To celebrate the 300th birthday of Jean Jacques Rousseau, one of France’s greatest thinkers, the nation is throwing him a year-long birthday party with events and exhibitions scheduled in towns of the Rhône-Alpes region, from Lyon to Grenoble, where the philosopher spent so many years of his life.
Born in Geneva in 1712, Rousseau arrived in France as a teenager. He became French by adoption, embracing the culture. His contributions to fields as diverse as philosophy, education, music, literature, and botany made him a seminal figure in the 18th century with continuing relevance in the 21st century.
Today, following in the footsteps of Rousseau is a pleasant experience if you are looking for beautiful scenery, excellent food, and the stimulation of the philosopher’s vast vocabulary of interests. Apartments where he lived, churches where he worshiped, and streets named after him pop up all over the Rhône-Alpes area in the southeast of the country.
Rousseau was a complex man whose early life was dominated by his fascination with the brilliant divorcee Louise de Warens. She oversaw his education when he was a teen-aged runaway and then took him as her lover. Their home together for several years, Les Charmettes, a country house in Savoy near the town of Chambéry, is now a museum dedicated to the couple.
On a beautiful May day, I traveled up winding roads to the comfortable farmhouse that in 1736 Louise had turned into a modish residence where she and her young protégé studied together and entertained the intellectual elite of the area.
Furnished with period pieces, the sitting room holds a small 18th century piano, a tribute to Rousseau’s delight in music. The rooms are large and airy with sunlight streaming through the windows from the formal French garden beyond. The local guide told me the couple was very social, and they entertained all the most amusing people.
Unlike Paris, in Chambéry social barriers didn’t exist. “At this moment began the short happiness of my life …,” Rousseau later wrote about Les Charmettes, and wandering through the peaceful rooms, cool in the early heat, it’s easy to see why.
In a style popular at the time, the walls are painted in trompe l’oeil with imitation doors and faux paneling decorating the rustic stonework. An overlay of Louise’s world of fashion covers the sturdy bones of a once-working farmhouse. Wooden panels painted in the Chinese style are inset over doorways and painted paper wall hangings in lattice patterns add formal touches to the rooms.
Rousseau’s bedroom, with its recessed bed and ornately decorated walls, includes a hidden staircase that connected with Madame de Warens’s room, which is furnished with an unexpected mix of practical farmhouse furniture and delicate Louis XV designs.
Rousseau suffered from bad health his whole life and Louise was a practiced herbalist. Her garden, laid out to the side of the house, still includes a selection of culinary and medicinal herbs and is full of the song of birds in May. Below the formal garden is an apple orchard and above a vineyard runs to the top of the hill. In the distance, the foothills of the Bauges and Chartreuse Mountains act like a protective wall that encloses the entire area.
For the restless Rousseau, Les Charmettes was both a refuge and a studio where the fascinating Louise nurtured Rousseau’s early philosophical thinking and his interests in botany and music. Louise’s portrait greets visitors inside the front door.
Rousseau’s lifelong interest in botany led him later in life to an area known for its diversity of plants; it’s a one-hour drive south of the city of Lyon. High in the mountains near Mont Pilat, now one of France’s national parks, the pilgrimage route to Santiago de Compostela in Spain still runs here. Retreating glaciers that sewed seeds of dozens of varieties of flowers and mists drift across the mountains giving the naturally rugged landscape a softened look.
The road climbs in hairpin turns above the River Gier until it runs out among Alpine meadows. This area is home to herds of milk cows and sturdy stone farmhouses, and in the spring, the green slopes are covered with ranunculus, yellow jonquils, and tiny wild purple violas.
In 1769, Rousseau came here on a plant-collecting expedition and stayed in a local 16th century farmhouse. Today the farmhouse is known as the Auberge de la Jasserie where I stopped for lunch while waiting for the mists to clear. The food was country French and one of the best I have ever eaten in France. A platter of charcuterie that included pork terrine, salami, and prosciutto was served with pickles, pickled onions, olives, and peppers.
A ragout of freshly picked wild morel mushrooms with dumplings and an assortment of various artisanal cheeses followed the charcuterie, finished by a sweet tart of tiny wild blueberries. Bottles of the local red and white wines accompanied the meal—I was very grateful to Rousseau the botanist for bringing me to the Auberge.
After lunch the fog had thinned and flights of swallows soared in the sky above me. There were still small mounds of snow in isolated crevices and the mountains, which are crisscrossed by nearly a thousand miles of walking and hiking trails, looked steep, sharp, and forbidding. The farmhouse tower once served as both weathervane and lighthouse for the locals, ringing its bell in the frequent mists so wanderers and walkers could find their way to its safety.
Visiting Auberge for a few days, Rousseau had rambled with his dog at his heels, picking plants and eating country food.
In his later years, Rousseau grew suspicious and increasingly paranoid. Mont Pilat served as a refuge from the world for the philosopher, as Les Charmettes had done in his earlier years.
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