What is the Luberon? It’s that special part of Provence away from the coast where hill-top villages dot the vineyards and lavender; daily markets are where you get your food; summer lasts for 6 months; there is no urban sprawl, no shopping malls, the Luberon would be recognisable today to the medieval troubadour strolling from castle to castle. When you close your eyes and think of Provence, you are probably imagining a scene from the Luberon.
Here are the top reasons why we love the Luberon…
The perched villages
Villages here are perched on hills, with a church and castle at the highest point, and streets winding around the close-set houses that tumble down the slope. If these villages were built today they would be on the flat down in the valley, and they would look OK but not stunning. The villages of Provence are perched on hills because for centuries there were wars, plagues and invasions sweeping through, and the safest place to be was up high with defensive walls and a castle to retreat to. Below the houses the hillside is often terraced, for agriculture close to home. The unintentional consequence of the long era of living in fear, is that today we have these majestic villages of the Luberon, all a short drive or cycle from one to the next, where you can drop in on the weekly street market, have a drink or a meal at a charming village eatery, and the best way to get to know a village – come and rent or buy in the Luberon! Some of the must-see villages of the Luberon are Gordes (pictured above), Bonnieux, Lacoste, Menerbes, Goult, Oppede-le-vieux, Roussillon (come early or late to avoid crowds), St Saturnin-les-Apt, Saignon, Lauris, Grambois, Lourmarin, Cucuron and Ansouis. But there are many others, more modest, or with fewer amenities, less visited, but maybe just ticking all your boxes. Lagnes, Joucas, Robion, Maubec, Saumane, Murs, Viens, Vaugines, Gignac – all well worth a detour.
Every day, in one or more villages of the Luberon, there is a weekly market in the centre of the village, a ritual for locals and visitors to take part in together. This is the most picturesque and healthy form of retail therapy imaginable: the colours, flavours and scents of Provence all laid out before you. As well as fruit and vegetables, depending on the size of the market, you will also find cheese, bread, olives and oil, wine, herbs and spices, honey, jam, meat rotisserie, pottery, flowers, fabrics, and clothing. Everything for lunch, dinner or picnic, and souvenirs too. If you don’t want to go every day, we highly recommend Bonnieux and Lourmarin markets on a Friday, Coustellet farmers’ market on Sunday, Gordes on Tuesday, and the biggest one, Apt on a Saturday. On Sundays you are spoilt for choice, with two unmissable destinations – the farmers’ market in Coustellet, as well as the food, antiques and bric-a-brac markets of l’Isle-sur-la-Sorgue.
The Luberon is wine country, a quilt of vineyards decks the valley floor between the villages. The rows of vines make any drive a visual joy. But more importantly, they serve an important purpose – the Luberon is dotted with wineries where you can taste and buy the produce. Some places have a high-tech set-up, others are a barn with the wine-maker’s mother sitting out on the porch. At the smaller wineries, if you go at harvest time you may find that the whole family is at work in the vineyards, but otherwise you can turn up any time you like and taste what the surrounding fields are producing. Luberon wines benefit from the local topography – the ridge of the Luberon mountain has a cooling effect especially at night, allowing for crisp whites and roses where you may not expect them to flourish, as well as delightful rounded reds. Anywhere you go in the Luberon you will see wineries signposted off the road, but here are some of our favourites: Fontvert in Lourmarin, Ruffinato and Domaine la Citadelle in Menerbes, Chateau la Canorgue in Bonnieux, Chateau la Verrerie in Puget sur Durance, Domaine des Jeanne in Oppede.
Although vineyards, orchards and olive groves are the most common sights in the Luberon, lavender is on the up. You will find fields scattered about the region, and the amazing lavender field in front of Senanque Abbey (above) near Gordes is a must-see. A lavender field has been recently planted (2017) at the foot of Menerbes, and this will make a spectacular addition to what is already a stunning view of and from the village. For higher density planting you need to head a little to the north, 30 minutes and you are in the landscapes of the Mont Ventoux, and especially around the village of Sault, which is the one of the most important lavender producers of Provence. Timing is key, as the lavender flowers from late June to early August when it is harvested. The optimum time to photograph Provence lavender in its full glory is early July.
The Luberon is a hiking wonderland, with hundreds of miles of trails through gorgeous landscape, and inviting villages spaced close together. There are hikes for all levels, even for young children. The Luberon offers a great variety of terrain, with vineyards and orchards along the valley, wooded hills and gorges, the Luberon mountain itself, and you can pass all sorts of unexpected historical clutter – prehistoric caves, old mills and chapels, ruins and even ‘lost’ villages. Apart from the trails, in much of the Luberon you can just put your walking boots on, walk out the door, and follow your nose. The best time to come for hiking is any time outside of July-August. Even the winter is a wonderful time for hiking, it’s usually quite mild and in the Luberon there are 300 days of sunshine per year.
In the Luberon, as in the rest of Provence, the ingredients for a fine meal are close at hand and so the emphasis is on fresh produce. You can find every type of dining experience from Michelin-starred with impeccable service and fantasy concoctions on the plate, to the one restaurant in the village where workers go for their lunch-break, run by a husband and wife team or maybe two generations. One will have complex flavours and textures and a bill to match, the other will have a set menu of 3 courses of country cooking for under 20 euros. It’s fun to try both. If you have no particular idea where to go, maybe head for a village with a good choice of restaurants: Bonnieux, Lourmarin (above), l’Isle-sur-la-Sorgue, Gordes and Cucuron for example are specially rich in restaurant options.
The Luberon is a gift to cyclists, wherever you go the views will inspire you. There is one busy road that runs the length of the Luberon valley from Avignon to Apt, steer clear of that and you can be on quiet country roads the whole way, on gentle hilly terrain through varying landscapes of vineyard, lavender, woods, limestone cliffs and perched villages. There is a cycle path running for 37km from Coustellet to St Martin de Castillon that is for bikes only. This is an easy run, almost flat as it follows the river bed along the valley, and great for young children. And there is also the ultimate test for the bike rider – the ascent of the Mont Ventoux, the most feared mountain stage in the Tour de France, which borders the Luberon to the north. Pick your level and you will find your happiness on a bike in the Luberon.
The Luberon is practically unspoilt by the modern world. All the necessary but ugly stuff like banks, supermarkets and fuel stations are concentrated in the towns of Apt and Cavaillon, as well as the new village of Coustellet, on the north side. That leaves the picturesque villages looking like they did centuries ago, and it is a pleasure simply to park up and get to know a village by walking around its streets taking in the buildings and squares, with the church, the fountain, and the castle in varying states of disrepair, ancient facades against deep blue skies, timeworn shutters and steps shone smooth by the passage of generations, arches and mysterious passages asking to be explored.
While Peter Mayle took some artistic licence with his portrayal of Luberon locals in his bestselling books starting with A Year in Provence, to anybody that lives here the characteristics he portrays are absolutely recognisable. The long lunch breaks and slower pace of life, the curious logic of the country, the drawn-out rituals surrounding everything from pastis to the olive harvest, a loose understanding of time-keeping, and especially the relaxed warm-heartedness of the people. In short, it’s different here, you will love it as long as you are not in a hurry.
Last but not least, like the rest of Provence, the Luberon has a 6-month summer, and 300 days of sun a year mean that even in winter most days are filled with clear skies and pure light. Maybe if you only pick one reason to live here, it would be the simple feeling of well-being that good weather brings.