How to Spend 2 Days Driving Around the Idyllic Luberon
Mountains, Old Abbeys, Pretty Villages and a Roman Bridge
The Luberon in the Vaucluse boasts many charming villages, four of which are classified as Plus Beaux Villages. Moreover, there are wooded hills with plenty of good walking, great markets, excellent restaurants and a producer of quality wines—all in this relatively unspoiled corner of Provence.
While this itinerary can be done in a day if you stay nearby, I would advise spending more time in this beautiful region. If you plan to stay overnight, you will find plenty of reasonably priced accommodation in Apt-en-Provence, Bonnieux or Gordes – in the season; it is advisable to book ahead!
Day 1 Drive
Ménerbes and Lacoste in the Morning
From the A7 Autoroute, take Sortie/Exit 24 and head east on the D900 direction Apt/Forcalquier for about 22km. Soon you will see the Luberon massif on your right and on your left, the Vaucluse Plateau. Keep heading east and at Beaumettes turn right onto the D103, and after about 3km, you will arrive at the village perché of Ménerbes. This is the first of our Plus Beaux Villages and was the home for a while of Peter Mayle, the much-celebrated author of A Year in Provence.
Ménerbes is the archetypical Luberon village perched on a bluff projecting from the Luberon’s north side. Set amongst vineyards and orchards, this charming village stands proud, suggesting the formidable stronghold this once was.
The village and its 16/17th-century architecture make for a very interesting stroll. Enjoy the views of the Vaucluse Plateau and Mont Ventoux to the north and the Luberon Mountains to the south.
Captured by Calvinists during the Reformation, the villagers held off 12,000 Catholic troops for over a year. A more recent invasion came from tourists who flocked to the village after the publication of Peter Mayle’s best-selling book set near here. Unlike his predecessors in the town, Mayle could not fend off the visitors and eventually, he had to move!
At the western end of the village, check out the small 13th-century citadel which held the catholic troops at bay and the Château du Castellet, home to the expressionist painter Nicolas de Stael for a while. Picasso and Albert Camus were also regular visitors.
Don’t miss the Musée de Tire-Bouchon (Museum of the Corkscrew) located on the Cavaillon road just outside the village.
Take the D109 out of Ménerbes towards Bonnieux, and in 6km, you’ll arrive at Lacoste.
Before you left Ménerbes, you may have noticed that, like many villages, the church sports a wrought-iron belfry on its church tower, which acts as a defence against the notorious Mistral or Master wind, which blows in these parts. You’ll see another equally splendid example at Lacoste. This particular perched village was home to the notorious Marquis de Sade, whose castle has been restored by fashion designer Pierre Cardin who lives nearby.
Indeed Cardin bought up much of the old village, which the locals had deserted, and had it restored. While many ‘incomers’ such as wealthy Parisians (including Cardin himself) and Londoners migrate here for the summer, the population reduces considerably in size during the Winter as only a few local artisans remain.
Arches and old buildings abound. The streets, narrow and cobbled, befit an ancient perched village in this part of the world. However, the old Château still dominates the scene, a reminder of the time when the local lord was none other than the notorious Marquis.
Before you leave, make sure you call into the Café de France located on the D106 at the entrance to the village and enjoy fabulous views from the terrasse.
Continue along the D109 for 5km till you reach Bonnieux. Several good restaurants here make this village a good choice for lunch.
Lunchtime in Bonnieux
Perhaps the best-known Luberon’s perched villages Bonnieux, while not officially a Plus Beaux Village, certainly deserves the title! This very attractive terraced settlement offers an amazing panorama from the Terrasse in its upper part. Enjoy views of nearby Lacoste and, across the valley, Gordes and Roussillon with the majestic white peak of Mont Ventoux in the distance.
Bonnieux is a great place to stay and an excellent centre for exploring the Luberon. Moreover, there are some very nice restaurants and hotels here.
Afternoon in Lourmarin and beyond
Leave Bonnieux on the D36, and after 5km, turn right onto the D943. Cross the Luberon Mountain being sure to enjoy the magnificent scenery before dropping down into the Plus Beau Village of Lourmarin with its fine Renaissance Château.
Lourmarin stands in a small indentation carved by the River Aiguebrun at the foot of the southern slopes of the Luberon Mountains. Long associated with artists, the cemetery here constitutes the last resting place of the authors Albert Camus and Henri Bosco. Meanwhile, check out the fine Renaissance church and narrow winding streets furnished with fountains.
The village is dominated by the Château, a part late medieval and part Renaissance structure. Constructed on the site of a 12th-century fortress, the older part of the Château contains a library and student accommodation. Furthermore, the Fondation Lourmarin Robert Laurent-Vibert, which helps promote the creative arts, bases itself here.
The magnificent Renaissance wing is renowned for its Grand Staircase decorated with a salamander, the emblem of Francois I. Moreover, don’t miss the ornate chimneypieces decorated with Corinthian columns and the heads of Aztecs and Incas or the view of the Durance Valley and the village from the Château.
You can make a short excursion from here by continuing south on the D943 towards La Roque d’Anthéron and following the signs to the Abbaye de Silvacane. Located on the banks of the River Durance, this Cistercian Abbey is known as one of the ‘Three Sisters of Provence’and well worth a detour.
