Part Two of the Luberon Hilltop Village Tour:
Considered the most colorful village in Provence, the seventeen shades of ocher turn blood-red at sunset. In the daytime, brilliant oranges of the village homes and surrounding canyons pop against vivid greens of evergreen trees. Cliffs, spires and canyons beginning here spread for miles eastward, to Colorado Provencal, a prime spot for hiking and rock climbing.
Each home in Roussillon is drenched in orange-red-russet shades, colored from ocher quartz in the surrounding sandstone. For years this quartz was mined to create sun-resistant dyes to color paint, fabrics, makeup, clothing and pottery. Now, the former quarry, near the centre of the village, offers hiking trails. Limited to an hour in Roussillon, a Canadian gal and I were the only ones in the group who decided to spend our time hiking. We rushed through the trails as fast as we could, our sandals covered in orange silky sand as we clamored over rocks and descended long wooden staircases past bizarre formations with artistic swirls of vivid yellows, oranges and reds.
The red-rock landscapes are clearly the focus of this village, although it's had some colorful inhabitants. Samuel Beckett hid out here during WWII. And blamed the hostile and oppressive village for his nervous breakdown. He claimed he was bored. (Did he try hiking?) At least the scenery impressed him, evidenced by his mention of it in his play, Waiting for Godot. And who wouldn't be?
Heavily veined sandstone formations in the Giant's Causeway, yards away from the village center, change from buttery yellow to burnt sienna or russet brown to crimson red in the ever-changing light. Feathery green cedars outline the features in the canyons bursting with flamboyant color.
Our visit was far too short. Although I saw little of the village, the quarry hike itself makes this a must see. I'd allow a couple hours, preferably in late afternoon when colors explode.
Our last stop took place at the first capital of the former Pope's territory, a dot-sized village perched high above wooded ravines. Over the years, after Bishop headquarters moved to Carpentras in the 10th century, the population dwindled. Only 20 families remained by 1950.
Today that number has multiplied. At least in the summer months. Igo's genteel French resource, Noel, is one of Venasque's residents. He graciously invited us inside his home, and treated us to views from his lavishly landscaped back yard which ends abruptly with a drop off. Most of the inhabitants move away during winter months when fierce mistral winds threaten to blow residents over the cliff-side edge.
The sun was beginning to set. We didn't have time to visit the 11th century Romanesque church, it's early baptistery, unique crucifixion, or wander the narrow winding streets past ornate fountains. We had dinner reservations at La Fontaine restaurant, a few doors down from Noel's house. Thirty of us followed him up the curved stone stairway and assembled around two tables to enjoy a traditional Provencal meal–a highlight of the week.
We helped ourselves to baskets of french bread, tapinade and bottles of Luberon rose or red wine, chatting about our day. Our first course was an assortment of Provencal hors d'oeuvres: eggplant caviar, roasted red peppers, garlicky eggplant mousse, artichokes, a huge bowl of buttery parsley mussels, and peppery cod–all deliciously tasty. Vegetables in the next course of pasta and ratatouille blended together perfectly in the thick herbed tomato sauce. The main entree, served on white and blue plates, was chicken breasts swimming in a mushroom gravy alongside tender new potatoes and a combination of steamed zucchini, green beans and diced carrots. Thankfully, dinner spread out over several hours because we weren't close to being done.
The cheese course came next. We were each served a plate of goat cheese, three white wedges sitting in olive oil with thyme, along with another basket of bread. The mild, creamy, slightly tangy cheese melted on my tongue. This particular goat cheese came from Siverguet, a tiny hamlet of 6-7 homes at the "End of the Road" in the Grand Luberon, the chef told me. It was a hidden place, of troglodyte caves and rock hewn homes where a few families and approximately 40 goats lived in the shadow of Mt. Ventoux, I would find out the following week. Chef Christian Soehlke, a stocky, ebullient man, had come out to chat as we savored his finale, cream brulee. Not normally a fan, I changed my mind after tasting his version of the traditional French dessert, rich and butterscotchy with hints of nutmeg and cinnamon. The chef, a Viking, told us that he grew up in Switzerland, and lived in many countries before settling in Provence, France. He takes pride in using the freshest ingredients and is a masterful chef. He flitted around the tables to converse with his guests. And we perused circulating magazine publications profiling his talents while we lingered over coffee.
Then, a little after midnight, dinner was officially over. Our pumpkin awaited. We descended the staircase and stumbled over cobblestones back to the bus, sleepy but talkative. If this was a traditional evening, how did French people get anything done? And stay so trim?
The food had been delightful, as had the company. But the best part of the day was simply getting a taste of the various villages scattered throughout the Petit Luberon. As all were unique.