Famous for its delicious wine, lush lavender fields and stunning hill-top villages, the western Luberon includes a wide valley just east of Avignon in the département of the Vaucluse (84). The Luberon stretches as far as the town of Manosque but this article covers only the part between the towns of Cavaillon and Apt. Its most famous contemporary inhabitant is perhaps the late Peter Mayle whose book ‘A Year in Provence’ inspired huge numbers to either visit or buy a home in this picturesque area. It certainly was an inspiration for author Jane Dunning who writes about some of her favourite villages of the Luberon…
Probably the most photographed village is Gordes, with a vibrant centre in season, its pale stone houses tumble down the hillside. The road you’ll most likely take on the way in offers jaw-dropping views of almost the whole village – there are a few parking spaces if you’d like to stop to take some photos. The village featured in the film ‘A Good Year’ and is consequently extremely busy in high season. It has several cafés and restaurants, two boulangeries and a few small shops. The market takes place on Tuesdays and is perfect for holiday temptations. There’s a panoramic view signposted from near the main château square from where you should be able to see distant lavender fields, in bloom roughly late June to early August. To be honest, it’s a fabulous view even without the lavender.
About 6kms away is tiny Joucas, where I’ve house-sat several times. Notable buildings in this well-kept village are the tiny, blue-painted town hall and the pretty adjacent church. They open onto a small square with fabulous views of the valley below and beyond. The tiny alleys wind their way up to a privately owned château at the top. There’s a shop, not open all day, a restaurant and a hotel with larger hotels just out of town on the road to Murs. The restaurant, Bistrot La Terrasse, has panoramic views from its terrace. There’s plenty of parking on both sides of the village. Joucas is recommended if you like the idea of a few hours away from the crowds.
The larger village of St Saturnin-lès-Apt has more cafés and restaurants along with a couple of boulangeries, one in the pretty market square. St Sat, as it is known locally, has more commerce than other villages along with a lovely walk up to a ruin of a château with far reaching views across the Luberon and down to the village and church below.
The market town of Apt sits at the centre of this part of the western Luberon, well-worth a visit on a Saturday for its famous market, another of my favourites. It stretches almost through the whole town, its streets and squares bursting with stalls selling local produce, including Provençal soap and olives. Read more about Apt
On the southern side of the valley, the hill-top village of Saignon sits above Apt and has a gorgeous main square and fountain, with tiny streets leading off. There’s a newish expensive restaurant at the top of the village and a café or two but there aren’t many other facilities here. It’s still nice for a stroll and definitely worth a visit at lavender time as there are a couple of fields immediately below the village. You’d need to peer over the wall on the same side as the parking or climb up to the top where you’ll see lavender fields in the distance.
Next is Bonnieux which sits opposite Lacoste with super views of each other. This is a great area for seeing lavender fields, especially if you’re coming from the main Cavaillon to Apt road. The roads are narrow and busy here so park at the bottom and wander up the alleys and steps to reach the main thoroughfare with cafés and restaurants. There’s even more to see if you carry on up to the top where you’ll find a shady park leading to another church.
Another favourite is Peter Mayle’s hill-top Menérbes. There’s plenty of parking as you reach the village where you’ll find cafés and restaurants. The café/restaurant attached to the tabac, Café du Progrès, has a terrace overlooking the valley with far reaching views; the lunch menu looked appetising too. Traversing the village to the town hall square and further on to the church and cemetery gives wonderful Luberon views, including Mont Ventoux on the north side and lavender fields immediately below on the other side. Do a circular walk so as not to miss anything…
Secret villages of Provence
The villages of Oppède-le-Vieux, Maubec, Robion and Taillades complete the round trip, should you have decided to go from one to the other. The first mentioned is the most famous and delightful for a stroll, especially if the picturesque Le Petit Café is open. The others are very pleasant for an amble too, especially if you need to escape high summer crowds.
Not to be missed on a hillock in the centre of the valley, you’ll find the ochre village of Roussillon with one of the prettiest town halls in France, set in a square overlooked by cafés and restaurants. There’s a boulangerie and a small food store along with several ateliers and gift shops. Go through the archway on the square to the top of the village, passing the church and pretty old houses, all in the village’s trademark fifty shades of ochre. The views are truly spectacular from up here, including Mont Ventoux, famous for its regular feature on Le Tour de France.
On another central rocky outcrop is my favourite village, Goult. Although perhaps not as well-known as some of the others, Goult has a privately owned château, a windmill and great views from the top and it is also very central and practical. There’s plenty of free parking, an excellent little shop, a fromagerie, a good boulangerie, two cafés and a few restaurants plus a take-away pizza place. It’s an easy little spot to stop for a stroll and a coffee or lunch, or dinner if you’re not staying too far away. I don’t think there’s a hotel but there are a few holiday rentals here, as there are in all the villages and towns.
If you run out of villages to visit around here, there are plenty more all around the Vaucluse, but this area is really intended for a slow pace to absorb all its scenic treasures, scrumptious food and excellent wines.
Francophile Jane Dunning is the author of three novels, a family saga, all set in Provence. Find her on Facebook www.facebook.com/JaneDunningAuthor and Instagram @irresistiblefranceanditaly.