At Large in the Luberon
To the north of Aix-en-Provence lies an east-west ridge of mountains called the Luberon, and dotted around this ridge are numerous villages set in vineyards and occasional other crop fields. Those familiar with the works of Peter Mayle will know this is the area he introduced to the world when he wrote A Year In Provence back in the late 1980s and I suspect little has changed since then. The region is blessed with a climate that veers from exceedingly hot in summer to bone-chillingly cold in winter, making spring and autumn the best times to visit in comfort with few other tourists around.
Knowing absolutely nothing beyond what can be learned from Peter Mayle we set off north in a spirit of discovery. On the edge of the Luberon is Pertuis, little more than a dot on the map but as it turned out an excellent place to start. Its tourist office bursts with maps and guides in several languages, and the staff were eager to provide us with at least a week’s worth of earnest study. Museums, wine cellars, walking trails, chateaux and more wine cellars abound at every turn, so it seemed. But since our aims were pretty modest we settled on a driving tour of some of the villages. The mountain range itself divides these into two groups, those to the south and the rest to the north. Pertuis itself seems to be the biggest town in the southern group, while in the north that distinction falls to Apt.
Before I continue, here are the photos.
The tourist officer in Pertuis seemed very keen for us to sample the delights of some of her local villages, notably Ansuis, Cucuron and Lourmarin, so that’s where we headed. Each of these is delightful in very different ways; Ansuis for its huge church built from pale local stone – maybe sandstone but I’m no expert – and in superb condition, as if recently constructed. Inside you know that can’t be as it reeks of age.
At splendidly-named Cucuron we took a wrong turning and ended up at a T-junction in the middle of the village, with insufficient space to take either direction without losing a rear wing, let alone turn round. Along the way the locals regarded us and our “60” tourist numberplate with polite amusement and were unsurprised to see us again a few minutes later backing carefully the way we’d come, passengers wincing at every beep of the collision sensors. One kind lady took pity on us and escorted us in her car out of the village centre. We then discovered where we should have gone to park in the first place but it had all been too traumatic so we gave it a miss.
Lourmarin has a grand approach down a road lined with mature trees and plenty of parking spaces, then you dive into the town with the usual narrow twisting streets. It was near lunchtime and the centre of town was filled with diners at the three or four restaurants. As before, though, we weren’t looking for the kind of blow-out that was mostly on offer, so we looked for a boulangerie where we could buy a modest baguette. However, it’s an odd feature of French villages that every one of these places closes for their own lunch just at the time you have a need for their products. We were just about getting resigned to driving on and maybe finding a sandwich in a garage shop, when there it was, Le Pan Garni, a snack bar run by an enterprising young lady who obviously understood the needs of impecunious tourists who’ve had a hearty breakfast just a few hours earlier and don’t need rescuing from imminent starvation. Her half-baguettes now come highly recommended.
From Lourmarin a road goes north through a cleft in the mountain range on its way to Apt. To the west are a line of villages described on our map as the “villages perchées”, that is, “perched”. This sounded worth seeing so that’s the way we went. There are four; Bonnieux, Lacoste, Menerbes and Oppede, and their general construction is similar in many ways to Ligurian villages like Apricale or Perinaldo and their counterparts in the French Maritime Alps, clinging determinedly to rocky mountainsides. I can’t help feeling that unlike their Ligurian counterparts the availability of nearby flat farmland would have made construction easier; did they do it for defensive reasons or out of a spirit of aesthetic challenge?
Between Lacoste and Menerbes a sign by the roadside points to the Abbaye St. Hilaire. On taking the road it immediately turns into a rutted cart track and shortly after dips alarmingly downhill into the woods, leaving you to wonder about the return journey and the explanation needed for the car rental office. The Abbaye building itself is spectacularly beautiful, now owned privately but with gardens that can be visited if you wish. None of this is clear at the site itself; we had only the word of our trusty tourist officer back in Pertuis. There was nobody about, so feeling like intruders we made our way carefully back again.
By now it was time to return to Aix, an estimated ninety minutes or so, but the question had been answered about where to go for our final day. We’re not really city people and the Luberon still seemed to have a lot to offer, particularly Cucuron that we’d abandoned so hastily earlier in the day.
So on our final morning it was first stop Cucuron. The day before we’d noticed some kind of walled pond in the middle of the village, surrounded by trees, but it’s actually big enough to serve as a decent boating lake. Signs on the wall prohibit bathing, a little unnecessarily given the temperature and the murky looking water, and the shoal of goldfish seem pretty content. A stroll through the village turned up a boulangerie that was actually open for business and could supply us with our modest lunchtime requirements, then we found the most amazing souvenir shop (that’s the best I can find to describe it). “Grange Valy” is a former cellar and its arched interior is plain rough brickwork with a shingle floor. The shop sells wide range of articles of immediate appeal to tourists looking for something different; jewellery and ornaments featuring glass chips from elsewhere in the region, basketware, paintings, soft toys and so on, all in artful confusion.
For the rest of the day we toured gently round the eastern edge of the Luberon, through villages and towns, just admiring the scenery along the way. At one point the road takes a wide detour round the edge of the mountains and it was here we had our only rain of the week, indeed the only part where the sky hadn’t remained a clear blue. On heading back towards Apt the sky cleared again; does the region have its own micro-climate, I wonder? In most of the area the vineyards extend as far as the eye can see, all immaculately trimmed and lined up in military precision ready to bear this year’s crop.
And that was our short break. There’s obviously so much we missed and we’d have been a great disappointment to the tourist lady in Pertuis if she ever found out.