Castles in the sky
Get some lavender-infused Provençal air in the hilltop hamlets crowning the Luberon
The village of Roussillon in the Luberon. Photograph: Getty Images
Lavender field in the Luberon. Photograph: Getty Images
The goat’s cheese wrapped in chestnut leaves is a produit du terroir – it springs from this countryside as surely as he and his beret do, insists the farmer, jabbing it in the air as though punctuating the words, “vive la France ... liberty, equality, fromage”.
At the Tuesday morning farmers’ market in Apt, farmers and their families gather to sell jams, lavender honey, cheese, yoghurt, eggs, lamb, poultry, truffles and wine.
If any part of Provence can be considered remotely hidden, it is the parc naturel régional du Luberon (Regional Nature Park), a Unesco-listed zone tucked behind a mountainous barricade in the hinterland of Provence. The Luberon’s 77 villages and towns are scattered over 60km in and around the Montagne de Luberon.
Since reading Peter Mayle’s 1989 novel, A Year in Provence, the lure of the Luberon had faded, until friends sent me photos of the red village of Roussillon they visited on recent travels. I immediately jumped on a train south. From Avignon on the Rhone River, I take a bus 53km to Apt. The red roofs of the Luberon’s main town are baking in the sun, lavender fields paint-rollered to the horizon.
I spend a few days camping in the back paddocks of Apt, with the lights from an old crème caramel coloured stone mas, or farmhouse, for company. By day I go walkabout, extracting every possible joy from the Luberon.
A couple of miles away, on the edge of a pine forest, I am lured by the scent of a lavender distillery. The hamlet, the business, the people who run it, all have the same name. Monsieur Agnel tells me his family has lived in Les Agnels since the French revolution. The spa, Les Agnels, promotes “wellbeing à la lavande”.
As early as the 2nd century BC, the invading Romans sweetened their stinky togas with lavender – whose name comes from Latin to wash, lavare. Ever since, lavender has been a prized cure-all for insomnia, asthma, rheumatism, paralysis and indigestion.
My lavender “bath” is a far cry from a Roman tub: housed in a mauve-tinted atrium, the pool’s warm spring water is perfumed with eau florale de lavande.
After a free tour of the Agnels’ distillery, I have a field day selecting from their range of organic essential oils, packaged beguilingly in retro-style amber medicinal bottles.
The next morning I soak up a bit of the spirited atmosphere of the Saturday market in Apt. Like a great French wine or cheese, the market has an official government appellation, as a marché d’exception français.
Along the cobblestoned rue des Marchands, between bell towers, stone porticos and mauve shutters, market stalls are laden with olives and olive oil, dried lavender, tapenades, biscuits, berry fruits, spices and sun-dried tomatoes, ceramics and Cavaillon melons.
Battalions of cheese burst from wooden pallets. Soaps perfumed with apricot, apple, melon, cherry, lavender, verbena, orange blossom and olive seem to take their colours and flavours from the paint-box of Provençal crops.
For lunch, I grab a chunky slab of wood-fired pain de Luberon baked at the old-world bakery-kiln, the Fournil du Luberon. The rustic bread, made from an old-variety miller’s wheat, is sent all over France proudly sporting its label, Provient du Parc natural Régional du Luberon.
The park administration is promoting the bread as a way of preserving local traditions and the environment. In 1997, Unesco listed the Luberon as a biosphere reserve – “a human modified landscape with a rich biodiversity, and fragile mosaic of habitats”.
Locals are doing their best to juggle natural, cultural, farming and tourism values in the region.
Rambling along an old mule path the following day, a village grafted spectacularly on to a pinnacle appears in the distance. Tackling the slopes, I intersect a walking trail – the Luberon is criss-crossed by several well-marked grande randonnées (or bloody long hikes). The GR97 and the GR6 together form a 250km tour of the park. This one, the GR92, extends 23.8km between Apt and Cabrières-d’Aigues in the mountains, via the village of Saignon.
Every time you think you have seen the most petite, most Provençal village, there is another to take its place. Saignon’s pack of ramparts and Romanesque churches, nymph-decked fountains, clock towers and crumbling olive oil mills tower over the territory at 450 metres.
In the Place de la Fontaine, I order a vegetarian platter and glass of Côtes du Luberon rosé at the ivy-covered Auberge du Presbytère. La Palette du Chef menu takes its inspiration from countryside flavours – vegetarian platters, crispy lamb with thyme, roast guinea fowl and goat’s cheeses.
After lunch, I join a stream of cyclists pushing their bikes up a pathway to the Rocher de Belle-Vue – the 35m boulder is the last layer on the croquembouche, from here there are gaping views over the valley, north to Mont Ventoux.
