A June 2003 trip
to Luberon by artsnletters
Quote: Dotted with endlessly charming stone villages hosting weekly farmers’ markets, carpeted with vineyards and pastures framed by craggy hills, both lush and rugged, the Luberon, near Avignon, has been rhapsodized by writers. Venture in at your own risk – you may never want to leave!
Tucked into a rambling stone house next to the church in little Joucas, Maison de Mistral offers four charming, spacious, airy chambres d’hôte, each with its own name, color scheme, and unique character. Each has a queen-size bed, a loft or lower level with a twin bed, and its own bathroom with shower (no tub). The décor is rustic and antique, and I loved lying in bed and staring up at the ceiling made of rough logs and plaster.I’d recommend Marine and Manon, which offer lovely territorial views of the valley, over Sophie and Victoria, which have views of the lane behind the building. Sophie and Victoria have outside entrances. Marine and Manon must be entered through the house; be sure to get a house key (in addition to your room key) before you go out for the day if you think you will be back during the day, or risk being locked out if you return while your hosts are gone. Whichever your room, you must choose between carrying your room key for all-day accessibility or leaving it behind so your room can be tidied.I stayed in Marine, with a blue-sprigged bedspread and blue-tiled bathroom, a desk by the window, a rocking chair, and a tiled floor graced by a rag rug. Pierre and Marie-Lucie Mistral, who run Maison de Mistral, are a gracious middle-aged couple who speak little English, Monsieur a little more than Madame. They work hard to communicate and are very pleasant. Should you arrive without a car, as another guest did during my stay, Monsieur may be willing to take you with him to the nearest farmer’s market.In good weather, a particularly charming continental breakfast is served on the flowery patio across Rue d’Eglise (a pedestrian lane), with a view of the valley. Along with the rolls and croissants, an assortment of homemade jams were served in little dishes, and one day a bowl of fresh cherries was included. In poor weather, breakfast is served in a covered courtyard.Maison de Mistral is not particularly well marked, but you shouldn’t have a hard time finding it. The church is easily located by sight on the downhill side of town. It’s in a pedestrian area; park along the road just below the church. Rue d’Eglise is about one block long and leads directly to the church. Maison de Mistral is located under the sign of the rooster on the right-hand side of the street.
Member Rating 5 out of 5 on March 21, 2004
Maison de Mistral
Restaurant | "Dining in the Luberon - various"
Here are a couple restaurants I enjoyed.
Comptoir des Arts
Place du Cheateau, Gordes
Reservations probably advisable
Located on the same plaza as the castle in gorgeous Gordes, Comptoir des Arts is a pretty, upscale place with inventive, well-prepared food. Tables spill out onto the plaza in warm weather, or there is seating in the colorful and cozy dining room, which was breathlessly warm and stuffy on an early June evening. There’s one chef hidden away in the back and a single rather testy waitress, although admittedly she had a lot of tables to juggle, so service can be rather slow. Slow service is polite service in France, however; you are expected to spend the evening lingering over your meal, and this is certainly food worth lingering over.
This was one of the more expensive meals I had in France, but also one of the best. There is a fine assortment of seafood dishes, including the aforementioned stuffed baby squid (encornet, if you want to sample or avoid them), as well as a good selection of meat entrees. I had a marvelously tasty salad of mixed greens with a typically French light vinaigrette dressing and a perfectly prepared salmon dish. I’d gladly dine here again.
Café des Couleurs
Main square (by the church), Roussillon
Reservations probably not necessary
This café is conveniently located on the main square right under the church. Eat in the simple but gracious dining room or, if weather and space allow, dine on the back balcony with a view of the town and the ochre cliffs. Service here was very pleasant if almost a little too prompt. The selection was not particularly broad or imaginative, but given the price range, quite reasonable for food that was very competently prepared. My stewed rabbit dish was delicious although not extraordinary. The lemon tart I had was in the midrange of quality for this French dessert standard.
