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5 beautiful hilltop villages in Provence

View of Les Alpilles, Provence from the sky, a rocky outcrop in a sea of vineyards and forests

Provence is famous for its hilltop towns, known in French as villages perchés. These lovely villages, with their winding, narrow streets, were situated as high as possible, to provide protection against brigands and foreign invaders back in the old days. Today we can enjoy their charm and their fabulous views, while the only invaders are tourists. Let’s look at some of the best of these villages perchés.

Ansouis

White stone statue in a sea of green topiary in a garden in Ansouis, Provence

Surrounded by rolling hills, this village is topped by the Ansouis Castle, with stunning terraced gardens and great views. The castle is a private residence but is open to visitors in the afternoon. Not many castles are still inhabited, but you can tell that this one is if you come right after lunch—when I visited, I could smell the delicious roast chicken the owners had enjoyed.

Near Ansouis is the town of Lourmarin, with one of Provence’s best outdoor markets, held on Friday morning. Tourist office: uk.luberoncotesud.com

Les Baux-de-Provence

Inside a huge stone quarry in Provence now a huge digital art centre, art projected on walls

This fortified town and its ruined castle sit on top of a huge rock that you can see for miles around. The castle was once an impregnable fortress, one of the seats of power of the counts of Provence. Today you can wander through the town’s cobblestoned streets and continue up to the castle, where there are daily demonstrations of medieval weapons like catapults and trebuchets. The view is one of the best in Provence—on a clear day you can see all the way to the Mediterranean Sea.

A few hundred meters from Les Baux is the unmissable Carrières de Lumières (Quarry of Light.) It’s the world’s greatest sound and light show, set in an abandoned quarry inside a mountain, a series of huge rooms with 30-foot-high ceilings. Every year a new artist is featured, with the artist’s work set to music. It’s so popular that the show has recently expanded to Paris and Bordeaux. Don’t miss it! Tourist office: lesbauxdeprovence.com

Bonnieux

View over the top of the town of Bonnieux, Provence, terracotta tiled roofs against a blue sky

One of the most picturesque of all the Provencal villages, Bonnieux seems to tumble down the hillside. At the top of the Bonnieux, the main road passes several casual cafés with outdoor tables looking out over the Luberon Valley, full of vineyards and lavender fields. Pick a café and enjoy the view—the village perché you see across the valley is Lacoste, topped by a chateau once owned by the infamous Marquis de Sade. Tourist Office: www.avignon-et-provence.com

Gordes

Hilltop town of Gordes in Provence, buildings cling to a steep cliff surrounded by vineyards

Another town that seems to pour down its hillside is Gordes. So many people stop to take pictures on the drive up into town that a special parking lot was created just for them, to prevent traffic jams. The views are wonderful and if you look carefully you can see Menerbes across the Luberon Valley, where Peter Mayle lived when he wrote A Year in Provence.

A few kilometers away is the Abbaye de Senanque, an old Cistercian abbey that is still in use. In the summertime, lavender blooms in front of the abbey and shutterbugs come from miles around—the abbey and its lavender is an iconic image of Provence. Tourist Office www.gordes-village.com/en/

Roussillon

Vibrant ochre- coloured of buildings in narrow streets Roussillon Provence

If you love color, you’ll love Roussillon. Before synthetic pigments were invented, many natural pigments came from a colorful clay called ochre. Roussillon was a major producer and still has its ochre quarries, now abandoned but open to the public. As you walk through them you can see the different types of ochre in the exposed cliffside—orange, yellow, purple, and more. It’s an amazing sight.

As you might expect, the buildings in Roussillon are painted in various shades of ochre, making it a distinctive town indeed. Tourist Office: otroussillon.pagesperso-orange.fr

Keith Van Sickle splits his time between Silicon Valley and Provence.  He is the author of One Sip at a Time: Learning to Live in Provence and Are We French Yet? Keith & Val’s Adventures in ProvenceRead more at Life in Provence.

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