If you visit Provence, chances are you are going to go on day trips in the car to take in some of the wonderful scenery, villages and towns, markets and culture, with a good restaurant or picnic stop on the way. But where to go? Here are some themed itineraries to guide you.
Friday markets and south Luberon itinerary
This itinerary takes advantage of the two Friday morning markets in two of the Luberon’s best villages – Bonnieux and Lourmarin. Both are distinctive and very picturesque, and as they are on at the same time you know you are not going to see the same stalls at each.
Start at Bonnieux, where the market starts up around 8am. Around the church at the bottom of the village are mostly apparel and materials. The market continues over the roundabout with the colourful bag stand, and up to the square where it is predominantly mouthwatering produce.
Lourmarin is on the south side of the Luberon mountain, but that is only 15 minutes from Bonnieux and a lovely winding drive through the break in the mountain. It’s better to go to Lourmarin second because it has more lunch options (not that Bonnieux suffers from a lack of restaurants). The market could not be more attractive, with the village on one side and the renaissance castle on the other. Lourmarin itself is full of life and elegance, it is a little more spread out than the perched villages, consequently more forgiving of tourists and easier to walk around.
In the centre of Lourmarin you will find a choice of restaurants and cafes spilling onto the street.
After lunch, a half-day excursion may be enough, but that would be to miss out on the other gems of the south Luberon, all close by. Cucuron for instance, with its surprising water basin dominating the heart of the village, was stunning enough to be the location for movies The Horseman on the Roof and more recently that (made-up) outdoor cinema scene in A Good Year. Around this water basin are more restaurants, including La Petite Maison, with its Michelin star. To get a gorgeous aerial view of Cucuron go to the top of the tower at the other end from the church. You’ll see the rooftops of Cucuron and the surrounding countryside.
Ansouis is a little peach of a village rising out of the vineyards, also with a very good restaurant, La Closerie. At the top of Ansouis, and dominating the whole village, is the perfectly preserved Renaissance castle. The castle is privately owned but there are afternoon tours in season. Ansouis survived the middle ages relatively unscathed and its architecture rewards a wander through the streets.
If you want to continue along the ‘small is beautiful’ route, the nearby village of Vaugines is just that. On arrival you are met by a striking Renaissance church in a verdant setting. The village is all handsome facades, and then a little square – the centre of Vaugines – a cafe-restaurant and a mossy fountain. And that’s it. Oh so quiet… streets untrampled by other visitors, a place to sip a refreshing drink and watch the fountain because here the world does not go by.
Most Beautiful Villages itinerary
In France there is an official association called The Most Beautiful Villages of France. It has an exclusive membership of just 157 out of more than 35,000 villages in France. Five of them are them are clustered in a small area in the Luberon.
The busiest of these is Roussillon so start here and aim to arrive early in the day. When you do you will see why it is so popular, with its extraordinary palette of reds, yellows and oranges from the neighbouring ochre quarry. Roussillon is very photogenic, as is the disused ochre quarry, where the colours are even more exaggerated. Don’t go to the quarry with your best shoes because the ochre will discolour them. You can follow the ochre trail (sentier des ocres), a circular walk of about 30 or 45 minutes through the spectacular landscape.
Fifteen minutes from Roussillon, Gordes is perhaps the best known of the Luberon villages, its iconic facade piled high on a hill has been pictured in a thousand magazines and coffee table books. When you arrive on the approach road and first see it, the urge to take its picture is irresistible. Inside the village the fine houses are gathered around the protection of the castle and church. There are a good number of restaurants and cafes, as well as boutiques and on Tuesday morning a good market in the streets. In summer Gordes hosts cultural events and night-time concerts in its al fresco theatre.
In another 15 minutes you are in Menerbes, a village that had its moment in the limelight when Peter Mayle lived here and wrote A Year in Provence and its sequels. Today Menerbes is much less busy than Gordes and Roussillon, and in a way more rewarding. Unlike the typical perched village that is built on a hill in the form of a pyramid with the church and castle at the top and the houses cascading down, Menerbes floats lengthways like a ship over a sea of vineyards. On one level are the restaurants, bar and a few shops, and along the upper level are the centuries-old grand houses, citadel and church. In the main village square the Maison du vin et de la truffe, celebrates (and sells) local wine and truffles.
Now it is time to head south, passing through the cut in the Luberon mountain that takes you to Lourmarin. The village of Lourmarin has everything to make it a star of the Luberon – a wide choice of restaurants, street cafes, art galleries and boutiques, year-round life, and a great market (on Friday mornings). Lourmarin is not a perched village so you can explore its streets on the flat. When Peter Mayle returned to the Luberon he moved here, and you will understand why.
The smallest and quietest of the Most Beautiful Villages of France in the Luberon is Ansouis. Because it was on the stronger side in the wars of religion in the 1600s, Ansouis is beautifully preserved, and dominated by a 12th century castle that is intact. Ansouis castle is privately owned but there are guided tours in the afternoons from April to October when you can see the 17th century furnishings and tapestries. Other attractions in Ansouis are a quirky little sea-themed museum set up by an artist/diver, which is called the Musee Extraordinaire (extraordinary museum), a street cafe and a Michelin-starred restaurant, La Closerie.