Talk about a man cave. Lolo Mauron, a 92-year-old bachelor, has filled his den in the south of France with vintage cars and tools. And his digs are literally that: caves carved by the Romans into the limestone hills outside the town of Saint-Rémy-de-Provence.
"I’m French to the tips of my fingernails," Lolo declares, running his fingers through a thick shock of white hair. His authenticity and eccentric habitat entice tourists to venture a little farther down the road from the Saint Paul de Mausole Monastery—where Vincent van Gogh was hospitalized for a year—for a "meal at the farm," as the sign advertises. Lolo runs a table d’hôte, or informal restaurant, where he cooks meals for 25 euros a head.
That is, if you pass muster. Twice, couples drive up to Mas de la Pyramide, as it’s called, and inquire about eating. However, a table d’hôte isn’t a restaurant on demand. There’s one menu, which changes daily. Everybody eats together, at the hour the host sets. It isn’t dinnertime. Lolo sends them packing.
Lolo’s unlikely career as a restaurateur began in the late ’80s, when a pair of hikers wandered up and asked whether they could get something to eat. His father brought out some canned sardines and realized that feeding travelers could be a good gig. These days, Lolo doesn’t lack for business. He cooked for 70 people the preceding Saturday, then for 36 more the next day, with friends coming to lend a hand. "I see the whole world," he says of his visitors’ many nationalities and backgrounds.
Each of the three ground-level rooms of his farmhouse has a table. More tables, many of them made of stone, fill the courtyard in front of the house. Chickens peck at crumbs atop one, while ducks and peacocks snatch what falls to the ground below. A table about 35 feet long stretches in a grotto next to the house. Some of the cane-bottomed chairs had broken and been stitched back together with string. Lolo isn’t one to throw away anything that can be salvaged. Which is in part how his museum of agricultural tools (admission: 3 euros), housed in another cavern carved into the hillside, came to be.
His ancestors left Marseille in 1609 to take up residence in the former Roman quarry. Its stones had served to build Glanum, a fortified Roman city dating to 27 b.c. whose ruins lie just over the hill. Stone from the quarry was also used to build the port of Marseille, the amphitheaters in Arles and Orange, and Via Domitia, a Roman road that ran from Italy to Spain. A 65-foot column in the middle of the flat quarry bottom was left as witness to how much rock had been removed. The pillar is the pyramid that gives the property its name.
Inside, the low ceilings are supported by heavy beams. Wood furniture dominates, most of it in the same place for hundreds of years. It isn’t the kind of furniture that wears out. The wood has been smoothed and polished by generations of Maurons. The steps between the rooms have dips worn into the middle from hundreds of thousands of footfalls.
The house smells slightly of smoke. "I light a fire in that fireplace in November and it doesn’t go out until May," Lolo says, pointing to an imposing hearth in one of the rooms. The chimney passes next to his bedroom upstairs, keeping it warm. "The old ones knew what they were doing," he adds. In 2010, he and a friend took 10 days to build an even bigger stone fireplace, 11 feet high, in the next room. "I was the engineer," he says. "I was the architect."
The dinner table is covered in a plastic sheet decorated with vintage Volkswagen Beetles. Lolo likes cars. One of his caves houses four vintage automobiles: an Alpine, a Triumph Spitfire, a Mark I Mini, and a Citroën Traction Avant, the model that introduced front-wheel drive to the mass market. In another cave, a Renault Dauphine, Ford Capri coupé, Citroën 2CV, and Peugeot 204 sit amid farm tools dating back to the Romans.
Couples press Lolo into service to drive them to their weddings in the Traction. He is proud of that. As for his own bachelorhood, he says, "Toujours un coeur à prendre"—my heart is still for the taking.
Some local young men examine the baby blue Alpine. "How much do you want for it?" one asks. "It’s not for sale!" Lolo exclaims. "I don’t sell. All my life, they said ‘buy.’ I don’t sell. I buy."
Lolo gets plenty of offers to buy his property. Instead, he adds to it. In the 1980s he bought a plot that had been broken off in an inheritance 300 years before, so that the farm could be restored to its original 1609 boundaries.
In 1947, someone offered his father a million francs for land to build three houses on the ridge above the quarry. "My father asked my mother what she thought. She said, ‘Out of the question!’ My father said, ‘Lolo, what do you think?’ I said, ‘I’m with Mother,’" Lolo recounts.
When his mother died in 1966, "my father couldn’t handle it. I had to learn to cook," he says as he and his friends rustle up a fish soup consisting of a rouille with mussels and shrimp, followed by breaded cod fillets. A mountain cheese called tomme from the Haute Loire is surrounded by individually wrapped cheeses from the supermarket. For dessert there is mille-feuille.
Settling into his place at the head of the table, Lolo raises a glass of box wine to toast: "May you be in as good a shape as me when you get to my age."