A four-hour train ride from the grit and glamour of Paris is Arles, an immaculately preserved town on the River Rhône in the south of France that dates back to the 7th century BC. Once a major Roman city — and famously the location where, in just 15 months in the late 1880s, Vincent Van Gogh produced some 200 paintings — Arles today is an enchanting mix of butter-coloured buildings that span the centuries.
One such building is the weekender of Brigitte and Thierry Benkemoun. Brigitte’s father bought the rustic 17th-century farmhouse around 40 years ago. “Both sets of my grandparents came to live here,” says Brigitte, a journalist and author who grew up in the area but now calls Paris home. “It’s actually two houses — you have to cross the terrace to go from one to the other.”
Brigitte and Thierry inherited half of the property 15 years ago, and would travel there from Paris on weekends and holidays with their now adult children, Pierre and Josephine. Two years ago, when they inherited the other half, “We decided to change it and make it as we wanted,” Brigitte says.
Crucial to the transformation was the discovery of the building’s original material, a local limestone that had been boarded over decades earlier. “They used to do that in the 1970s,” Brigitte says. “We took everything off to see the stone, which is very nice, and while we revealed the stone we also revealed old windows — so we found the real façade.”
Brigitte and Thierry installed a polished concrete aggregate floor downstairs (“We wanted terrazzo but it was too expensive”), changed the design of the simple concrete stairs leading to the second storey, and added black steel-framed doors that open from the living room to the terrace.
Inky tones feature in the L-shaped kitchen, too, where IKEA cabinets were fitted with iron fronts. “A friend of my husband offered to make this for us,” Brigitte says of the kitchen, which uses materials from the French company Inoxa. “Our kitchen is one of his experiments.”
Furniture is a mix of new, antique and custom-made pieces, with the emphasis on simplicity — a place where it feels natural to read and write, and relax. “We don’t have any white in our house in Paris,” Brigitte says.
“But in this house we wanted all white, and we wanted simple materials and not too much furniture. It’s quiet here and cool, and I prefer to write here than in Paris.”
Thierry, a documentary filmmaker, is “the master of style” and designed several key pieces, including the industrial-styled trough basin in the main bathroom and the square timber dining table with iron legs.
Meals are served here or outside on the terrace under the shade of the ancient plane trees. “I think they’re as old as the house,” Brigitte observes.
Her parents still live close by, as does her brother, and when family and friends visit Brigitte loves to cook traditional Provençal dishes with ingredients from Arles’s famous, twice-weekly farmers’ market. Here, checked tablecloths flutter on stalls laden with colourful spices, fruit and vegetables, and products bearing the scent of lavender grown in the area.
Arles is also known for its photography festival, Les Rencontres d’Arles, held from July to September, which Brigitte and Thierry always attend. “You also have a lot of concerts and events, and we love to go to the restaurants in town,” Brigitte says. “We go to Avignon from time to time and the beach is only 30 kilometres away. That’s our life here, it’s not too bad.”