Why visit Provence? … when “we’ll always have Paris.”
The French speak of Provence as if it were Paradise. They are justified in their thinking. As large as France is (think Texas), history has been generous to all corners of this marvelous country. And the province of Provence seems to have a bit of everything that is good about every other area of France – plus perfect summer weather.
Ah! I remember the book “A Year in Provence.” (In fact, Peter Mayle has a home in Lourmarin.)
Provence, like other French provinces, is split into various regions, at least by the local inhabitants. Just east of Avignon, the Luberon is a museum of French history – history before France was France. The Romans were here before Christ was born. Before that, there were people here for whom we had to create names because nobody ever knew them. Even warring French factions took refuge in the natural fortresses of the Luberon.
There are nearly 50 unusual, mountain-top villages in the Luberon Valley, each only 5-10 kilometers from another. Because of their close proximity, visitors can thoroughly tour three or four quaint and interesting, historically varied and even geographically stunning sites per day, and still have time to relax and soak up the French spirit of joie de vivre.
The historic villages of the Luberon Valley of Provence are comprised of prehistoric homes carved into mountainsides, the remains of medieval fortresses, early Christian worship sites dating from the 4th century, and lovely “contemporary” town centers composed of structures from the 16th through 19th centuries – what we often assign to our favorite mental pictures of France.
The compactness of the Luberon leaves visitors ample time for a French cultural immersion as they enjoy a delicious omelet and pain au chocolate breakfast in a quaint cafe, a steak frites and glass of Tavel rosé for lunch at a sidewalk bistro, and then sup on a savory Provençale rabbit stew while imbibing some of France’s best wines at an inspired local restaurant.
I visited the Luberon in late summer and mid-spring, and stayed in a restored 18th-century farmhouse in the city of Apt. Not lux, if you will, but a simple, countryside atmosphere that makes you sigh deeply, overcome by historic nostalgia, as you move from one ancient room to another, cautiously climb a staircase of hand quarried limestone blocks of unequal height and depth, and think about the farm-family that once toiled and loved here three hundred years ago.
The Roman settlement that became the city of Apt is the major crossroads for discovering the Luberon. My little farmhouse was the perfect pied à terre for exploring the region. After a day exploring several villages, I returned to my patio table in the garden and enjoyed a pre-dinner aperitif of the local licorice flavored pastis in water, followed by a saffron-infused paella from the local farmers market. I opened a bottle of Ventoux blend from Domaine du Puy Marquis winery located just up the hill and followed dinner with a digestif of Marc, from the same vineyard. (Taste before you buy; Marc is not for sissies.)
Ah!!! The good life.
This Luberon valley is perfect for tourists on bicycles, too. Drivers respect you. There are a few challenging hills, yet you won’t be overly exhausted by your efforts. The slower pace of your bicycle excursion enhances the experience of each village.
As a traveler in France, my pleasure is derived from spending lots of time in one area, looking at the colors of buildings, watching inhabitants interact on the street corner, marveling that truck drivers can manoeuver a modern 18-wheeler through a curved, narrow 16th-century street; I sniff the diesel exhaust of a fancy Citroen, smell the fresh brioche from the bakery ovens down the street, sip a glass of wine, or three during a two-hour café sitting. I have general goals but not time-constricted plans – those never work for me.
I firmly believe that several hours in a French café can be the most rewarding part of a trip. I had completed a tour of one of the local mountain tops, and I settled into a café and drank a couple glasses of rosé. I chatted in French and English with other tourists. Ready to leave, I started to pay, and the waiter advised me that the French couple (local residents) next to me had already picked up my l’addition.
I can’t wait to return to the Luberon. In the meantime, here are my (current) favorite eight hamlets to visit:
Let me start with Apt. If Salvador Dali considered Perpignan, France as the center of the universe, I think Apt must be the first of the Dali Universe planets. Not quite a hamlet like the rest, but a manageable city at which to begin your journey. Apt’s street market is one of the best in the area. If you’ve rented accommodations where you will be preparing some of your own meals, plan on doing some of your shopping in a village market. In addition to stuff to eat, you will find clothing, souvenirs to take home, and even spontaneous entertainment.