Member Rating 4 out of 5 on March 21, 2004
Of all the Luberon villages, Gordes is the pin-up girl, and everyone has to have a picture of her. The view from the D2 road is so terrific that there’s even a pull-out conveniently located so people won’t be put in danger when they stop to snap their photos. If tour buses visit only one Luberon village, this is likely to be the one. Midday tends to bring a steady stream of daytrippers. Unfortunately, the eager groups of well-heeled expatriates moving in from cooler climes, including movie stars and artists, means that Gordes has been so well restored that it positively gleams, and the population in the evening still seems predominantly non-French and certainly non-Provençal. Alas and alack, the one place in the Luberon that the tourists seem to have claimed for their own – and I wasn’t even here in high season! Consequently, your favorite thing about Gordes may be that photo you take from the D2.
Nonetheless, you may well find yourself unable to resist a stop here. Gordes, one of the largest of the Luberon villages with a population of about 2,100, is capped by the Church of St. Firmin and a castle which houses the city hall. Sharing the same square is the World War I memorial, a statue of a soldier dedicated to "the children of France who died in the war"; nearly every Luberon village seems to have a memorial for WWI soldiers located near its central landmark. The Church of St. Firmin is an unremarkable pale limestone box from the outside; the interior is painted an eye-poppingly intense shade of provençal blue, a shade somewhere between lavender and turquoise. The ornaments would be more correctly categorized as folk art than high art. A tour around the village paths takes you past carefully restored villas which somehow manage to look brand new, despite their attention to traditional style and details.
Other sights near Gordes which you may find more engaging than the village itself are the Cistercian Abbaye de Sénanque, 4km north of Gordes and hikable for the energetic along the GR6 hiking trail, which follows the D177 road, and the Village de Bories, a group of now-deserted conical dry-stone huts serving a wide variety of village functions.
The abbey is part of a still functioning monastery, but most of the buildings are open for view, including the church, the original monks’ dormitory, the very attractive arched cloisters, and the chapter-house, the only room where the monks were permitted to speak. The abbey is surrounded by lavender fields, and if you are here in mid-summer, be sure to visit to take in the fields in full bloom. The abbey’s hours vary with the seasons, but you can count on its being open from 10am-noon and 2-6pm daily except Sundays, and Sundays 2-6pm; admission is €4.
The Village de Bories is located just outside Gordes. The bories are dry-stone huts that look something like igloos made of stones, and they dot many areas of southern Europe to as far north as Switzerland. They can date back to pre-Roman times, although the ones in Gordes are only about 200 years old. Many were used for storage or as simple shepherds’ huts. The Village de Bories is unusual in the variety and number of bories built in a single location. Bories were a practical building solution where timber was scant and stone plentiful. They were constructed by carefully selecting flat stones of varying thickness and stacking them into tight, compact walls with neat, straight edges. The simplicity of method belies its tremendous functionality; with no cement to crumble or wood to deteriorate, bories can stand for centuries in pristine condition. The Village de Bories is open 9am-5:30pm daily; admission is €4.
According to Provençal legend, the brilliant colors of the ochre are the result of a doomed love affair. During the middle ages, Sermonde, wife of evil Lord Raimond of Roussillon, fell in love with the young troubadour Guilhelm de Cabestang. When the lord learned of his wife’s passion for another, he killed the troubadour, cut out his heart, and had it cooked and served to his wife. Sermonde ate the dish, but when she discovered what Raimond had done, she threw herself from the cliffs of Roussillon, staining the earth with her blood. It would have taken a massacre, however, to stain this much earth this red.
Less romantically, of course, there is a geological story regarding the ochre. 230 million years ago, Provence sat on the floor of a prehistoric sea. As the continents formed, sediments settled to the bottom of this sea which would later become the limestone so characteristic of the region, later overlaid with clay. As the floor of the sea rose and the waters began to recede, greensands settled on the clay. 100 million years ago Provence was lifted out of the water and enjoyed a spell as a tropical climate. The heavy tropical rains dissolved the elements of the greensand, leaving only the enduring sand particles. The minerals kaolinite and goethite filled the spaces between the grains of sands. Continuous "scrubbing" of the sands evacuated the iron oxides, the compound which colors the ochre. Limonite (iron oxide) colors the ochre yellow, while hematite (iron oxide) colors the ochre red. You may not care much about any of this as you descend the Ochre Path. Winds, rain, and harvesting of the ochre have left many dramatic ruddy formations in place, including spires and ridges. Admittedly, some of the best of these are visible from the top of the path, which begins almost as a quarry, treeless and dusty. If you venture further in, you’ll see horizontal seams of gold ochre streaking through the primarily red and orange cliffs. Eventually, red paths lead into evergreen forests. Especially in the early evening light, the red and gold of the ochre against the dark green of the pines make for some very attractive photos.One very important detail: If you will be walking the path, don’t wear light colors, especially white. The ochre dust is vivid and omnipresent!
