Step back into the past in the wild land of the Luberon

If Provence still keeps a secret, it keeps it here: in the Alpes des Lumières, so-called because the sun is said to shine almost every day of the year. A slight exaggeration, perhaps, but the clouds do roll away quickly from the Luberon mountain.  They leave in their wake a marvellously crisp and pure air, which can give even the most slothful traveller an appetite to sample the spectacular scenery.

The Grand Luberon, the wild, exciting, eastern range, culminates in the Mourre Nègre, 1,125 metres above sea level; the area, a National Park, is best explored on foot. Leave the car at the village of Auribeau and on your return try some thrush pâté, the local speciality.

The Petit Luberon, to the west of Apt, is largely a fertile plateau where the vineyards jostle one another and the lavender adds a sensational dash of colour. At its foot, Cavaillon, on the right bank of the Durance, is the centre of the French vegetable industry, a natural market garden feeding the whole of France. Cavaillon has a huge public market, notably on Mondays and Fridays: look out for such specialities as early asparagus and sweet, pink-skinned melons. Its only rival for quality is the Marché Paysan in Castellet, at the eastern end of the Luberon.  Apt’s market is famous for its cheeses. Visitors planning to eat most evenings at their villa will find an exceptional range of local produce through the region, all at very low prices.

Apt, also noted for its crystallized fruits, an ideal starting point to sample the best of the Luberon’s remarkable collection of picturesque villages, microcosms where life, almost time itself, seemingly stands still. To the immediate west lies perhaps the most famous, Roussillon, from the verb roussir, to redden, and so-called after the hue of its houses, whose roofs and walls, a kaleidoscope of ochre-based colours, can be seen for miles. The most striking, a jagged array of rose-red cliffs known as the ‘Giant’s Causeway’, is reached by way of the D149 out of Roussillon, and a one-hour return walk, left of the cemetery.

Further west, go to Gordes, a spectacular Acropolis on a steep rocky hillside. Hard to believe these days at the frenetic height of summer, but the village was all but moribund eighty years ago, when the French artist André l’Hôte put it back on the map. Gordes is a popular centre for horse riding, especially for visitors with no previous experience.

Just 5km north of Gordes, the great Cistercian Abbey of Sénanque lies in a deep, rugged valley, served by an uncompromising road that was little more than a mule track until the last century. See, especially, the medieval kitchens, the monks’ dormitory, and the tranquil arcaded cloister.

South of Roussillon, just before the D149 strikes the N100, stands the best preserved Roman bridge in the whole of France. The humpbacked Pont Julien crosses the Coulon, which was a much more formidable river in the first century; Roman engineers bored holes in its arches to solve the problem of its spring turbulence.

Further south-east, on the D113, is the natural fortress known as the Fort de Buoux. Also used by the Romans, it later became a Protestant stronghold until the mid-seventeenth century. Visitors who brave the one-hour hike from the road are rewarded by superb views of the Buoux Gorge from the ruined ramparts.

There is often an eerie silence in Lacoste, slightly to the west. A single surviving tower, a sinister cont...  pinnacle on the skyline, holds the key to its evil past. For the Lord of Lacoste was once the infamous Marquis de Sade, whose coach used to collect unsuspecting peasant girls in the village and whisk them off to a fate worse than death in his crumbling castle. 

The survival of Ménerbes, slightly to the west, is a tribute to the skills of its stone masons. Hewn out of the north face of the Luberon, the village was once a stronghold of the Calvinists, with a secret passage that enabled them to smuggle in supplies and frustrate a Catholic siege. Much of it has collapsed, but the passage runs northwards from a vault near the town hall.

A few kilometres to the south-west, off the road to Cavaillon, rows of medieval houses suddenly come into view, balanced precariously on the edge of a rocky outlet in the most obscure part of the Coulon valley. This is Oppède-le-Vieux, abandoned in 1910, only to be adopted after the Second World War by a small colony of French artisans and writers. A fascinating mixture of extravagance and austerity, it provides a sense of stepping instantaneously into the past, a magical place at the end of nowhere.


Getting there

By air (Marseille, Avignon, Nîmes, Montpellier, Toulon)
Airlines and flights >>
By car
Cross-Channel ferries >>
Motoring tips >>
Driving through France >>
By rail
Eurostar/TGV >>

Typical market
© CDT84

© Alain Hocquel, CDT Vaucluse

© CDT84

Abbaye de Sénanque 
© CDT84

© Alain Hocquel, CDT Vaucluse

Luberon mountain
© Thorsten Bronner, ADT Vaucluse Tourisme

© Alain Hocquel, CDT Vaucluse

Our villas in the Luberon