With its narrow winding streets, celebrity kudos and a landscape to set writers’ pens a-flutter, Gordes is a French destination for those who prefer the finer things in life.
The location in itself is impressive – an ancient, honey-coloured village spiralling its way around steep hillsides on the southern edge of the Vaucluse plateau. According to Peter Mayle, author of A Year in Provence, “in a region of beautiful villages, it was the most spectacularly beautiful of all.” And since then, many visitors have come to appreciate its virtues, film crews among them. A Good Year, the homage to an idyllic slice of rural Provence, was filmed in the surrounding area, based on another of Mayle’s novels and starring Russell Crowe in sentimental mode.
From as early as 4AD, Gordes has had a place in history, with Roman remains, the 12th-century Sénanque Abbey and an 11th-century castle with a Renaissance-style facelift that dates from the 16th-century.
During WWII, as a centre for the French Resistance, the village suffered terribly at the hands of the Germans, but was later awarded the Croix de Guerre medal, and has sprung back to life with a flourish. Where once the leather and wool industries dominated, alongside a heavy reliance on agriculture – you can still visit an antique working olive oil mill – Gordes now looks to its visitors and the wealthy who buy up its discretely upmarket homes. And it caters for them in style with fine restaurants, celebrated wineries and a number of small shops selling textiles, olive oil and local honey.
All That’s Needed
With a reputation that precedes it, a stay in and around Gordes retains a certain caché. It’s a place to see and be seen in. However, there are no empty promises of a memorable holiday when you make this your destination and bons vivants find very few reasons to leave the local area. As well as surrounding countryside that’s ripe for walking, cycling, horseriding or even flying above in a microlight or paraglider, there’s a programme of summer festivals and events. These include numerous art exhibitions as well as August’s Soirées d'Été (Summer Nights) celebrations, bringing together jazz, opera and theatrical performances.
The Main Attractions
The Sénanque Abbey
Just 5km from Gordes, this working monastery, pictured above, is tucked below a steep bank of tree-covered rocks on one side with a gentle sweep of lavender fields on the other. Services are open to the public if you’re in need of some cool, calm, quiet time and you can wander the grounds and the abbey itself; guided tours are also available. Just remember that it’s a spiritual home rather than a tourist attraction, so dress appropriately.
Every Tuesday morning, there’s an abundance of local produce on display in this lively, colourful market, the stalls springing up around the foot of the castle. As well as providing all the ingredients for a hearty Provençal picnic lunch, you’ll find lavender, clothes, soaps and linens.
Les Caves du Palais Saint Firmin
To make up for a lack of space, the Gordiens of years gone by built cavernous cellars below their homes to accommodate their various agricultural and artistic endeavours. Those belonging to the Palais Saint Firmin are the most impressive and come with a guided tour. There’s little light and the floors are uneven, but it’s a glimpse into how life was once lived here.
Wine tours and tasting
Gordes is in the heart of wine country and this particular region is all about the rosé, producing some of the best in France and, some may argue, the world. Chateau Lacoste, 30-40 min drive.
The village that attracted the likes of Chagall and Cubist painter Lhote remains a place to appreciate oils, watercolours, bronzes and stonework in all their glory. From nudes to landscapes, classical to contemporary, there are galleries and studios with works of art to suit all tastes.
In the morning sunlight, this carefully restored, solid stone building in the centre of the village looks a little less imposing. The grand fireplace in the Hall of Honour was classified as an historical monument in 1902, and the rest of the castle followed suit in 1931.
Le Village des Bories
A short walk from the village (less than 3km), you’ll find this ancient gathering of domed, dry-stone huts, built using a technique that originated in the Neolithic era. This particular settlement may have been established as early as the 7th century. It’s now an open-air museum, with stables, barns, silkworm factories and bread ovens.
The allure of neighbouring towns
For those who care to venture beyond the boundaries of Gordes, a number of nearby towns and villages are worth the drive. In particular, Bonnieux, a gathering of 16th, 17th and 18th century buildings, the church spire rising high above them all, and Roussillon, famous for its dramatic red cliffs and ochre buildings. The picturesque town of Fontaine de Vaucluse, 6km away, is another of the Luberon’s most appealing features. There’s a crystal clear river running through it, emerging from a natural spring above, which is a favourite for kayaking.
Where to stay
We have a choice of beautiful villas, ten minutes drive or less from the centre of Gordes. Just a ten-minute drive from Gordes is six-bedroom Beaumonnes, a contemporary Provençal-style family villa par excellence with bright and airy living spaces. It has a shady terrace to escape the heat of the sun and a heated pool for when temperatures are cooler. Its near neighbour, La Garance Voyageuse is a pretty, four-bedroom country house made almost entirely from the reclaimed stone of a local château.
Set in 20 acres, silvered with olive groves, comfortable, five-bedroom Villa D'Olea is in the heart of the Luberon with expansive views whilst the lovingly restored Mas des Lavandes has a private tennis court, summer kitchen and seven bedrooms with a separate guest annex.