Another of the well-known villages of the Luberon, thriving Bonnieux has a long history as an important town. The site was a fortified settlement in the Neolithic and Bronze Ages. During Roman times, the village was located at the foot of the current site, along the Via Domitia, a major road between northern Italy and Spain. Later, it belonged to the Popes for nearly 500 years beginning in 1312, and it was the seat of many bishops as well.
Bonnieux today curves down a hill from the old church, begun in the 12th century and finished in the 15th, to the "new" church, dating to 1870, at the bottom. In between are many fine residences built during the wealthy late papal period. It is easy to drive through town and easy to park, as the town is not pedestrianized. In the Luberon, I observed that the more you must walk, the more the character of the town seems to remain. By this measure, Bonnieux is not the equal of Roussillon, Joucas, or Oppède-le-Vieux. It’s still worth a stop, however.
The Vieille Eglise, also called the Eglise Haute (Old Church or High Church) sits at the very top of the village, up 86 stone steps, surrounded by the vestiges of the 10th century medieval ramparts and several cedar trees. From here you can look across the bowl of the valley north to the Monts du Vaucluse and pick out the distant villages of Gordes and Roussillon. In the rear of the church I found an interesting sculpture of a book open upon a tasseled stone pillow, engraved with faded Latin words. Strolling back down the hill, you’ll pass the large stone houses once occupied by the wealthy Renaissance householders, now occupied by wealthy modern householders. At the bottom of the village stands the blond Eglise Neuve (New Church) with its tall, pointed spire.
I wish I’d noted the name of the restaurant where I stopped for lunch so I could warn you off. Catching a whiff of something delicious, I seated myself on a restaurant terrace and ordered a meal. The first course consisted of four different vegetable salads, including one of beets, one of carrots, and one of corn. It certainly looked and smelled appetizing, but soon I discovered that it was over-salted and the vinaigrette was too sharp. Unfortunately, things didn’t improve when the main course arrived, a chicken with basquaise sauce which resembled nothing more than canned condensed tomato soup, slightly thinned. It’s a rare thing, a bad meal in France.
Train travel between cities in Europe is terrific, and when parking will be costly and complicated, I’d never consider anything else. During my stay in the south of France, however, I got around primarily by car because so many of my destinations were little places with less frequent public transportation connections, I wanted to be able to drop in and drop out at will, and parking was no problem. I’ve been on autoroutes and little country roads, and I’d like to give a boost of courage, followed by a little advice, to anyone fearful of driving in France.
Reserve your rental before you leave home. The best rates are only obtainable in advance, so it pays to line up your rental car before you leave home. I rented through Kemwel, paying only $378 for 13 days’ use of a very nice four-door air-conditioned manual transmission Citroen, including basic CDW insurance. (The "super" CDW they try to sell you may be covered by your credit card – check before you leave home.) After checking out several companies on the web, in the end I got a better deal by calling Kemwel – a third the price they offered online. I picked up the car at the Marseille train station (easy straight drive out of town to the autoroute) and returned it at the Marseille airport. A minor fender scuff I acquired in Arles (oops!) either went unnoticed or was covered by the CDW; I never heard a word about it.
Rules of the road. These really aren't that different from home. At a four-way stop or an unmarked intersection, the driver on the right has the right of way. Road signs are in the symbols used all over Europe: important ones to know are the red circle/diagonal over a blue ground (no parking) and the red circle with white horizontal bar (no entry). Most road signs are very intuitive, and stop signs look just like the ones at home. The trickiest thing by American standards is the roundabout, an intersection where roads merge into a circle, found on almost any road once you're off the autoroute. Always turn right into the roundabout and yield to traffic on your left (actually this is pretty intuitive too). Drive around the roundabout, looking for the sign that points to your destination, and take the road indicated. If you're not sure, just drive around the circle as many times as you need to until you figure it out. If you take the wrong road, chances are you'll soon encounter another roundabout where you can easily go back the way you came and fix your mistake.
