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There's a certain quality to the villages in Provence, France, and more so to those of the Luberon, that Provence countryside of lavender and light that has long acted as a magnet to artists and writers and lovers of beauty.
The Luberon is part of central Provence, contained within the département of the Vaucluse, whose capital is Avignon.
In this land of glorious hilltop villages, some stand out, and this whimsical travel guide will take you through the most popular ones – possibly the best Luberon villages for a first visit.
The five I'm about to describe happen to be on the official list of the Plus Beaux Villages de France (Most Beautiful Villages of France), a superlative accolade in a land already studded with jewels.
Beauty does indeed tie these villages together so it's no wonder they appear on many a bucket list.
Intriguingly, though, for villages that aren't too far apart from one another, they don't look alike at all.
Three are perched on hills, two are lower down. One is built using the local dry stone technique, another has walls plastered with ochre. Some are crowded with tourists and souvenir shops, others look more authentic and laid back.
Sticking to the five "most beautiful" may sound like treachery towards the other delightful hamlets of the Luberon – places like Goult, Bonnieux, Oppède-le-Vieux – but I'll eventually get to those too (I have to start somewhere).
To avoid any jealousy, I've listed them in alphabetical order. But, we all have our favourites!
Each Luberon village has its personality and one word that would aptly describe Ansouis is "authentic". Perhaps it was because I visited in winter or at a time most people were away, but deep inside the village, removed from the attractive eateries of the entrance, a certain untouched, ungentrified calm permeates the streets.
Two of France's most loved films, Jean de Florette and its sequel, Manon des Sources, were partly filmed here, and helped put the Luberon on the map as a tourist destination.
Yet fewer people visit Ansouis than its northern cousins, Gordes or Roussillon. Ansouis is in the South Luberon, and to get here you'll follow a winding (but spectacular) road through the mountains from the north. The drive isn't long, half an hour or so, but you'll be transported into a landscape so different from the lush lavender fields and rows of olive trees you've been accustomed to that you'll think you've left the Luberon behind... Not so.
As is the case in most of these fortified villages, the castle sits at the pinnacle, atop a hill, as it should in order to scan the horizon and repel invaders. It is strategically positioned on the route between Apt and Aix-en-Provence, perfect for defense.
Of course it has all the trappings: a dungeon, four watchtowers and ramparts, but what is most surprising is that it is two castles in one: at its core, a medieval fortress, with a proper Renaissance château built around it a few centuries later. Once inside, you can clearly see where the Middle Ages end and the Renaissance begins.
This particular home was built by the powerful Forcalquier family, whose reign over the village lasted until 1178, after which the equally powerful Sabran clan took over.
There's an intriguing story about the early Sabrans: a family scion of the late 13th century, Elzéar, was married young to an equally young lady, Delphine. They fell in love, but were fervent in their faith, so fervent that in 1316 they took a vow of chastity (not great if you are trying to assure your descendancy) in the small village chapel. And so they lived, spending their nights in prayer rather than in connubial bliss.
Not unreasonably, Elzéar's parents worried about the lack of an heir, and assigned servants to spy on the couple. The young pair would feign sleep and pretend to snore, and when the servants would fall asleep, they would rise and begin their night of prayer. Even the best spies reported that although Elzar and Delphine shared a bed, they slept side by side and never once removed their clothes.
When accused of not consuming their marriage, Elzéar replied: "I have a fine and lovely wife and that is more than enough."
Both were evetually canonized as Catholic saints, but what is less clear is how the family line was continued. This entry about their genealogy neglects any reference to descendants... yet the château appears to have stayed in the family.
The years passed, the structure fell into disrepair, and restoration only began in the 1930s. But in 2008, the château was sold off in a messy auction, its heirs unable to agree on their inheritance. The new owners have refurbished the interior lovingly and with authenticity and offer guided tours, which you can book through the Luberon Côté Sud tourist office.
From the outside, the church looks a bit forbidding, more like a walled fortress than a place of worship. But push the door and the feeling of welcome envelops you.
No one really knows how old it is, but it was probably built in the 12th century, when the village was at its largest.
If you've seen Manon des Sources, you might recognize it as the site of Manon's wedding...
The greatest pleasure to be derived from Ansouis is simply to stroll along its quiet streets. Some of the stone houses are more than 500 years old, and you may forget which century you are in for a moment. Quiet, peaceful, true.
You cannot possibly enter Gordes without being utterly charmed.