I recommend you do some internet searches and find yourself a comfortable B&B or hotel pied-à-terre in or near the small, ancient city of Apt, which can then be the hub for all your explorations. It’s centrally located, has a fantastic farmers market, a large grocery store (where you will find fresh groceries and meats as well as excellent French wines for only three or four euros), and a wine cooperative where you can buy your wine from a gas station-like pump if you are taking a few gallons back to your abode! Apt is not simply an outpost. The population of about 15,000 residents ensures you will have access to quality shopping, dining and, the 21st-century tether, an internet café.
I’ve always stayed at the farmhouse known as Le Coulet Blanc. If you appreciate history and don’t need a Holiday Inn, this may be the place for you.
Le Coulet Blanc is located three miles outside of Apt at the end of a dusty farm-road driveway. I love this ancient farmhouse (with modern swimming pool, kitchen with gas stove and micro, etc.). Traveling to one of the nearby farmers markets for wines, sausage, olives and cheese, and filling my bread basket at the artisan, 1850s boulangerie (breads and pastries) in the nearby community of Rustrel, I could be content here for a a long time … “A just-out-of-the-ancient-oven baguette, a jug of Côte d Luberon wine, a well programmed iPod, a good book and thou….”
Apt’s central location and convenient highways ensure that you will have adequate time to enthusiastically enjoy the area and not be concerned about the clock. And if you don’t get “there” today, there’s tomorrow or “the next time.” Knowing where home is, getting involved in this area and settling into a comfortable routine will add pleasure to your vacation. A week or even two will be like heaven, and seem like it has not been long enough.
One of the most impressive of all the villages is Buoux and the ruins of Fort de Buoux, a Protestant stronghold that survived the Wars of Religion. The 13th-century fort was ordered destroyed by King Louis XIV in 1660. The Fort de Buoux was once one of the most impenetrable mountaintops in the Luberon.
Today, Buoux is well known for its honey and truffles.
Though you will likely ascend the mountain from the trail at the front of Buoux, and you will pass several ancient dwellings with multiple residences carved into the mountain, on the top you will discover a nearly concealed staircase carved into the mountainside which provided an alternate escape route down the back of the mountain.
Extensive ruins of the fortress, church, and village bring home the reality that a whole community lived their lives in fear, prepared for battle. At the top of the mountain, look for several cylindrical holes carved into the limestone which served as storage for harvested crops in case the inhabitants were under siege for a lengthy period of time.
Descending the escape-stairs (VERY CAREFULLY!), the trail at the bottom leads to the site of a prehistoric settlement near a natural cave, a “baume,” meaning a grotto or a troglodyte dwelling. There are several 9th-century sarcophagi here carved into the stone.
Because of the majestic cliffs surrounding the valley, Buoux has become a world famous rock-climbing center. If you are there with children, they can entertain themselves trying to find the specks of climbers clinging to the stunning mountainside in the distance.
On my first trip to Buoux, a French friend took us to for delicious lunch at a nearby inn/hotel, the Auberge des Seguins. Many Frenchmen eat their largest meal of the day at noontime. The restaurant at the Auberge des Seguins caters to guests who enjoy a large, multi-course mid-day meal. Our experience remains one of my best memories of that trip. It was a sunny, mid-September day. The patio was full of locals and a few tourists. We all became friends and joked and laughed in many languages, and since there was supposedly no cell phone signal in the valley, the hostess warned diners that if anybody’s cell phone did ring, they would win one of the kittens which played at our feet under the tables. And, sure enough, somebody’s phone did ring! For that miracle, we opened several bottles of Champagne to share!
This is one of the most quaint villages in the Luberon, and remarkably one of the less crowded with tourists. An American friend of mine recently used Goult as her pied-à- terre instead of Apt. She loved the place.
Goult is pretty, scenic and not on the beaten path for tourists – though it should be. Another French friend took me here for my first visit. It’s easy to spend a few hours here just enjoying the charm.
