Château Calissanne

2,000 years of history

Château Calissanne, a land of conquests

Between History, Nature, and economic activities…

Close to the Aurelian Way, which was once the main route between Rome and Spain…
A region at a crossroads, exposed to invasions, conflicts and influences, but also conducive to trade…
The legacy of Greek traders, Roman land managers, and Gallic farmers…

At the heart of Provence. On the shore of the Etang de Berre lagoon. More than 1,200 hectares in the sun, 38 kilometres from Marseille and 28 kilometres from Aix-en-Provence.

Introduction to Jacques Mazel’s book, “Une terre de Conquêtes 

The Oppidum of Constantine 

 

Located at the highest point of the estate, the oppidum stands 170 metres above the Château.

In the fourth century BC, Calissanne was the ”Oppidum of Constantine” – a stronghold occupied by Celtic-Ligurians, which still surveys the entire estate. Its northern rampart, reworked by the Romans in the first century AD, forms a superb wall which is still easily visible. A sanctuary devoted to Chtonian deities is mentioned as one of the major sites among sacred sites in the ancient world.

In the Romans’ footsteps…

Amphoras, villas, oil lamps…

It was during this period, as the Romans progressed northward up the Rhône Valley, that the estate was planted with vines and olive trees. Calissanne retains plentiful traces of this Gallo-Roman period, including a first-century amphora – unearthed in 1990 during tilling between the vines – and the remains of several villas scattered at the foot of the oppidum.

A cradle of living history

In the 11th and 12th centuries, the Domaine belonged to the “Hospitaliers de St Jean de Jérusalem”, who later became the Order of Malta. In this period, Notre-Dame de Calissanne Chapel was known to contain remnants of the Virgin Mary’s garments. In the 17th century, a member of the Parliamentary Court of Aix-en-Provence – Monsieur de Leydet – had the current château built.

Lastly, in the 19th century, the estate was acquired by Flemish-born Charles Auguste Verminck, owner of soap and oil factories. He gave a great impetus to the estate, setting up several farms within its boundaries: Sainte Modeste, Font de Leu, La Ferme Neuve, Le Jas de Bayle, Le Moulin de la Durançole – and today, all of these buildings echo the era’s extensive farming activity. As for the château itself, the huge vaulted stables, the dovecotes with their varnished tiles, the chapel and the majestic horse trough suggest the sheer scope of the estate.

After the grandeur of the Verminck era, Château Calissanne gradually stopped growing almonds, asparagus and cherries in the 20th century, and focused chiefly on vines and olive trees.

Life is sweet at Château Calissanne

Legend has it that the famous Calisson d’Aix, a marzipan confection, takes its name from a hillside on the Calissanne estate where almond trees once grew. The name “Calissanne” was already mentioned in a charter dating from 1152… Without this sun-baked slope, perhaps the Calisson would never have been invented…

Fauna and flora

A tranquil existence…
A haven of peace for Mediterranean fauna and flora

But vines and olive trees have built the latter-day reputation of this vast estate dotted with Mediterranean trees – which provide natural shelter for the local wildlife.

Partridge, rabbit and wild boar are very much at home in this scrubland of kermes and white oak, box, rosemary, prickly juniper, thyme, mimosa, cistus, gorse, and wild lavender.

This stony garrigue, with its profusion of Mediterranean flora, hosts extensive bird life including bustards and Bonelli’s eagles (a protected species).

There are also plentiful roe deer, and even albino roe deer.

All of these animals naturally live side by side, and we actively protect this territory through careful surveillance (wardens) and a private hunt to help control the animal population.

Hives for Provençal honey

Calissanne also makes its own honey. More than 150 hives stand in three localities on the estate’s uplands, amid garrigue at the foot of the cliffs.

We only treat our vines once a year, with a certified bee-friendly product.

In the past three years, we have begun planting arable and forage crops around the vines, ensuring rich ecodiversity – and thus promoting the bees’ vitality and health.

Bonelli’s eagle

The pairs of Bonelli’s eagles are the stars of our estate. And like all stars, they are much watched. They appear only seldomly, and nest even more rarely! They are not keen on spotters/paparazzi! They prefer to take refuge in the concealed crannies of Calissanne’s hill.