Little wonder Saignon has held such strategic importance for cave men, as for barbarians, Romans, and now cycling tourists.
The next time, I return with a bike, camping car, and company. By bike, we tackle parts of the 236km circuit, a well-signed route linking all the Luberon villages along country roads.
One day we make a punishing ascent to the village of Gordes. Nothing remains of the Iron Age hill fort called Gordenses, though the restored medieval castle built on the same site is something of a fortress of the arts.
Marc Chagall sheltered here for part of the second World War; Victor Vasarely bought the castle in the 1970s and turned it into a showpiece for his optical art works.
Today the château with its turreted watchtowers and artillery terrace is home to the town hall, tourism office and Pol Mara Museum, dedicated to a Flemish artist.
It was the constant threat of barbarian invasion in the Middle Ages that forced people in the Luberon to take flight to the highlands and build these bastions.
Gordes is one of five hilltop hamlets in the Luberon classed among France’s 154 most beautiful villages, by the association Les Plus Beaux Villages de France.
Roussillon is another. A splash of ochre in the sky, its houses blend with the blazing orange cliffs buffering it.
Walking down one of its narrow ruelles, I pluck a tablecloth in mauve, ochre and olive tones from a basket outside a textile boutique, and buy some art pigments from La Compagnie des Ocres.
The Luberon’s faience artisans use the mineral pigments to produce their works of terre mêlée – a melange of clays tinted with red, orange and brown ochre, olive-green chromium oxide, yellow iron oxide and other earthy Luberon hues. Authentic faience, I am told, peals like the local church bell when tapped.
The same palette of colours is reflected in the Chaîne des Ocres, the Luberon’s flamboyant ochre-scapes, which extend through 25km of sandy deposits rising up to 50 metres.
From Roussillon, we follow the Sentier des Ocres into the valley. Here the earth has been sculpted by mining activity into remarkable forms – spindles, furnaces, winged beasts and colossal tree trunks, christened aiguilles de fées – fairies’ peaks – and chaussée de géant – the giant’s causeway.
At the risk of an ochre overdose, the next day we take to the 51km Ocres en Vélo bike route, one of four cycling itineraries in the park.
I am unprepared for the kitsch that greets us at the Colorado Provencal in Rustrel. The “thousand colour car park” is packed with coaches and souvenir shops. Away from the entrance to the 30-hectare attraction, crowds thin out, and the encounter with the former mine’s riot of ochre forms makes the visit worthwhile. You can go walking, even running, on the paths traversing its desert topography – at one stage I end up in “the Sahara”.
The next day we journey by car into the depths of the Luberon massif via the Combe de Lourmarin. Cedar forests, gothic churches and stony hamlets with names such as L’Isolette and Le Pointu cling precariously to cliff sides.
The village of Bonnieux hunchbacks the road. The views from its hilltop church sweep over a patchwork of orchards, pastures and vines to the château of Lacoste – the 18th century dwelling of libertine scribe the Marquis de Sade has been restored by fashion designer Pierre Cardin.
Next stop is Lourmarin; the village perches under its old watchtower, the castellas, like a snail under a shell of shingle roofs.
Lourmarin is the Luberon’s literary capital. The Albert Camus promenade littéraire traces the life of the Nobel-prize winning writer in the village where he spent his last years, in the 1950s. It is here, too, that Peter Mayle settled on returning to the Luberon after several years in America.
He had to flee his original home in nearby Menerbes, in the Petit Luberon forests, when strangers started turning up in his swimming pool.
Rambling along agricultural lanes drenched in smells of sun-baked cherries and pine forest, I often feel I am in my own little kingdom, and there are plenty of relatively hidden spots.
The main tourism website in English for this region is provenceguide.co.uk. Apt Tourism Office, 20 Avenue Philippe de Girard, tel: +33 490 74 03 18, ot-apt.fr. Maison du Parc, 60 place Jean Jaurès, Apt, has a permanent exhibition on the Luberon’s natural and cultural history, free entry.
From Paris or Marseille, hire take the TGV train to Avignon, the gateway to the Luberon.
Places to stay
La Coquillade: Impeccable villas on a wine estate, Domaine de la Coquillade, 84400 Gargas, tel: +33 490 747171, coquillade.fr, rooms €295-€1,210 (luxury suite); Le Moulin des Sources: suites in country oil mill, Les Gros, 84220 Gordes, tel: +33 490 72 11 69, le-moulin-des-sources.com, double B&B €125-€180; La Ferme de la Huppe: cosy rooms on the farm, doubles €95-€185, tel: +33 490 72 12 25