The d’Agoult family chateau has structures built between the 12th and 17th centuries. Most of us will appreciate it from the exterior as it is an exclusive, private hotel. Accommodations go for (USD) $5000.00 per night.
Visitors appreciate picturesque Goult’s 12th-century Gothic Church of St. Sebastian and its Jerusalem Windmill (c. 1750) sits at the top of the village. Behind this moulin à vent visitors are treated to a wonderful view of the Luberon Valley countryside.
L’Isle-sur-la-Sorgue was my first lunch-stop in the Luberon. Recommended by French friends, it became evident that good food is important here – there are innumerable restaurants up and down the riverbanks and streets. The canvas-shaded eating areas are decorated with colorful flowers. Dining here is not part of a tourist trap; these establishments serve the locals and survive because of their food’s quality and the attentive service. We ate very well.
Formerly a successful textile center, old waterwheels in the city show where the merchants got the power to run their wool and silk mills which created the wealth to build the mansions you see. If you are an antique collector, this will be your shopping center. Sundays bring lots of open-air vendors into narrow streets and picturesque squares. Though Apt is now larger, L’Isle-sur-la Sorgue was once the largest city in the area.
Much of the architecture dates from the 12th century. Small, independent stores make window-shopping along these narrow streets a joy. I’m not a big shopper, yet I really enjoyed visiting the independent stores and observing how shop-keepers artistically display their wares – as if their specialty were the crown jewels..
Dating from 1222 AD, the local church, Notre Dame des Anges, has an exceptional Baroque interior.
L’Isle-Sur-la-Sorgue has had a difficult history. In the 14th century, the Popes of Avignon fortified the town, making it a place of refuge for the surrounding villages during the Wars of Religion. The blessing of the French Holy See was unable to protect inhabitants from the epidemics of the plague in 1458, 1628, 1629 and 1721. L’Isle-sur-la-Sorgue was devastated during the French Revolution and in 1944 was bombed by the Allies. It has recovered spectacularly.
Like most villages of the Luberon area, Mane is located on the site of a 2000-year-old Gallo-Roman settlement. East of Apt, the botanical gardens surrounding the 12th-century priory of Salagon are a gardener’s delight. Over 2,500 species of plants, trees and flowers await your visit. Few gardens have landscaping as monumental as the prieuré provides. The Benedictine prieuré includes the Romanesque church and other structures from the 16th to 19th centuries.
A museum attached to the prieuré, The Conservatoire du Patrimoine Ethnologique, is a center for research into early history of the area as well as a museum containing early tools used by ancient Luberon craftsmen. A glass floor in the museum permits visitors to peer into the excavations of the foundations below the museum.
Mane hosts a Monday market which includes products from native craftsmen as well as farm produce and other grocery items. Visitors will appreciate the atmosphere, colors and scents of the Mane market.
Most of the fascinating villages in Luberon were built on mountain tops for protection. Oppède, now called Oppède-le-Vieux (The Old Oppède), was a battleground during the 1500’s. As peace settled in, citizens no longer appreciated the challenging up-hill access to their community. And fresh water was rare. The village was abandoned.
Resurrected as an artist’s colony after WW II, Oppède-le-Vieux includes the partially restored 16th-century Notre-Dame-d’Alydon Romanesque church at the top of the mountain. The church interior includes several restored frescos.
Oppède-le-Vieux streets are framed with charming medieval and renaissance homes, a 12th-century church, remains of the medieval castle, plus the Saint-Laurent and Saint Antonin Chapels. A visit is a micro-history lesson. And during summer, several art festivals are scheduled.
Pay-parking, is located just below the old village. Your entrance fee includes a very useful brochure (in French) with map.
Le Pont Julien –
Trip Advisor only gives Le Pont Julien three stars! I respect Trip Advisor, however I sense this vote is from travelers that expect a Disneyland at every stop. Le Pont Julien is not even a village.
Le Pont. It’s a bridge. Just a bridge. But not just any bridge.
