She was born in August 1883, in Saumur, in the Loire Valley, a city famous today for its chateau, riding school, mushrooms and sparkling wines. The noble castle and stone mansions of Saumur show how important the town was in the past, but have little to do with the modest origins of Gabrielle Bonheur Chanel who lived with her parents and four surviving siblings until her mother died when she was aged twelve and her father left the family.
The three girls went to an orphanage in the medieval town of Aubazine in the valley of Correze in central France. In the six years she spent here, Gabrielle learned the basic skills of a seamstress, laying the foundations to her future, but a far cry from the glamour of the world of catwalks and fashion where she would later make her name. Aubazine town boasts a magnificent twelfth century Cistercian abbey, where a popular medieval festival is held each summer. Some hundred kilometres to the north lies Limoges, a name synonymous with porcelain, and beyond that, Oradour-sur-Glane, a town destroyed during the Second World War and preserved today as a ruin. En route to Limoges, a short detour will take you to Arnac-Pompadour, most famous for its Anglo-Arab horses. Closer to Aubazine, though, is the tiny village of Collonges-la-Rouge, named for the characteristic reddish colour of its sandstone buildings, and the thirteenth century Turenne - one of the most beautiful villages in France - perched on a hilltop and crowned with a castle. To the west lies Annesse-et-Beaulieu, with its spectacular church, and the picturesque riverside town of Argentat.
At eighteen, Gabrielle left the nuns and set up home in Moulins, former seat of the Dukes of Bourbon and capital of the Bourbonnais province. Here, she became a cabaret singer, and it was here, too, that she dropped the name she'd been christened with, to become simply Coco Chanel. Like Paris, Moulins has a Gothic-style Notre Dame Cathedral and a Sacre Coeur, both of which are well worth a visit, and the town also boasts a number of fine nineteenth century mansions. It is home to the National Centre for Set Costume, the world's first museum dedicated to stage costume, which includes theatre, opera and ballet in its remit. Don't miss visiting the Grand Cafe bar-brasserie where Coco herself performed. While living at Moulins, Coco also performed in Vichy, some sixty kilometres to the north, the small town on the Allier river famous for its waters and its opera.
Following the textile heir and race-horse owner Etienne Balsan, Coco left Moulins, and moved to Compiegne in the north of the country. Here you can visit the great castle of Compiegne, favourite residence of Napoleon III and converted into a museum today, and, a short way outside the city, the sumptuous Chateau de Pierrefonds with its castle, park and forest. Compiegne is only a couple of hours drive from the coast with the mouth of the River Somme and the Marquenterre beach which stretches for 18 kilometres bordered by sand dunes. On the road to Paris, lies Senlis, where a large Gothic cathedral presides over the old town, and Chantilly, the French capital of horse racing.
Rue Cambon, Paris
Coco left Balsan and with the help and support of Arthur Boy Capel, one of the loves of her life, she opened her first dressmaker's shop near the exclusive Place Vendome, in Rue Cambon, where she had an apartment. The fabulous fashion house that bears her name is still based in the street, and 31, Rue Cambon gives its name to one of Les Exclusifs collection of perfumes, as well as appearing as a slogan on some of the designer shopping totes.
In 1913, Coco opened a boutique in the fashionable resort of Deauville using her birth name, Gabrielle Chanel; here she specialised in luxury casual clothes for the wealthy. On the coast of Normandy, the town of Deauville today boasts the most prestigious spa resort in France, and remains popular among the international creme de la creme. The surrounding countryside is green and fertile, and is famed for its ciders and cheeses. Under two hours away, along the coast, is Monte San Michel, while inland, back towards Paris, lies Monet's garden at Giverny.
Two years after Deauville, in 1915, Coco opened her third shop, in the seaside town of Biarritz, near the Spanish border, and this is where she conceived her first true collection. At the time, Biarritz was a playground for wealthy Europeans, particularly for the Spaniards less affected by the war. Today it is a quiet place with good beaches, the best surf in Europe, an interesting maritime museum, two casinos and one of the finest luxury hotels in France, the Hotel du Palais, former residence of the Empress Eugenie.
As we said earlier, the name Coco Chanel conjures an atmosphere of glamour, luxury and perfume, and it would be impossible to end this tour without making one more stop on our journey around France. This final leg of the journey takes us across to Grasse in the far south-east of the country. Overlooking the sea, and surrounded by hills and meadows rich with flowers, Grasse has been the centre of the perfume industry since the sixteenth century, and the name is closely linked to that of Chanel No. 5, perhaps the most famous scent of all time.
Tourism in France
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