When Peter Mayle spent his year in Provence, he lived in the hilltop village of Menerbes and it is here that I start my tour of the Luberon Valley. I understand that during the summer months it can be crowded with tourists but today the car parks are empty and so are the streets. I do meet an elegant French couple who are also visiting the area and enthuse about the other villages. “You must see Gordes……..don’t miss Roussillon………..Rustrel is amazing……..” I begin to feel as though I may need a week to do justice to the region.
I find a fantastic fresh maize loaf in the local bakery and gorge myself on bread and nefle jam for afternoon tea. The friendly owner confirms that it will be quite safe to stay overnight in the empty car park and a white-haired old local man agrees that I will be undisturbed. They are both absolutely right.
The next morning the sun rises above the tall trees and I look out across the valley below me. In the distance, Mont Ventoux is covered with snow, and the greens and browns of the forest below, dotted with stone villages, reminds me of an iced fruitcake.
It’s only 7 kms to the ruined hilltop village of Oppede-le-Vieux, though really it’s only the highest medieval part that is in ruins. The lower part, outside the ancient walls, was restored in the 1960s by a community of artists and is now focused firmly on tourism, though the cafes and gites are closed for the winter. I am the only soul who is wandering around the cobbled streets and alleys. The castle itself is sealed off for health and safety reasons and a notice states the intent of the local community to raise money and have it restored but I believe that some things should be left in their abandoned state as a reminder of our once bloody history.
On the way back to the car park, I stumble into the village cemetery quite by accident but find an amazing assembly of family tombs adorned with ceramic votive offerings in memory of loved ones since departed.
On the road between Menerbes and Oppede is the Domaine de la Citadelle. A vineyard that has the unusual attraction of a corkscrew museum. I never knew that there were so many different kinds of implements for opening a bottle of wine but here you have hundreds. From simple metal screws with handles made of wood, bone, horn, ivory, gold, steel and even brass bullets to complex gas injectors and ornamental souvenirs. My favourites are the small picnic corkscrews and those which have clearly been appropriated from high class hotels.
Next on the route is the much larger hilltop town of Gordes. It’s supposed to be market day and even though I arrive late, there’s little evidence that there has been one. I suspect that there are so few residents during the winter months that it is not worth the effort. I bump into an Italian coach party of Japanese tourists trying to squeeze into a tiny creperie, one of only two restaurants actually open in the town. In the only open souvenir shop I buy some lavender honey with the expectation of creating an interesting lavender infused meal.
I move on to the nearby Village des Bories, known for its dome-shaped, dry-stone huts. However the parking for motorhomes is 1.5km from the site and the thought of a 3km round trip on foot to pay to see a few houses made of stone hardly seems worth it. Perhaps I missed out on something special, though I rather doubt it.
My final stop is Roussillon, a ‘red’ village on top of a pine and oak clad hill, created by the quarrying of the local ochre rock. The colour ochre is a main theme for this village, which has little else going for it other than the lovely views across the valley, and all the houses are painted in varying hues of ochre. The small church of St Michel has some interesting alters and a wonderful frieze above the font. Just around the corner, the viewpoint offers some stunning vistas towards the north and I can just make out the town of Gordes. The chilly morning has turned into a glorious sunny day so I sit outside on the terrace of Le Bistro enjoying a coffee while soaking up the late afternoon rays and gazing at the views across the village and beyond.
Some people may not enjoy visiting this region in winter and I am disappointed when I pass the bare, snarly vines and the dark, flowerless clumps of lavender. However, I do enjoy exploring the villages in peace and the fact that the restaurants and souvenir shops are closed means I don’t spend much money. The parking is free; wandering the streets is free; soaking up the atmosphere is free. In fact, my only expense has been fuel and a couple of overpriced cups of coffee.