Market day: Saturday
Of all the Luberon villages, this is my favorite. Overlooked by a ruined castle and a strangely angular medieval church, it is still largely unrestored, with plenty of rough edges remaining. With its parking lot located a 10-minute walk away, it seems removed from the rest of the valley. The village is marooned halfway up a hill and scarcely seems to keep the vegetation at bay, giving it a primitive, contemplative air. Although it’s one of the more-visited villages, it doesn’t begin to see the number of tourists who flood Roussillon and Gordes, and it’s thankfully nearly deserted by late afternoon. I strongly recommend that you come either early in the morning or late in the afternoon and have this beautiful place to yourself, even though you will have to forego poking your nose into the interior of the church.
The approach from the parking lot takes you past a field of lavender, just beginning to bud in early June (it reaches its full glory in July), and through a series of formal gardens. On a beautiful early summer evening, this introductory stroll through clear air full of the intoxicating scents of herbs and flowers puts you in the proper peaceful frame of mind to enjoy the town. You pass little homes hoary with age and crumbly rock, overrun with flowering vines and ivy, and ornamented with the inevitable Provençal-blue shutters and heavy wooden doors.
The streets of Oppède are really just wide paths, sometimes broken pavement, sometimes cobbled, sometimes just gravel or even dirt. The little main square was deserted, although one small shop outfitted to cater to minimal touristic needs (film, postcards, ice cream) was still open. There’s a little café on the terrace, apparently serving only lunch as it was closed during my visit. I was sorry; regardless of the menu, I’d have stayed just to watch the sun go down in Oppède, even at the cost of having to brave a night-time drive on the curving roads back to my accommodations.
Walk under the arch and continue uphill to see the castle and church. The castle, a good 15-minute hike up the hill, was once home of Baron Maynier of Oppède, a bloody-minded fellow responsible for killing several thousand puritans of the Waldenser sect in the 1500s. Even from the outside it’s rather forbidding. If you come up here with children, keep an eye on them, as the path drops off steeply in places and the castle is not maintained for visitors and full of potential hazards.
The church, Notre Dame d’Alidon, built in the 12th century, is very distinctive in this region of pointed steeples and graceful details. The church is so stark, simple, and angular that it looks almost modern in conception, with a hexagonal bell tower and porthole-like windows along its sides. I was quite surprised to discover its medieval vintage. Keep an eye out for the stone cross on the left side part-way up, likely to be nearly buried in ivy. The church stands on barren rocks dramatically far above town, approached up an ankle-turning cobbled path. This is another perch offering marvelous views over the countryside.
Be careful not to confuse Oppède-le-Vieux (Oppède the Old) with Oppède les Poulivets, the "new" town located on the valley floor, where the townsfolk moved when the old village was inexplicably abandoned a century ago. The size of the parking lot is a little surprising, but you can gauge how much company you’ll have by the number of cars already parked there. If you take my advice to come early or late in the day, you should find no more than half a dozen, and as a bonus the parking attendant’s booth should be shuttered, allowing you to park for free.
Oppède's rustic charm is still intact, but it won't last forever. Go now, while it's still great!