are tastefully marked with easels displaying reproductions of the paintings.) Those who wish to support living artists can visit the Atelier du 11 on the rue Victor Hugo, where local painters Anne Fierobe and Denis Herbillon display and sell their work. And those who wish to pay their respects to the dead can visit the graves of the Renoir family—the painter and his wife, and all three of their sons—in the graveyard on the edge of town. In July and August Bernard Pharisien, a local scholar, gives free daily walking tours during which he shares his expertise about the history of the Renoir family as well as the town. http://renoir.chez.com/bpharis.html.
In the memoir he published about his father in 1958, Jean Renoir wrote that Essoyes “has remained more or less unspoiled,” and added, “There is no other place like it in the whole wide world. There I spent the best years of my childhood.”
More than fifty years later, happily, Essoyes still remains “more or less unspoiled.” Like many French villages and towns it is a place where peace and order prevail, and l’art de vivre—the careful rituals and habits of daily life—is maintained. In this sense Essoyes is a somewhat ordinary little French village. (Which is to say, it is a wonderful place.) Of course as the home of not just one, but two world-famous artists, it is also somewhat extraordinary.
In addition to all the fundamental services needed to sustain life in a small town, this community of 650 people boasts two blacksmiths, a stone mason, a woodworker, a library, an art gallery, and a school of dance. A major expansion of the Atelier Renoir, currently under construction, is scheduled to open in 2010.
The people of Essoyes take pride in their artistic heritage: but they also appreciate and support contemporary artists. Since 1990 the Association Renoir, created in 1986 by Claude Renoir, grandson of the painter, has annually awarded a young laureate with studio space in Essoyes (http://www.essoyes.fr/p_renoir3.htm) and sponsors an exhibition at the end of his or her stay. In 2007 les chavalets d’Essoyes—an art fair that attracts nearly 100 painters, potters, sculptors, and other visual artists to the town—was introduced. The festival, which is held annually, features a soiree held in the community center on Saturday night with dancing to live music, a sumptuous buffet, and of course plenty of champagne. http://www.aube-champagne.com/fr/les-chevalets-d-essoyes.html
On the edge of town, a three-star hotel, the Hotel des Canotiers offers comfortable, modern accommodations, excellent cuisine, warm accueil, and breathtaking views of the village and the surrounding vine-covered hills www.hoteldescanotiers.com. There are also several charming bed and breakfast accommodations in the village: http://www.essoyes.fr/c_culture4.htm
Like Renoir, one could stay happily in Essoyes for quite some time, simply enjoying the beauty of the countryside and the peaceful pace of life, exploring its quiet pleasures, being welcomed at the many caves in the nearby area, where local vintners are happy to provide visitors with degustation of exquisite champagnes not found anywhere else on earth.
Having said that, the area also offers numerous possibilities for recreation, amusement, visits to historic sites and other places of interest.
But that’s the subject of another piece. Stay tuned!
Janet Hulstrand is a writer, editor and teacher based in Silver Spring, Maryland. You can read her essays about Paris, Hawaii, and Essoyes on her blog, “Writing from the Heart, Reading for the Road” www.wingedword.wordpress.com and learn more about her classes at www.essoyesschool.com.