One day, all thirty Igo participants boarded the bus for a tour of Luberon's Hilltop Villages. We headed east into the 400,000-acre Luberon National Park and listened to our guide explain the terrain. The gentler slopes of the Petite Luberon, which do not peak above 700 meters, are separated by a large rift from the steeper mountains of the Grand Luberon to the east. The rugged plateau, stretching 60km from Manosque to Apt, contains sandstone cliffs, canyons, and terraced hillsides around 68 villages. Each one unique, the medieval villages are tucked into Alpine folds, built into sides of hilltops, or perched high on spires with fortified fairy tale castles. Five Luberon villages are considered among "The 100 Most Beautiful Villages of France."
And of these, we would visit three: Menerbes, Roussillon, and Gordes. We drove past cherry groves and vineyards spreading for miles to the base of the shadowy mountain range. Staring at the stubby plants perfectly planted in parallel rows made me dizzy as we whizzed by. Red poppies, yellow daisies, purple irises, and white shrubs dotted the fields vacant of farm animals. Although animals such as deer, fox, mink, beaver, boars, otters, and snakes do exist. We spotted occasional homes in the vineyards, although they seemed deserted - shutters closed and no laundry, toys, or cars lying about.
Our all-day tour was limited to visiting five medieval villages in the Petite Luberon: Oppede, Menerbes, Roussillon, Gordes, and Venasque, spending less than an hour in each - just enough to whet our appetites. Except in Venasque, where we enjoyed a lavish group dinner tasting traditional Provencal foods and lingering over courses until well past midnight.
Approaching the village of Oppede, our driver pulled over so we could pile out to take photos. Set into the hillside beyond groomed terraces, stood a striking assortment of white drystone homes amid thick greenery. At the very top was a tower, a fragment of Oppede's castle, destroyed by an earthquake in 1731. We wouldn't get to explore the ruins, as our stay was limited to 45 minutes. But when I returned the following week, two hours weren't enough to photograph this hidden highlight.
Our guide led us to the square, past the Petit Café (I believe the only operating business in the village), under the Renaissance Gateway, and up the cobblestone path leading to the Notre-Dame d'Alydon church. Along the way, the path wound past wildflowers and ivy-laden crevices where primitive furnishings inside belied the rumor that the village was completely vacant. In fact, these caves and a few houses near the square are home to a few residents.
At the top of our 10 minute walk, was the church, its unusual hextagonal tower exposed on a rocky spur overlooking forested Regalon Gorges. A few entered. It was the panoramic views of the surrounding fields, patterned in golds and greens, forested mountains, and gorge that commanded our attention. I wandered over to a rocky wall near the church, and clambered behind. All I found was a thicket of shrubs. I had no idea, then, that the wall was the lower fortification for the castle hidden from view. Had I walked to the other end of the wall and simply stepped behind, I would've seen the entrance for the fiefdom where blood-thirsty Baron d'Maynier ruled.
We descended the rocky path back to the village square, where medieval two-story homes merged into a single beige blur. Only their rustic wooden doors and iron-hinged shutters identified them as separate entities. I would've loved to wander longer and photograph the vacant stone streets and unusual homes like the one built over a tunneled walkway, but it was time to get on the bus.
If you've read books about Provence, you've no doubt run into Peter Mayle's book, A Year in Provence. If you're not familiar with him, you should know the name of another former resident. Picasso. He lived with his mistress, Dora Maar, in the 1930s in a tall beige home with green shutters and a cliffside view.
We parked in a wide lot below the village and walked the short distance up an asphalt road lined with plane trees. Napoleon planted them to provide shade for his troupes, but in mid-May their knobby bald branches had been groomed with crew cuts.
From a distance, the village of Menerbes wasn't as striking as the others we visited. It sits on the top of a wooded hill with nothing but sky beyond a singular long row of grayish beige houses. A popular, expensive place to live, thanks to Mayle's book, yet the lack of shops was surprising. Plenty of real estate businesses hang out their shingles, but where were the restaurants, grocery shops, or boulangeries?
We began our ascent to the top of the hill to see the two castles on either end. Starting from the centre, we passed a cramped postcard-sized souvenir shop, an outdoor café (selling snacks) and a pharmacy en route to the castles. One is a private residence, formerly that of a 12th century Russian painter. Neither really resembles a castle, and neither is open for curiosity seekers. All I remember (I didn't take a single photo, unheard of, if you know me!) is a large stone wall, adjacent to a cemetery. We peered inside the iron gate to read the dates on tombstones – too far away – and then returned to the centre square.
Traffic jam! Ten were cars backed up, waiting for a tourist to maneuver his small car through the narrow single lane unsuccessfully. He was stuck. Several honks and up-thrust hand gestures later, the other drivers impatiently began to retreat so the embarrassed tourist could escape down the entrance road to park beside our bus.
The star of the Luberon is a sight to behold from afar. Pastel-shuttered homes in this "most beautiful village" cascade down the rock face, like a tiered wedding cake. Populated by millionaires, musicians, accomplished painters and film directors, the million dollar mortgages attached to these simple, rustic homes ensure that those who can't pay, can't stay.