Avoid driving in large cities. Unless you are accustomed to driving in hectic large cities, and probably even then, it’s wise to avoid driving around in large cities. Signs are in foreign languages, there often seem to be only one-way roads going the opposite direction from where you want, and in many French cities, the shortest route between two points isn’t even close to a straight line. It’s smart to pick up your car in a smaller town or at the airport if you can. When I was ready to leave Marseille, I picked up my rental car at the train station, which turned out to be very conveniently located to the autoroute. Don’t be shy about asking the people at the rental company how to get to the highway or town you want. I would generally choose not to return a car in a city if I had a choice, but if it's necessary, try to return it at the train station, which can usually be located without a city map by following signs to "Gare."
Get maps before you leave home. It’s not that maps aren’t available in France, but you’ll have to take the time to find and buy them, and it’s so much easier to figure out your basic routes in advance. If you will be driving in the countryside, get the yellow Michelin maps for the region(s) where you’ll be. These maps show even the smallest roads between towns, blown up large enough that you won’t need a magnifying glass to see them. Amazon.com carries them if your local bookstore doesn’t.
Town and city maps. You can often do without these, but if you are heading somewhere specific (for example, if you have a hotel reservation), it helps to know where you’re going. You can retrieve street maps online for some places. MSN Maps and Directions has some, and some hotel websites also give directions or have a map. Alternatively, get a guidebook with basic city maps so you can figure out your route before you arrive. (You won’t need town maps in the Luberon, where every village is quite small. Just park wherever you can and walk toward the church, which is inevitably near the center of town.) If you aren’t able to get a map, don’t despair. Signs to "Centre" will take you to the middle of town, which is usually where sights of interest are located. Signs to "Gare" will take you to the train station, where you will usually find an information office that can help you on your way.
Driving the autoroutes. The autoroute is not a lot different from an interstate highway. People do drive at high speeds, but it’s not as bad as Germany. The most important rule is stay out of the left lane at all times unless you are passing. This rule is strictly respected by all the drivers on the road with you. You can rely on frequent tolls. Periodically you’ll find a booth, usually unmanned, spitting out little tickets. Take a ticket and keep it with you. It will be used when you leave the autoroute or reach the next toll station to calculate your toll. It’s an ugly story if you don’t take your ticket or lose it – you can be charged the maximum toll. While the autoroute is costly, it is also highly efficient. Frequent rest areas and gas stations are set up along the way.
Driving country roads. Once you leave the autoroutes, the roads can be astoundingly narrow. Fortunately, the cars are pretty narrow too. In agricultural areas, watch out for slow-moving tractors which may swing out onto the road very abruptly. In some areas, bicyclists can also take a share of the road. Be patient with them. Make it easy for others to pass if you notice a car or two following close behind you: pull off the road and let them by, or at least stay as far to the right as you can so they can see around you easily. It’s much safer and less stressful to let others speed on by and then continue tooling along at your own comfortable pace.
Filling up. Gas stations are generally self-serve and work the same as the ones at home. If you are going to be out in the country or in smaller towns, keep in mind that stations may close for a couple hours at lunchtime and very early in the evening; they aren't open late even in larger cities. Stay on the top half of your tank for peace of mind. Gas can cost as much as three times what it does in the U.S., but don’t let this frighten you. French cars get fantastic gas mileage. I drove from Marseille up to the Luberon, over to Carcassonne (about halfway to Barcelona), and back to Marseille, with several detours, and put gas in the car perhaps three times, always with plenty still in the tank – perhaps $40 in gas for my entire trip. Unless you’re going to cover major distances in France, gas costs will not add up to that much.
Parking. Parking expenses in cities can add up fast, but despite the expense parking garages can be safer than street parking. If you park on the street, you’ll have to work to interpret the signs regarding paying for parking. Assume that you need to pay if you’re on the street and look for the method. In villages with a tourist presence, you may be forced into parking lots as well, although they are usually inexpensive. Less touristy places are likely to have ample free parking available. Big city or small town, be warned: leave nothing visible in your car, and if you can, leave nothing at all, visible or not. Thieves can be a big problem.