Sheep

Transhumance was an ancient practice at Calissanne, and we have renewed with tradition.

In fact, transhumance – and the beautiful journey it involves – is no longer the right word. Now, the sheep come by truck, but they live peacefully amid nature, as they once used to.

Some 2,000 sheep arrive in early spring, and spend four months on the estate’s southern plains and northern plateaux.
Thus have we rediscovered the pretty tableau of Provençal sheep flocks.

This tableau sends a gratifying message about bonds and harmony between nature and animals, and about respect for the sheep’s welfare and health.

Truffles at Calissanne

Known as “rabasse” in Provençal and also nicknamed the “black diamond”, the truffle is a mycorrhizal fungus, so it needs a host tree.

At Calissanne, this tree is the kermes oak, and its hypogeous (underground growing) fungus grows here in nutrient-poor, shallow, aerated chalky soils. The truffle loves climates where vines thrive: cold winters but no big freezes; mild wet springs; and dry hot summers.

Donkeys

Provence without donkeys would be a less lovely place! And we are reminded of this by Alphonse Daudet, the French novelist and playright …

Our donkeys no longer bear loads – they merely serve as a reminder of a beautiful bygone Provence! Our two donkeys Marius and Manon – contemplative and slightly nostalgic – have lived on the estate for more than 15 years, and they are a delight!

“The village was surrounded by hills covered in windmills. On every side, above the pine trees, sails, turning in the mistral, filled the landscape, and an assortment of small, sack-laden donkeys trudged up and down the paths. Day after day it was really good to hear the crack of the whips, the snap of the sails, and the miller’s men’s prodding, “Gee-up”… On Sundays, we used to go up to the windmills in droves, and the millers thanked us with Muscat wine. The millers’ wives looked as pretty as pictures with their lace shawls and gold crosses. I took my fife, of course, and we farandoled the night away. Those windmills, mark me, were the heart and soul of our world.” Letters from my Windmill, by Alphonse Daudet

The quarries of Calissanne

Landmarks in the Aix area and throughout France were carved from blocks of stone extracted from Calissanne’s quarries. The quarries were worked from the Iron Age (Prehistory to Protohistory) until the eve of World War One.

Calissanne’s pure white limestone is renowned for its quality.

It was used in the construction of many buildings and monuments.

Discover some French heritage gems:

  • In Aix-en-Provence, Saint-Sauveur Cathedral and most of the city’s fountains;
  • In Marseille, the Church of Notre-Dame de la Garde (architect: Espérendieu), the Palais Longchamp and the Palais du Pharo;
  • In Paris, “The Horses of Marly” (18th century sculpture) on Place de la Concorde;
  • In Saint-Chamas, the famous “Pont Flavien” (Gallo-Roman bridge, 1st century AD, 22m span between its two arches)
  • In Lançon en Provence, all the buildings of Château Calissanne, which we invite you to discover…

Today, the quarries are still clearly visible, carved from the craggy cliffs.

A living spring

The Durançole brings coolness and life to Calissanne

The River Durançole, i.e. the “Little Durance”, is a thermal spring: it has its source on the estate, and its water is a constant 19°C.

The river flows right along Calissanne’s southern boundary, for four kilometres, and into the Étang de Berre lagoon.

Its flow – very high in summer and more modest in winter – hints at a distant supply in the Alps, like the Durance, the large river that runs through the uplands of the Southern Alps and, during the heat of the Provençal summer, supplies all the towns and villages in the counties of Vaucluse and Bouches-du-Rhône.

The Durançole’s crystal-clear waters are one of the estate’s great assets.

In the late 19th century, Charles Auguste Verminck, who realised the importance of such a treasure, developed a network to irrigate the entire southern section of the estate.

Through recent works to clean and upgrade the river’s banks and piping systems, this now-rediscovered treasure can be sustained.

“The Durançole has its source on the estate, and runs for four kilometres as far as the Etang de Berre. This nival-regime resurgence proves the distant origin of the water, far beyond the Fare hill range, and explains its continuous flow, its constant temperature (19°C) and its salinity, which rise up from the deep strata and are unrelated to natural runoff.”
Introduction to Jacques Mazel’s book, “Une Terre de Conquêtes”