Lavender, sunflowers, fairytale villages, celebrated cuisine and wines of Châteauneuf-du-Pape, Gigondas and Vacqueyras…It would take a heart of stone not to fall in love with the Vaucluse. Countless writers and artists have been seduced by its charms – not to mention the greatest seducer of all, the Marquis de Sade, who fell victim to the beautiful village of Lacoste. Mont Ventoux – The Giant – presides over the magnificent countryside to greet (or defeat) members of the Tour de France, or visitors who come for the panoramic views from its peak, or to ski in winter.
Losing your heart in Provence
I have visited the Vaucluse several times and after a year of confinement was ready for more. What luck! An invitation arrived from a friend with a charming chambre d’hote in the shadow of Mont Ventoux – with a swimming pool no less. No sooner had I rsvp’d than I was on a train to Avignon, gateway to the Vaucluse and one of my favourite French towns. I’d just have time to reacquaint myself and eat lunch within the ancient city walls before a connection to Orange and a spot of sightseeing before being met by my host. (More on Avignon and other favourites below.)
UNESCO HERITAGE SITES
Orange may not be on everyone’s bucket list but is well worth a detour for two very good reasons: the Theatre Antique and the Triumphal Arch, both on the UNESCO World Heritage List. The 10,000 seat Theatre, among the best-preserved Roman artefacts anywhere, has amazingly good acoustics. How I would have loved to hear one of the operas which are still performed here, but major restoration work was in progress. Next time! Instead I went in search of a bottle of Chateauneuf du Pape wine for a gift. It was great to reunite with an old friend and we had much to talk about during the car journey to the impressive Mas Cocagne guest house.
Mont Ventoux and rosé wine
My favourite room was waiting and we sat on the terrace, talked and sipped local rosé wine under the watchful eye of Mont Ventoux and surrounded by acres of parkland with olive trees. There is a gite for guests and even a bori– an old stone hut originally designed to shelter agricultural workers. (No it wasn’t one of the guest rooms!) A common feature of the Provence countryside, a bori is a popular photo op amid the lavender fields.
Markets and Tour de France
Next day I was eager to visit the local market in Malaucène, a small town and the capital of the Ventoux with a rich history. Fourteenth century Pope Clement V made it his summer home and built the ancient Saint Michel church. What were the yellow bicycles on walls and rooftops all about, I wondered? Preparations to greet the Tour de France of course! The buzzy little market never disappoints and the stalls of wonderful cheeses, charcuterie and local produce suggested we eat lunch. And it was then that the restaurant with the yellow bicycle on the wall caught my eye: Au Fil de la Degustation – irresistible!
First class food and wine in Provence
Dining out rarely disappoints in Provence. Even a simple bakery might provide first class food and wine. The staff are friendly, efficient and knowledgeable about the menu and wine. Next day we decided to try hilltop dining and headed to the little village of Crestet.
Crestet is a true delight in the Dentelles de Montmirail hills just south of Vaison la Romaine, with medieval cobble stone streets, winding steps and ancient stone houses straight out of a fairytale. The privately owned 14th century chateau is closed to visitors but the 11th century church is worth a visit for its Romanesque, Gothic and Renaissance architecture. Having worked up an appetite after climbing all those steps La Terrasse – a restaurant with panoramic views – awaited us. The sky was the limit and afterwards we were to aim even higher!
Hiking in Provence
The 1,900 metre summit of Mont Ventoux was closed and so we drove to a good vantage point with walking trails. Wherever you are Mont Ventoux takes centre stage. It’s the most daunting part of the Tour de France. In the words of French philosopher Roland Barthes ‘a god of evil to whom sacrifice must be paid.’ Others refer to it as the Beast of Provence. Time to come back down to earth after the dizzying heights and take in some ancient Roman architecture – the Chapel Notre-Dame-du-Groseau and the nearby Roman bridge. Then it was time for dinner in the garden after a swim on my last night .
Carpentras and French architecture
Time flies but I knew I’d be back. My train left from Carpentras, once the administrative capital for the Papal states. The14th century synagogue, the oldest in France, is a big attraction for architecture lovers – especially the breathtakingly beautiful interior. It was constructed after the Pope invited Jews, who were expelled from France, to take refuge in Provence and was registered as a historical monument in 1924. There are many architectural influences in the town including Romanesque, Gothic, classical, renaissance and baroque. Unfortunately, little remains of the ancient city walls except for La Porte d’Orange tower.
Another must-see sight : Vaison la Romaine
Vaison le Romaine is an absolute must-see. It is said to be the largest archaeological site in Europe, with Roman baths and a 6,000 seat theatre which still plays a lead role in the summer festival. It was evidently a very wealthy settlement with remains of luxurious roman houses, mosaics, paved streets, its own shopping district, and the Nymphée, a sophisticated irrigation system. The old town with quaint streets, medieval houses and fountains is a dream for true romantics .
Beautiful village LaCoste in the Luberon
Connoisseurs of beauty will fall head over heels with LaCoste, officially ‘one of the most beautiful villages in France’ in the Luberon with medieval architecture seemingly unchanged over time. Gone are the wild parties thrown by the Marquis de Sade in the Château de Lacoste. (If only those walls could talk!) The couturier Pierre Cardin took over the chateau and stitched together the wreckage left by the Marquis, so to speak. Come for the summer arts festival in a quarry outside the ancient chateau.
Avignon, gateway to the Vaucluse, is where a love affair with the Vaucluse begins. Everywhere is simply head turning, starting with the papal palace or Palais de Papes, a UNESCO-listed site home to seven Popes from 1309 to 1377. Sur le Pont d’Avignon… that’s Pont Saint-Bénézet, the mythic late-12th century bridge of song, linking France with Papal Territory. The city is also one of France’s major cultural centres with festivals and events throughout the year, from the summer Jazz Festival to a traditional Christmas celebration.
Lavender in Luberon
The final coup de coeur! When the Luberon area in Vaucluse turns purple, love is definitely in the fragrant air. From late June to August a spectacular lavender blanket stretches into the horizon – definitely not to be missed! Evening is my favourite time to take a walk through the fields when the fading light adds a mysterious golden glow to the landscape. The best villages to see the lavender in the Luberon : Ansouis, Gordes, Roussillon, Lourmarin, Ménerbes, Séguret and Vénasque.
Our 2022 best selling tours to the Luberon
I’m a true romantic. How about you? If yes, visit the Vaucluse – if you dare. You’re likely to lose your heart!