The Abbey was constructed in 1144 by the monks of Morimond Abbey and named Silvacane after a nearby forest of canes. Moreover, like its two sisters, Le Thoronet and Sénanque, it was famed for the austere beauty of its architecture. However, it later fell into disuse, and following the Revolution, it became a farm. In 1945 it was designated as a historical monument and administered by the town of La Roque d’Anthéron since 2008. Don’t miss the Monk’s Fish Tank – a long strip of water at the front of the Abbey.
Late Afternoon/Evening Day 1
Retrace your steps across the Luberon Mountain and turn left on the D36 to Bonnieux. Take the D149 out of the village, heading towards the D900. You will pass the vineyards of the Château Canorgue, made famous by the movie ‘A Good Year’ starring Russell Crowe, on your right and eventually arrive at a traffic island.
The Romans in the Luberon
On the other side of the ‘rond-point’ park up, walk a few meters and gaze in awe at the amazing Pont Julien, which only recently closed to vehicular traffic. Back in the day, Pont Julien carried the Roman road the Via Domitia over the Calavon River. It even features in Peter Mayles’ A Year in Provence’!
Absolutely precise construction meant that the blocks needed no mortar and pierced portals between the arches allowed flood water through. The continued existence of this wonderful structure testifies to the genius of the Roman engineers who built it.
Built during the time of Julius Caesar in the year 3 BCE, it served the Romans and generations of Provençaux right up to 2005 when the last car crossed over it. Then, an expatriate Irishman living in nearby Lacoste, local celebrity author Finnbar Mac Eoin, drove proudly over the magnificent structure. A plaque on the bridge declares, “We do not know who was the first person to cross, but an Irishman was the last.”
Perhaps you have only one day for this trip – if so, be sure to visit the nearby Chaussée-des-Géants, Roussillon and Gordes (see below) before you leave this beautiful region!
If you are taking the recommended two days to complete this itinerary, then this would be an ideal opportunity to choose somewhere to eat and stay for the night if you have not already done so. Apt, Bonnieux and Gordes (see Day 2) are easily reached from here and, as mentioned earlier, have several good hotels and restaurants.
Day 2 Driving Plan
Roussillon & the Chaussée-des-Géants
Why not start the day by checking some giants and Colorado Provence?
Return to the rond-point by the Pont Julien and take D108 north signed Roussillon, cross the D900 and continue on the D108/149 for 4km. Soon you will reach the amazing Plus Beau village of Roussillon. It is not surprising that this red ochre village is classified as such – when viewed in the early morning or evening light, it positively glows red. This effect results from using the local ochre stone in its buildings.
A cautionary tale – there is a legend involving the local Lady Sermonde, her husband, Lord Raymond d’Avignon and her Ladyship’s lover. At any rate, you should know that all does not end well for Lady or boyfriend. Moreover, it may help explain why the earth is so red around these parts!
Adjacent to the village is the strikingly beautiful Chaussée-des-Géants, or Giant’s Causeway, accessed by the Sentier des Ocres from the town. Soon you will encounter the amazing Aiguilles des Fées or Fairy Peaks. Sculpted by erosion, these peaks surround the path and the various hues of ochre from red to yellow create a wonderland of colour.
Travel Tip: The Chaussée gets very busy in summer, as does the village itself, so try to arrive early in the morning.
The seam of ochre which makes everything red around here stretches east and, if you have time, follow the D227 to St-Saturnin-lès-Apt and then the D179 to the nearby grandly titled Le Colorado Provençal de Rustrel.
Return via the pretty village of St-Saturnin-lès-Apt, follow the D2 for 17km, and you will come to the striking village perché of Gordes, your final plus beau village of the trip. The best view of Gordes is on your right as you climb the hill leading to it. Unfortunately, there is limited parking both here and in the village itself.
Lunchtime – Day 2
Gordes is an excellent place to have lunch, and there are several excellent restaurants around the village centre. La Trinquette on Rue des Tracapelles is highly recommended.
Afternoon in Gordes
Like many hilltop villages in Provence, Gordes was a refuge throughout the centuries after the Romans left. During WW2, it served as a centre for the French Resistance and, in 1944, suffered reprisals by the Germans.
White, stone houses, arranged in tiers and accessible only by a maze of calades, are a feature of the village. At the top stands a splendid Château which has its origins in medieval times but was restored during the Renaissance. The Château can be visited, and the upper floors have works by the contemporary artist Pol Mara. The village was also home to Marc Chagall.
Situated not far from Gordes and the final attraction on this itinerary is the second of the three sisters, the Abbaye-de-Sénanque, founded in 1148 with the help of the Bishop of Cavaillon and the Count of Provence. If you can time your visit for late June, you will be rewarded with one of the most striking and well-known views in France with the lavender field before you juxtaposed with the austere stonework of the Abbey.
Cistercian monks from the Ardèche came to run the Abbey and built the Abbey Church consecrated in 1178. The Abbey reached its peak during the later Middle Ages, operating four mills and estates throughout Provence. Together with the Abbeys at Silvacane and Le Thoronet, it constitutes one of the ‘Three Sisters of Provence’.
During the French Revolution, the Authorities nationalised the Abbey. In recent years, a new community of Cistercians manage the estate by growing lavender and selling honey.
If you wish to extend your visit, why not visit and even stay in the local town Apt-en-Provence, which has a fine selection of restaurants, hotels and other accommodation. There is an excellent market here which takes place on a Saturday morning if you’re still around!
© Paul Shawcross Words and Images
Itinerary adapted from the author’s best selling travel app, Provence’s Best.