Exploring Provence the Luberon Villages and Beyond
I thought it was time to revisit something I did soon after starting this blog to do an A-Z of the Luberon and Vaucluse. I started it all those years ago, before we had bought the house, and with much less knowledge than we have now. Also, I never actually got past P, and as such, I feel it is a bit of unfinished business. Please click here for the backstory, and let’s start exploring at the beginning of the alphabet.
At first, Avignon was our junction off the ‘Autoroute du Soleil,’ that wonderfully named motorway, designed to make you smile as you sit in heavy traffic, with everyone else intent on making their way to the sun. It always seemed to take forever to get there, after hours of being stuck in a hot car, watching the temperature displayed on the overhead signs continuing to rise, the further South we got, with constant calls of ‘are we there yet?’ from the boys in the back.
Then when we flew down, the first sight of view of the city’s famous bridge and the bleached colours of the Pope’s Palace always made my heart leap as it was a clear sign that we were nearly back. It always felt like the gateway to a place that felt like home.
Today, the city of Avignon is a large, sprawling urban centre with over 90,000 residents. Trains from Paris (2 1/2 hours), Marseille, and the French Riviera arrive at Avignon’s TGV station. From there it’s a quick transfer to the historical centre, the old part of Avignon. The restored ramparts surround the ancient city. Inside those massive stone walls – intramuros – lies a fascinating centre well worth exploring.
It was a succession of French Popes who had Avignon’s magnificent Palais des Papes built. From 1309 to 1376, these Popes held the Catholic Church’s seat in France (not Rome). The first French Pope was Clement V, who assumed the role after a dispute, and the last was Pope Gregory XI.
Don’t miss the indoor food market, Les Halles. Skip your hotel breakfast and sit at one of the cafés inside the market for a good coffee. Soak up the authentic atmosphere at the café counter, and soon a local may start-up a conversation. The market is one of many reasons to visit Avignon.
Spend some time at any one of the city’s many museums, including Musée Angladon-Dubrujeaud, with the art collection of famous Parisian couturier and art collector Jacques Doucet.
Fontaine de Vaucluse
I can’t help but have rather a soft spot for Fontaine De Vaucluse. I can’t really explain why, but there is something about it that makes me smile. The word Vaucluse derives from the Latin vallis clausa or ‘closed valley,’ a perfect description for this village’s setting that gives its name to the department.
In the summer the path, that runs alongside the river, lined with cafes and restaurants overlooking the water, is always busy with visitors. They slowly amble up towards the River Sorgue source, where it emerges from a pool at the bottom of incredible cliffs, which tower to well over 200 metres above this spring, which is the largest in France.
For a relatively easy walk, start in the village of Lagnes and walk to the source of the Sorgue 9km hiking route (return). Mid-way through the walk, enjoy lunch or a coffee in Fontaine de Vaucluse.
Picture Perfect Gordes
The first time we visited Gordes was over 30 years ago, on that first trip to Provence, when we fell in love with the area, which sparked our desire to live here one day. Back then, the village was just as beautiful and the views just as spectacular, but looking back at the photos, it certainly wasn’t as polished as it is now.
The village centre is built around the beautiful, golden stone walls of the chateau, which was first built in the 11th century, taking a dominant position above the valley. It must have been a formidable fortress in an area that would have looked very different from how it does now. Work started to transform the building into the castle we see today at the start of the 16th century, carried out by the powerful Agoult family, that owned chateaus across the region, and ruled the Luberon during this most turbulent of times.
Perched on a hilltop, Gordes is remarkable for its dry-stone walls. The village core sits proudly at the top of a rise, making it one of the most photographed places in the Luberon. This town is practically a required pilgrimage stop for anyone who wants to say they have “been to Provence.” It’s little wonder that Gordes is on the list of the Les Plus Beaux Villages de France.
Village des Bories is located just 1.5km outside of Gordes. The hamlet is a collection of restored dry stone structures that once formed an 18th-century village called “Hameau des Savournins.” Some of these buildings are large enough to stand in, yet others you can barely get into. The bories are interesting to see as there are various architectural styles even though the builders all worked with the same natural stone. These huts (les cabanes) were used for all manner of domestic function: animal shelters, villager’s homes, bakehouses, a silkworm factory, grain storage and more. Don’t miss the tiny reference library with artifacts collected from Gordes and the surrounding area. The site was registered as a national historic Monument in 1977.
Heading Up to Haute Provence
As the name suggests, this is where Provence starts to get higher, and the minute we leave our house, we start heading up and don’t often stop until we turn round to come home again.
The countryside is so different from the Luberon valley but is just as beautiful, and there are some stunning towns and villages to explore, which are generally quieter than some of the more well-known places a short distance down the road.
Simiane La Rotonde, a hilltop village, is an absolute gem, built on a promontory overlooking a high plain filled with lavender fields.
Lourmarin is a beautiful village and is a wonderful little place to explore, with its narrow cobbled streets, pretty houses and beautifully restored chateau. It has always been one of my favourite places to pass a morning, especially on a Friday, when the plane-tree shaded streets are closed to traffic and the market sets up, filling the central square and roadways with a wonderful collection of stalls. Visiting the Lourmarin market is always a lovely way to spend a Friday morning.
Surrounded by vineyards, olive groves, abundant fruit trees, next to timeless perched villages and in the summer, endless fields of fragrant lavender. Lourmarin is a magical place of meandering, cobbled streets lined with crumbling clay-tiled, golden stone buildings. The village is full of vibrant cafes, restaurants, chic shops and galleries.
Like so many of the hilltop villages here in the Vaucluse, Menerbes has an incredible view that stretches as far as Mont Ventoux. We spend time just sitting and watching the light shift across the hills whilst listening to the swifts screaming as they hurtle around the rooftops. Needless to say, it’s always a lovely way to pass a few minutes (often more) on our way around the Luberon Valley, as it is almost the furthest point on our ride, so we feel we have earned a sit-down!
The village of Menerbes is well-deserving of the les Plus Beaux Villages de France label. After visiting hilltop Menerbes, it is easy to understand why the Luberon and this town have enchanted so many. The charming main street compels you to pause and wander through an art gallery or have a drink at one of the restaurants, particularly if you have biked up the hill.
At the top of the dreamy village of Ménerbes within a 17th-century mansion is la Maison de la Truffe et du Vin de Luberon. Year after year upon visiting this village, we would peer curiously through the iron gate of la Maison de la Truffe into the most beautiful, intimate garden on the side of a cliff and would wonder what it would be like to dine there.