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”.