When it comes to Provence, I am generally speechless. A google search of “how would you describe Provence?” yielded no results. Therefore I am left alone in this unchartered territory….
How do you describe string after string of hilltop villages forged from stone, perched in calm serenity, wrapped in rose bushes so delightful even the sunflowers dance in appreciation? How can you convey a quaintness of centuries past, battles fought and won, castles whispering you their secrets whilst vines climb amongst the ruins, reclaiming their ground? How can you explain the scents of fresh crispy bread from the village’s only bakery, the crisp acidity emerging from the fruit on display every morning in markets across the valley’s, the wafts of harvested lavender drifting across the fields? How can you forget the sound of little feet pittering and pattering barefoot across the cobblestone, the laughter of the local butcher, ‘oui, merci’, insects chirping in the warmth of the dusk, the falling of olive leaves in the slight breeze, or the trickling of an underwater spring giving life to the village?
This is the mystery and delightful pleasure that is Provence.
It is a place you simply have to see for yourself, however I will use the words available to me to give you a tour of this not-so-well-kept-secret.
After extensive research we settled on a little town in the middle of the Luberon which is not a thoroughfare, the charming local town of Goult. The most delightful thing about Goult was that it is not a tourist attraction and thus we were able to observe uninterrupted local life. We managed to secure a gorgeous french town house from a lady who lives in Sweden and was preparing her home for sale. It had been shut up over the summer and after some dusting of cobwebs we settled in to our three story maison complete with a dipping pool which was much used in the heat of the 40 degree days! It took some time to adjust to the specific hours of the baker, butcher and wheel-in fishmonger, eventually we were able to coincide our schedules as well as any local!
We had just a week and we used Goult as our base to explore the Luberon and surrounds. Therefore I will split this blog into two halves. This one I will dedicate to the villages of the Luberon within a short drive from Goult.
Armed with a map we poured over the delightful villages dotted around ready for exploration. We started with Bonnieux, Menerbes and Lacoste, all closely situated, nestled in the Luberon hills. I could not have prepared myself for the feast my eyes were treated to. If I was going to illustrate a children’s picture book it would look just like these towns. Flowers crept around doorways, french shutters blew in the breeze, the scent of food leaked out the windows of tiny eateries and the smile on my face was making my cheeks ache! The simple pleasure of ambling takes on a new meaning in provence, with every alleyway dishing up a delight that would be the prize and joy of any other town. Provence seems to have taken more than it’s fair share of beauty. You can’t help but wonder about the rhythms of local life and for me this is never more evident than watching mother’s with their children. It makes me absurdly pleased to hear the cries of ‘Mama’ and ‘Papa’ floating across the villages as the older children partake in the internationally recognised football/soccer game, balls jumping across the cobblestone.
The afternoon passed like a dream as we climbed the hills of Bonnieux, Menerbes and Lacoste, so it was with tired legs that we collapsed for an evening meal in our ‘chateaux’!
Rousillion was on the agenda the following morning. Otherwise known as the ‘Ochre’ town, no part of you expects to be spinning in a mirage of reds, oranges and yellows as you walk the trail on the doorstep of this warm village. I was brushing the ochre off my clothes for days.
The days were stifling at their peak and we concluded that shade and a cool stream was in order. Nothing is in short supply in Provence, so we headed to Fontaine-de-Vacluse to restore a calm equilibrium. Fontaine-de-Vacluse is where a natural spring (the biggest in France) bubbles to the surface. Although breathtakingly beautiful, not even 40 degree heat could force you in to the deep freeze of water straight from the earth! The town is entirely charming, with water wheels constantly turning, the deep green of the river making you giddy with visual delight. It’s sister town Isle de la Sorgue is every bit as lovely, although grander and without the intimacy.
Who could forget Saint-Rémy-de-Provence? Although it is a significantly larger village, it won me over almost before we had parked the car. Winding footpaths flanked by markets overflowing with fresh produce, labyrinths of soft stone warmed by the summer sun, and local cultural festivities and parades were just a few of the treasures Saint-Remy had to offer. I vowed I would be back in my lifetime as I pocketed a parcel full of fresh provencial herbs which would go on to change our chicken dishes forevermore…
The list goes on and on… the captivating ruined castle/fortress of Les-Beaux-de-Provence with spellbinding history and views to match was another highlight. We felt like emperors from history past as we gazed over the plains, imagining a life very different to our own, where pigeons were kept in stone holes to gather eggs, flesh and dung. Another, more remote ruin was Oppede le Vieux, with a castle nestled amongst the foliage, seeming to lose the battle against nature and time as the walls crumble.
And now to end the post with a tribute to Gordes, the quintessential Provencal town on all the promotional postcardes. Yes, it is as idealistic as it looks, and as expensive as you would expect! Walking the walls at dusk was akin to the emotive longing you feel bubbling up in you when watching an excellent travel documentary (or staring at someone else’s newsfeed!).
Next post on Provence I will show you a bit further afield – journeys to Mt Ventoux, Avignon, Pont du Gard and the spectacular canyon du Verdon…