Written by artsnletters on 21 Mar, 2004
Up hill, down dale, for those whose legs and lungs aren’t up to hiking or biking the Luberon hills, a car is the only way to go.
Train travel between cities in Europe is terrific, and when parking will be costly and complicated, I’d never consider…Read More
Up hill, down dale, for those whose legs and lungs aren’t up to hiking or biking the Luberon hills, a car is the only way to go.
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.
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,…Read More
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! Close
Ménerbes occupies a largish hilltop and seems somewhat more spread out than many of the Luberon villages. Further evidence of this is that it isn’t even difficult to park here – in fact, it isn’t anywhere near as pedestrianized as most other nearby…Read More
Ménerbes occupies a largish hilltop and seems somewhat more spread out than many of the Luberon villages. Further evidence of this is that it isn’t even difficult to park here – in fact, it isn’t anywhere near as pedestrianized as most other nearby villages. It has a variety of the requisite Luberon limestone buildings and a church topped with a caged bell, plus a fortress that saw duty during the bloody Huguenot wars in the 1500s. Originally named after the Roman goddess Minerva, Ménerbes has not completely eradicated its Roman past, with the odd remnant of Roman villas still occasionally popping up in the fields at the foot of the village.This is the town to which Peter Mayle moved, made famous by his book A Year in Provence. His book is primarily a tale of his dealings with the local workmen who remodeled his home and the guests, invited and uninvited, who turned up to share his idyll. Mayle lived outside the actual town, and reportedly he doesn’t live there any more, having been driven out by persistent tourists splashing in his swimming pool. Tourists still descend on Ménerbes, however, in search of Provençal heaven, drawn I think because the name is familiar. While a nice enough little town, Ménerbes, in my humble opinion, is not where you’ll find it -- try a few kilometers away, in Oppède-le-Vieux.What you will find here is one of those idiosyncratic little museums that I find hard to resist. On the D3 road just outside Ménerbes toward Cavaillon, stop at the vineyard Domaine de la Citadelle and check out the little Musee du Tire-Bouchon – the Corkscrew Museum, a collection of more than a thousand corkscrews from all over the world. The corkscrew was invented in the mid-17th century. The earliest examples are T-shaped and rely on the strength of the user to remove the cork, but as time went on, more practical mechanical versions were invented. In addition to functional variations, however, you’ll also find an astonishing assortment of elegant or whimsical models. Some are even a little racy. It’s almost a shame to stop if the weather is beautiful, but it doesn’t take long to see, you can taste some wine while you’re there if you wish, and if it’s raining, well, it’s something you can do indoors in a region usually visited for its alfresco charms. Close
Market day: FridayAnother 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…Read More
Market day: Friday
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.
Easy hike, with one hillPast the cemetery, walking away from the central parking lot, Roussillon€2 Roussillon is built on one of the finest deposits of ochre in the world. If you can spare an hour, there is no more dramatic walk in the Luberon…Read More
Easy hike, with one hillPast the cemetery, walking away from the central parking lot, Roussillon€2 Roussillon is built on one of the finest deposits of ochre in the world. If you can spare an hour, there is no more dramatic walk in the Luberon than that along the Sentier des Ocres, the Ochre Path, among the ochre cliffs, made all the more striking due to the contrast with the dark green pine trees. From the parking lot in the middle of town, walk past the cemetery and you’ll come to the entrance to the path. During the day, it will cost you €2 to pass through the turnstile; after hours, you can just duck under or step over and visit for free (I’m guilty as charged!). If you take this walk after hours, you’ll only be sharing the path with a few other scofflaws, and I found an almost mysterious aura in the slanting sunlight striking the red earth through the evergreens.
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!
