One of the great rags to riches stories of famous people belongs to Coco Chanel—though the world’s most influential fashion designer would never admit it, preferring to offer various fictional versions of her early life after she had reached great celebrity. Nobody was supposed to know that her childhood was spent in one-room hovels and her adolescence in a grim orphanage.
Thanks to numerous biographers who have delved into her past, including a couple of her close friends, we now know the story in much detail of how Chanel rose from dire poverty to a pinnacle in society, even becoming the long-time lover of Britain’s richest man, the Duke of Westminster, and a friend of Winston Churchill, both before and after his legendary wartime leadership. Her early years all passed in central France—and the locations make a fascinating itinerary for a Chanel-based trip through that region of pastoral beauty and historic towns. Her father being a pedlar and market vendor, trying his luck in various places, there are quite a few towns and villages where little Gabrielle found herself housed as the family moved around the region.
She was born in 1883 at Saumur in the Loire Valley, that beautiful stretch of river famed for its lovely chateaux erected in the 16th and 17th centuries. But soon the family was on the move, to one village in the poor Auvergne region and then another. Her last and longest childhood home was in Brive-la-Gaillarde, a bustling market town in the Corrèze department. Gaillarde means spirited, aptly for the young girl who showed such spirit when she’d grown up. Brive is also the ideal place to begin a journey through Chanel’s youth, easily accessed via short flights from Paris or direct trains from the capital. An ancient town of 50,000 inhabitants, built in pink sandstone with blue slate roofs, here you can settle into provincial France with plenty of decent hotels and restaurants—and a market famous for its fresh foie gras and local truffles.
With not a glimpse of such luxury, it was here that the family of three sisters and two brothers all lived in one room, in which Chanel’s mother died of tuberculosis when the little girl was just 12. Her father could not take care of his brood and farmed them out, with Gabrielle and her sisters deposited in an orphanage. He never came back. For little Gabrielle it seemed the end of the world, tellingly depicted in the 2009 film Coco Before Chanel but she came out of it six years later with some basic skills and, most importantly, a burning desire to succeed.