Roman Emperor Augustus could have driven his chariot across this bridge if he had decided to take a vacation in “Provence.” It’s been here since 3 BC, yes three years before Christ, and unrestored, it stands as strong as the day the last stone was placed in its foundation.
Le Pont Julien is not the fortress at Carcassonne. It’s a simple, almost dainty bridge that has served Roman conquerors, Gallic tribes, French citizens, German occupation troops and WW II Allied Forces.
Like a marvelous artifact in a museum, Le Pont Julien stands solitarily, straddling the Calavon River in a remote field at the edge of the village of Bonnieux. It’s a place for visitors to pause and reflect; if you listen thoughtfully, you may hear echoes of the hooves of Roman horses and chariot wheels thundering across the ancient stones. And smell the country air; there may be the remains of dust devils churned upward by the trudging feet of the Roman soldiers. Although still very solid, le Pont Julien is a one-lane roadway, and a new bridge has been constructed nearby to divert modern traffic in the area. Bicycles and pedestrians may still traverse the original bridge.
A little village with several popular cafés, Roussillon is famous for having one of the world’s largest deposits of natural ochre pigments for paints. As you enter Roussillon, you will see small, open canyons whose colorful walls display many shades of ochre.
The pathways in the park are sometimes boardwalks, and in some places you walk on firm but dusty , natural trails of ochre powder.
After enjoying a promenade through town and enjoying your Provençale lunch under spectacular blue skies, explore the quarries of ochre. The pathways are well developed, and even persons with mobility issues can enjoy some sections of the park. The nearly 20 shades of vibrant colors of the natural ochre-soil cliffs are framed and enhanced by the dark green needles of pine trees.
Considered yourself warned: Don’t wear white clothing or shoes.
This spot is more interesting than I’ve described it. The Ochre canyons are one of those “Wow!” moments of travel that are memorable, but which do not “translate” well to words. If you are traveling with children, they can become colorfully dirty in this sandbox! And your camera will capture what is difficult to say.
Saint Saturnin-les-Apt –
St. Saturin is not a tourist destination – in that it does not have a selection of hotels or B&Bs, though it does provide several dining opportunities that make this village worth a visit during mealtime. Before settling into your tourist mode, you may want to partake of the many hiking trails in the area.
This medieval village is the site of a Roman fortification dating from around 1009 AD. The Romanesque church dates from about 1050 AD.
St. Saturnin-les-Apt is famous for its sweet cherries, but wine, olives, lavender and truffles are also major agricultural products. A 16th-century windmill is a reminder of the history of food production in St. Saturin. Truffles thrive in oak forests, and there are lots of oak forest trails for hiking.
The c. 1860 Eglise St-Etienne replaced a Romanesque church and is home to a wooden statue of the Virgin and child (Le trésor de Saint-Etienne) from the 14th century. There are several significant religious paintings inside and a six-bell carillon.
Another church, the Chapelle Castrale Saint-Saturnin was consecrated in the middle of the 11th century.
Whlie not a “place”, wine production is one of the most important businesses for this area. For tourists, Apt is not far from several of France’s most famous wine producing areas. We spent one afternoon near the Rhône River and the ruins of the French Popes’ summer house. The stony soil will be interesting for those of you that enjoy gardening. Chateau Neuf du Pape is a trip that can be useful on a rare, rainy day. Your tastings are inside fabulous wineries or historic caves. This is another opportunity to chat with locals and tourists. En vino veritas!
Other Stuff to Think About –
That’s not all you’ll find in Luberon or the entire province of Provence. These are ten of my favorites. And like I mentioned, there are nearly 50 villages just around Apt to choose from.
Apt, being centrally located, is the perfect location from which to plan several day-trips into more remote areas of Provence.
The Romans were everywhere in Gaul. They planned on staying. And they left behind some monumental architecture. The Pont de Gard is an aqueduct straddling the Gardon River in the Gard départment. The entire structure is thirty-one miles long, and it once carried water to the city of Nîmes.
In the cities of Nîmes and Arles, you will find Roman coliseums. The Nimes collesum was built to hold 24,000 spectators. Of course there are fine wine growing destinations to experience throughout Provence, particularly the famous Chateau Neuf du Pape.