Market day: ThursdayRoussillon is one of the most-visited villages in the Luberon, and certainly its appearance sets it strikingly apart. While other Luberon villages are built of the creamy white and tan limestone found in the region, Roussillon is colored entirely in brilliant…Read More
Market day: ThursdayRoussillon is one of the most-visited villages in the Luberon, and certainly its appearance sets it strikingly apart. While other Luberon villages are built of the creamy white and tan limestone found in the region, Roussillon is colored entirely in brilliant shades of ochre, ranging from yellow to pink to deep red. This is only natural, since the town is built on one of the largest and finest deposits of ochre in the world. Ochre is a natural mineral composed of silica and clay which is used to create red, yellow, and brown pigments for paints such as those used to bathe the buildings of Roussillon. It is no surprise that the village is a magnet for painters wanting to play with the warm colors on their palettes. Despite its popularity, Roussillon doesn’t disappoint.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. Clinging to a ridge of hills, this town of only 1,200 residents has been restored within an inch of its life. The remnants of the former castle, presumed home of evil Lord Raimond, have been incorporated into the houses and shops, while the simple church perches above it all. Blocky buildings, their vivid colors set off by brightly painted shutters and doors, are packed tightly against one another, separated only by narrow and twisting roads and walkways. Roussillon’s appeal to tourists is evidenced by the abundance of art studios and galleries, as well as the inevitable tourist gift shops. Because the town is so small, it can be swamped when the tour buses arrive. I’d recommend either coming on Thursday morning for the weekly farmer’s market, when you can comfort yourself that it would be a busy place anyway, or else coming after 3pm, when the tour buses are gone and the town relaxes into its peaceful native personality. There are a couple small roads winding through town, but if you want to stop, you’ll have to find a space in one of the three parking lots. When the attendant is on duty, this will cost you €2, but if you come at the end of the day, as I highly recommend, you may well be able to park for free.For a short but unforgettable hike which starts practically in the middle of town, walk the Sentier des Ocres through the ochre cliffs, especially magical in the late afternoon light (see entry!). Close
Market day: TuesdayOf 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…Read More
Market day: Tuesday
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.
Little Joucas, with a population of only 321, is on no one’s tourist agenda and has no extraordinary sights. Never an important town, it was even abandoned during the 10th and 11th centuries. This is exactly why I was glad to call it…Read More
Little Joucas, with a population of only 321, is on no one’s tourist agenda and has no extraordinary sights. Never an important town, it was even abandoned during the 10th and 11th centuries. This is exactly why I was glad to call it home during my stay in the Luberon. The peaceful calm of Joucas makes it an ideal hideaway. Spilling down the side of a very modest hill, it doesn’t have the dramatic setting of other villages, but it’s a real charmer, full of narrow cobbled step-streets and limestone houses and shaded patios garnished with ivy and flowers. It’s clear the town is being lovingly maintained and restored, but thankfully it doesn’t have the posh polish that can spoil the charm of a rustic place.Best of all, it belongs heart and soul, day and night, to its residents, some of whom are leathery native Provencals and some of whom are an eclectic bunch of artists who have made Joucas their home, often for many years. The lower part of town, near the church, is patrolled by a pair of calico cats, one short-haired and one long-haired, busy monitoring all the comings and goings in town, who turn up on nearly every doorstep you pass. At night, the croaking of the battalion of frogs in the pond below town sounds like ducks quacking.On my first afternoon, while trying to locate Maison de Mistral, where I was staying, I became slightly side-tracked on a different path and discovered the atelier of a Norwegian husband-and-wife team who make fascinating sculptures (see photos). This couple has been living in Joucas for more than 15 years. One of their larger wooden sculptures stands right outside their workshop and home (located across the path from one another), a somewhat larger than life standing figure, and another seated figure is located around the uphill corner. The wife spoke excellent English and told me that she and her husband work together on all their sculptures, from the largest to the smallest with no division of labor even between heads and bodies. If you want to take a look, put the church at your back and walk as straight as you are able through the first "intersection" and take the next right. You should be able to see the tall wooden sculpture shown below.The little town church is located at the bottom of town, near the road to Gordes. The obligatory Luberon village World War I memorial is located on its southern side. The church looks like nothing from the outside, very plain, flanked by two small evergreen spires. I found out only when I got home that I had missed a gem by not pausing to poke my nose inside. Apparently the interior is brilliantly painted with Italian trompe l’oeil, a sophisticated technique which can be used to render 3-D architectural details on a flat surface. That’s what I get for letting my church-fatigue get the best of me! If you come to Joucas, don’t be so foolish. Close