It has been listed as one of France's favourite villages – there is actually an official competition and television show in which we get to vote! So the town has had its share of camera crews and flashes of fame.
And with good reason.
The first thing you'll notice in Gordes, on arrival, are the long walls of dry stone, an ancestral technique now protected as an intangible asset by UNESCO World Heritage. On and on they stretch, steadfast in their uniformity, as though they had risen from the ground in perfect little lines. I was easily sidetracked by them, almost hypnotized by their patterns.
While stunning up close, the village is just as beautiful from afar. If you're driving here, before you start your climb is a small lay-by: this is the place to stop for "the" iconic photograph.
Dominating the center of town is the towering Château de Gordes. Already in existence in 1031, it was rebuilt 500 years later during the Renaissance. Mostly uninhabited, its owners used it for storage or as a prison – getting to Gordes on horseback cross-country wasn't quite so simple a few centuries ago.
The château was somewhat roughed up during the French Revolution (what wasn't?) but at least it wasn't destroyed. During World War II, Gordes was an active player in the French Resistance and several hiking paths now commemorate the fighters, known as the maquis.
The village's artisans lived in the lower town (it was known for its weaving and leatherwork), with the nobility on the hill, looking down. Many of the houses are hidden from view, with only a doorway apparent. You'll need a drone to see the turquoise swimming pools or landscaped terraced gardens...
After World War II, Gordes began attracting visitors. Artists moved here, captivated by the picturesque narrow streets but also by the sweeping views over the Provence region. Most famous of these were Marc Chagall and Victor Vasarely.
The narrow alleys of Gordes are a joy to explore. (Please make sure you've got the right walking shoes – this is NOT the time to test your new Italian heels). Like many of these hilltop villages, Gordes is a hilly town, with plenty of bumpy ups and downs. Even the cobblestones have cobblestones: you'll notice that some cobblestone streets have steps going up the center; donkeys used these, their cartwheels crawling alongside on the flatter surfaces.
On market days you'll be able to pick up local produce, but it's also the most crowded day and with parking at a premium, you may wish to choose your battles.
A steamingly hot day is the perfect time to visit the underground caves of the Palais St Firmin, a Renaissance palace which went from abandoned to listed as a Historical Monument, and is now a private home. Its tunnels are part of a vast underground network that pierce the mountain below Gordes, seven storeys deep in places. Given the lack of space above ground, the village dug deeper to increase its storage capacity, although many of the town's subterranean passages have yet to be explored or even rediscovered.
In addition to the Château de Gordes and the Palais St Firmin, there's another intriguing site near Gordes: the Village des Bories, built with that same stone technique you will have seen on the way in. These huts were used by seasonal farm workers during the 18th century, abandoned, and eventually rediscovered during the 1950s, overgrown and decrepit. After years of restoration, they are now as pristine as when they were first built.
Be careful when you drive into Lourmarin: the sight of the castle immediately on your right is so breathtaking you might take your eyes off the road for a moment.
Interestingly, it would seem that the original "owners" of Lourmarin were the Forcalquier and then the Sabran families, the same ones we first met in Ansouis, but from different branches.
The château is an unusual construction, built in two parts like that of Ansouis: a medieval section from the late 15th century, and in the early 16th, a Renaissance addition.
The castle had fallen into ruin but in 1920 it was bought and restored by a rich merchant and art lover from Lyon, Robert Laurent Vibert. After his death, the castle was turned into a foundation for young artists. Also, it may be haunted...
The narrow gorge which opens up into Lourmarin made things practical for the Romans: they could keep a keen eye out for invaders and protect the village's ever-growing population.
With the ousting of the Romans by the Moors who swept in from Spain, many villages, including this one, would be abandoned, and then rebuilt.
Then, during the 12th century, the village crossed paths with a group of Catholic dissidents, the Vaudois, whom no amount of persecution had been able to stamp out. They had found refuge in what is now northern Italy, eventually joining the Protestant reform movement. A group of these Vaudois were invited to settle in Lourmarin, turning the village into a Protestant enclave.
During the wars of religion, in mid-16th century, this was a mostly Protestant village and was at one point set on fire and partly destroyed. It would be rebuilt bigger, better and more luxuriously, along with the wonderful Renaissance structure we know as the château today.
By 1685, the Edict of Nantes (which had given Protestants certain freedoms in this very Catholic country) was revoked and many (though not all) Protestant families fled, from here and from across France.