For a day at the seaside, I recommend a trip to Cassis. The port is beautiful, and the boat rides to the famous geological formations along the shore called calanques are enjoyable. Driving the coastal route will impress you with vistas at several popular turn-outs. If you are into breathtaking views while you do some rock-climbing, here’s another opportunity.
The seafood menu selections at the seaside restaurants are delicious.
If you want to fly into Provence, I recommend the airport at Marseilles as the most convenient airport to Avignon and Apt.
Also, Avignon is home to a massive TGV station and a convenient place to pick-up and drop off rental cars. It’s only 2.5 hours by train from Paris. At the Marseilles Airport, we rented a car from Sixt. (I’ve been using them for years, and I highly recommend their services. They even handled my oops-accidents very well.) We dropped off the car at the Avignon TGV station and took the train to Paris for our return home.
A hint for getting a great value on your TGV tickets: they frequently have sales which offer first class service for the price of economy. These are not necessarily distressed inventory sales, and I’ve often been able to purchase my sale-tickets, for the trains I want, several months in advance.
Perhaps I’ve just missed the sales on the RailEurope website. But, I’ve found better deals on the French site http://www.voyages-sncf.com/. It’s all in French, but if you can manage your way through the GUI screens, you may get a free upgrade!!!
I am an independent traveler. If it’s 10:30 in the morning and I’m chatting with some new friends in a bar or café – friends who live in the area I’m visiting – I’d rather spend two more hours there than visit an ABC (another bloody cathedral). Yet, having worked in tourism for 40 years, I’ve learned that organized tours and tour operators do serve a need.
If you are a traveler that prefers a trip that permits you to “leave the driving to us”, a trip to the Luberon will be made special for you if you work with Kathy and Charley Wood at European Experiences in Knoxville, Tennessee. Their passion for the area and experience in delivering a quality tour puts them at the top of the list of tour companies to consider. Check them out on their Luberon Experience website. http://www.luberonexperience.com/
A visit to the Luberon is for everybody. Yet there are challenges. Visitors to the many villages of Luberon should do their research carefully. These living museums were settled thousands of years ago. Though many are well preserved or restored, access for the mobility impaired may be challenging if not impossible. The ADA (Americans with Disabilities Act) is an unheard of principle there. That’s not to say that you cannot appreciate a relaxing glass of wine at the sunny café under a shade tree while experiencing breathtaking views and talking with interesting and friendly people. Don’t be too disappointed if you are unable to get to the top of every village.
It you are traveling with a tour, your schedule is fixed by people who know the area. If you are traveling independently, there is one thing that you should know about France; you can get a coffee, beer or glass of wine at nearly any time of the day, but French restaurants have set hours when they serve meals – no matter how much you argue or how hungry you may be. If you tend to get the munchies, keep a snack in your pocket. Lunch is only served around the noon hour, and not after 2:00 p.m. You will not be permitted into a restaurant for dinner before 8:00 p.m. Of course, there may be a McDonalds! UGH!
(A retired neighbor of mine just returned from doing much the same trip as described in this story. I had warned her about the dining hours. She did not pay attention and had to learn the “hungry way” that she could only eat when her hosts were ready to serve. )
Also remember that the French love to dine out. So, if the small town you are visiting only has a few restaurants, make reservations for your dinner so that you are not disappointed.
The author Peter Mayle put Provence on travelers’ maps. The internet will provide you with lots of information to help you plan a trip to the Luberon. As I wrote down my memories for this story, I often searched for details that I had forgotten. I discovered that some deserving sites and villages are not well covered at all, and several sources will be needed to piece together a cohesive story of the history and culture of the area.
In the center of Apt you will find a tourist office that has many brochures and maps. It’s worth a quick visit – especially for the maps.
In all my internet checks, one site was consistently useful and well designed – “The Heart of Provence”. Here you can click away, jumping quickly from village to village. Even here, only 24 of the 50 sites you might want to visit are covered. But their work is commendable.