As you wind your way across the plains of the Vaucluse in Provence (all olive groves, lavender and vineyards), you see Oppède le Vieux hanging above you on the north face of the Petit Luberon. It looks haunting and beautiful…
Oppède le Vieux dates back to at least the 12th century. At the very top of the village stand the remains of a medieval castle and a formidable Romanesque church. The castle was at first home to the Counts of Toulouse. It belonged to the papacy in the 13th century. And thereafter to the blood thirsty Jean Maynier, Baron of Oppède in the 16th century. The latter used Oppède’s strategic positioning to wage war and it’s believed he was responsible for the massacre of 3,000 people including women, children and the elderly.
Notwithstanding its occupants, the village thrived as a 900 strong farming community for several hundred years. But by the end of the 17th century, the castle had been abandoned. Slowly the residents began to move down to Oppède-les-Poulivets in the valley below. Houses on the side of the mountain are damp here, and the Luberon casts a long shadow, especially in winter. By 1909, with the main village hall relocated to the valley, nature was left to reclaim the village.
And then the revival
But for World War II, that would have probably been the end of Oppède le Vieux. But in 1940, attracted by its secluded position, a small community of creatives moved into the village to escape persecution by the occupying forces. The community eventually grew to about 50, including the architect Bernard Zehrfuss, French sculptor François Stahly and the writer and artist Consuelo de Saint Exupéry.
Although, as others had before them, the creatives too eventually moved out. But, if you look carefully, you’ll see the odd painted wall as proof they were here. And today, people are starting to move back.
It feels like little has changed in the last few centuries as you leave your car in the car park below and begin to climb to the top. The streets of Oppède are narrow, cobbled and steep. The backstreets and houses defy gravity.
The impressive church of Notre-Dame-d’Alydon has both a gargoyle and a hexagonal bell-tower and it’s certainly not what you expect. It’s also home to some fading frescoes as well as music recitals in the summer. But sadly, the adjoining castle is little more than ruins.
Below, and at every turn, are majestic, wide angled views of the plains. It feels like the whole of Provence is spread out beneath you. And, even in late October when I went, the skies are still blue and the Vaucluse mountains and Mont Ventoux can be seen in the distance. It is silent. Spellbinding. Stunning.
A quirky little Café
When you’ve drunk in enough of the Vaucluse below, you twist and turn your way back down to the main square. Stroll past intriguing doorways in hidden corners, 15th and 16th century walls and clusters of geraniums trailing from pots in pretty courtyards.
Le Petit Café is delightfully eccentric. A vintage sports car is parked outside and a bizarre assortment of bric a brac fills the dining room and interior, including a dentist’s chair! I didn’t like to ask.
Outside, you sit under the trees on an assortment of brightly coloured cushions, painted tables and chairs. There’s a large fig tree, a shaggy white dog, coloured lights and glass bottles, an old wine barrel, pots growing bamboo, a birdcage and an assortment of herbs which match the eccentricity and charm of your host.
A Panier des Saveurs (which is a tapas made from seasonal Provencal ingredients) served on a rusty, old vintage tray and a glass of chilled white wine later and you’re ready to spend the rest of your life here. It’s one of those hedonistic places you visit for sheer pleasure. And then want to stay for a lifetime. In short, it’s one of the many great little gems of Provence.
You can find out more about the Vaucluse in Provence at www.provenceguide.com
by Lucy Pitts, deputy editor of The Good Life France
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