Lourmarin eventually became a prosperous little town, relying on manufacturing, handicrafts and agriculture. In addition to the olives and vines, the village was known for its textiles. In fact, Philippe de Girard, an illustrious (and local) engineer, invented the first flax spinning frame.
Today, Lourmarin Provence is a much-visited and quirky little village, with plenty of offbeat shops and surprising corners.
Coming upon Ménerbes is a bit like encountering a village clinging to the sky, high up a hill and built all along its crest. Expectations are high for this hamlet, given its status as an artists' magnet.
Unlike many other Luberon Provence villages whose dwellings crowd around a castle, Ménerbes is long and narrow, with the château at one end and the church at the other.
In Roman times, Ménerbes held a strategic position on the Via Domitia, the Roman highway that led from Rome to southern Spain. It is also famous for the Abbey of Saint-Hilaire, just outside town, which may have been founded by Saint Louis (Louis IX) upon his return from the 7th Crusade.
Because of its hilltop position, Ménerbes was long thought impregnable. But in a surprise attack, it was stormed and captured by Protestant Huguenots, who held it for five years from 1573 and were only driven out when a Catholic siege starved them of supplies.
Today, Ménerbes has its place in the sun. Perhaps the best known contemporary advocate of Ménerbes was Peter Mayle, author of A Year in Provence, his memoir set in the village.
But well before Mayle, artists had recognized the beauty of this south France village.
Like Dora Maar, a photographer and painter who became Picasso's muse and whose house (which he bought for her) is now an art foundation; the American painter Jane Eakin, whose home has been converted into a museum dedicated to her; or the French-Russian painter Nicolas de Staël.
We shouldn't be surprised, then, to find out the village's name may have come from that of Minerva, the Roman goddess of the arts.
Walking the streets (and looking out upon the valleys on either side) of the village, you can get a sense of the brilliance that brought so many creatives here. The quiet winding streets and blue shutters, the houses with greenery creeping up the walls, all of it under a crystal blue sky... the kind of languorous illusion these villages of the Luberon seem so able to provide.
Think of Roussillon and you'll think of gold. Not the metal, the colour.
Or ochre, because this is its birthplace: you'll see it on the walls, on the hills (and if you've been hiking the Ochre Trail, on your shoes).
Shades of yellow and gold and rust and deep blood red, as though ochre weren't a colour but a hue, a slight hint of spark and fire.
Roussillon is one of those hilltop villages of Provence which is as beautiful from afar as it is from within. Watch the sun's rays play along the village walls, especially at sunset. But from its streets, the progression of ochres will keep your eyes glued (and your feet tripping) as you try to understand how a single colour can be so diverse.
Interestingly, there's a local law obliging residents to paint their façade in ochre; this makes perfect sense, because a blue or green wall could severely mar the village's harmony. That said, I did pass by houses which, although painted ochre, were adorned with green shutters, so these are clearly allowed.
If the village's explosion of colours – from beige to deep, burnt red – envelops you in an embrace of wellbeing (psychologists attribute the emotions warm, energetic and sunny to this colour), you might want even more of it, more than the buildings can offer.
If that's the case, jump into your car and head for Rustrel and the Colorado Provençal half an hour away, where the earth changes colour with the arc of the sun.
If you can manage to visit when the crowds have gone, you'll be rewarded with cliffs and dunes that, were it not for the trees, might remind you of a desert.
In fact, this particular path (40 easy minutes) is called the Sahara, but a longer one will take you further in, and up above jagged tips of the hills. And if you arrive near sunset, the magic becomes a miracle and the cliffs glow with deep rusts and sparkles, their yellows and reds that seem too unnatural to be real.⠀⠀⠀
No one knows why Roussillon has all the ochre, and the other villages of the Luberon do not.
While there are a few legends that might explain this, what IS known is that during the 1780s, a native of Roussillon first studied the local phenomenon, and then started mining it commercially. He invented a process to extract the pigment from the sand, but it would take another century before the mining became widespread.
At first, individual miners produced ochre. But with the industrial revolution, big business got involved.
In its heyday, the tiny village of Roussillon had 16 quarries and ochre production plants! Things boomed with the arrival of the railway in Apt, the nearest provincial center, in 1880.
But by the 20th century, artificial colourings were the rage, competition became fierce and the mining industry disappeared.
Today, a single ochre mine is left in the region, in Gargas, a ten-minute drive from Roussillon.
Here are a few additional facts about the Luberon...