From a distance, the Luberon village of LACOSTE looks innocent enough, a verdant hill interrupted by lines of red-roofed houses, nestling beneath a ruined castle. But the single surviving tower, a sinister pinnacle on the skyline, is the key to the village’s evil past. For the Lord of Lacoste was once the infamous Marquis Donatien Alphonse de Sade, who within his castle used to inflict his base practises on young girls from the village.
The Sade family acquired the castle in 1627, more than a century before the birth of Donatien, who inherited it from his father. Twice accused of sodomy, then a crime punishable by death, the Marquis retreated to Lacoste in a vain attempt to evade the authorities. His time there was not altogether uneventful, as several maids complained about his activities at the castle, and the cook became pregnant and left. In all the Marquise would spend 12 years in various prisons, including the Bastille, faithfully recording his perversions in a series of scandalous works, before ending his days in a mental institution.
The black coach in the de Sade livery may no longer clatter to a halt outside the arched gateway of the single cobbled street, discarding its distraught passenger after a night of terror and humiliation at the hands of the Marquis, but Lacoste still lies in his shadow. Even at the height of summer the village can have an eerie silence, and woe betide you if the long-abandoned bell beside the castle ruins begins to toll.
In the village of BONNIEUX, to the southeast, life has changed little over the past century. Black- garbed old ladies still sit on doorsteps watching the world go by, or frown at visitors from behind their rustling lace curtains. The oldest part of Bonnieux, with fine views through the cedar trees of the Coulon Valley and Mont Ventoux, is reached by way of tiny streets, fountains and archways. The striking solid oak doors, with exquisite carvings, are but legacies of past affluence and privilege. The 12th century church is rarely visited despite its charming interior, perhaps because its most prize possessions, four superb 15th century paintings from the German School, were moved long ago to the more modern and decidedly unprepossessing church further down the hill. Depicting the Martydom of Christ, their vivid colours are unmistakeable, painted on wooden panels behind the high altar.
To the west, OPPEDE-LE-VIEUX is a magical place at the end of nowhere. So called to distinguish it from the more modern and unfortunately mediocre village of Oppède-les- Poulivets nearby, Oppède-le-Vieux provokes gasps of astonishment as its rows of medieval hillside houses come suddenly into view. Balanced precariously on the edge of a rocky outlet in the most obscure part of the Coulon Valley, its colours, its tranquillity and its fascinating mixture of extravagance and austerity produce a unique atmosphere and a sense of stepping instantaneously into the past. The original Oppède once belonged to Baron Jean Maynier, a psychopath whose 16th century deeds set him apart even in a cruel and ruthless age. In 1545, as head of a punitive expedition against a fanatical religious sect, the Vaudois, he herded 90 of their number into a barn which he then set on fire, burning them alive. He burned five villages in all and took 800 survivors to Marseille, where they were sold as galley slaves.
Oppède-le-Vieux was abandoned in 1910, only to be adopted after the Second World War by a small colony of French artisans and writers. Many of the houses have been restored and the terrace of the 11th century ruined church has a breathtaking view over the countryside and the odd swimming pool nestling among the rooftops below.
The survival of MENERBES, to the northeast, is a tribute to the skills of its stone masons. Hewn out of the north face of the Luberon Mountain, the village was a natural fortress, with a single apparent means of access and its own deep well. During the 16th century wars of religion, Ménerbes was the last stronghold of the Calvinists before they fled into Switzerland. The 1577-78 siege of Ménerbes by the French Catholics lasted 15 months. Unbeknown to the Catholic troops, the inhabitants of the village could come and go as they pleased through a secret passage. Much of it has since collapsed, but the passage runs northwards from a vault near the town hall.
The older, upper part of the village is derelict and largely deserted, a honeycomb of narrow, tapering streets. The 13th century castle has huge towers built into the confining walls, complete with stone corbels projecting into space, and superb views over the Apt Valley. Between them is a row of machiolations from where boiling oil or rocks were dropped on the besiegers.
The apse of the Romanesque church has what appears to be two stained glass windows. In fact they are painstakingly executed murals, indistinguishable at a distance from the genuine article, quite marvellous artistry.