Just Back From: Luberon Valley, Provence
Provence had been at the top of my travel wish list for 17 years — ever since a high school trip whisked me past all the most picturesque parts of France and deposited me in a rainy corner of Marseille. So, no pressure Provence, but I was banking on fields of lavender, sun-dappled squares (ideally with a gurgling fountain and gentlemen playing pétanque) and a boulangerie on every block. And, strangely enough, that’s exactly what I got.
Over five days exploring the Vaucluse département I drank rosé like water (well, it’s around the same price), gorged on tree-picked cherries, toured the local markets and wandered up and down the cobbled streets of five classic Provençal towns: Gordes, Lacoste, Ménerbes, Cucuron and Bonnieux.
Around 20 miles from Avignon, 12th-century Gordes spirals up a craggy hillside on the southern side of the Plateau de Vaucluse. A quintessential Provençal beauty, its natural bounty — the cobbled squares, that imposing Renaissance castle and views across the Cavaillon Plain — makes it one of the most visited of the Luberon towns. But don’t be put off. I arrived early, skipped the souvenir shops in favor of a croissant and café from boulangerie-pâtisserie de Mamie Jane near the central square, then wandered the steep streets before the early-summer crowds had even parked up.
Once home to the Marquis de Sade (the writer penned his infamous tome, Les 120 Journées de Sodome, here), lovely little Lacoste is today Pierre Cardin’s personal fifedome. The Parisian fashion designer has been revamping parts of the hilltop village since the mid-1990s — including the Marquis’s imposing Château de Lacoste. It’s worth the steep uphill walk to see the castle and views of the medieval rooftops of Ménerbes. Summer travelers should coincide their visit with Cardin’s annual arts festival, which this year runs from July 16th until August 1st and includes a performance of Don Giovanni and ballet choreographed by Julien Lestel.
A local guidebook opens with this description of Ménerbes: “The town has survived centuries of strife and Peter Mayle remarkably well.” The “strife” refers to the religious wars throughout the 16th century, and “Peter Mayle” a nod to the expat writer whose novel A Year in Provence transformed the village into a destination for hordes of tourists. But you can hardly blame them. The medieval walled town is in a spectacular setting overlooking the Luberon Mountains and Mont Ventoux. Its narrow streets (seriously narrow — leave your car at the bottom of the hill and walk up) wind past 16th- and 17th-century townhouses up to the open main square. Stop here to photograph the wrought iron bell tower before heading into the must-visit Maison de la Truffe et du Vinfor wine tasting and a master class in truffle picking. Shop for souvenirs in Sacha Decoration or the quirky L’Atelier Rustique Chic, and don’t miss the bewitching valley views from 16th-century Église St-Luc.
Around 45 minutes north of Aix-en-Provence, Cucuron has a tumbledown facade and quiet local spirit removed from the crowds in Gordes and Ménerbes. Start with the walk up to the castle ruins high on the hilltop and admire views of the southern Luberon Mountains and Cézanne’s beloved Mont Sainte-Victoire. Back in the central square, do a circuit around Cucuron’s famous long pond, the bassin, that dates from the 14th century, stop into the petite art galleries, and order a bière pression at one of the outdoor cafes shaded by 200-year-old plane trees.
This handsome little village has, naturally, the tumbledown hilltop church, panoramic views across lavender fields, cherry orchards and vineyards, and the best boulangerie-made pain au chocolat around, but the vibe is resolutely local. Foodies shouldn’t miss dinner at classically French Le Fournil and romantic L’Arôme; those looking for more simple pleasures should head to the hilltop for Italian dishes and sunset views at Brasserie Les Terrasses. Or, do as I did, and fill up on the sweet cherries that hang heavy from every tree at the base of this classic hill town.
— Nikki Ridgway