Thursday, October 23, 2014

Driving around Provence, Day 3: Circling the Luberon valley

The French love roundabouts. At least on the roads in Provence, you can't drive more than half a mile without seeing one. The thing is, they're actually more efficient than regular intersections with four-way stops. The guys on Mythbusters tested this out and came to the conclusion that roundabouts keep traffic flowing faster and more efficiently, so the French are definitely on to something here. What's also nice about them is that if you're not immediately sure which road you need to exit onto, you can just keep going around in circles until you figure it out. With a regular intersection you have to pull over after realizing you've already made a wrong turn, then make a u-turn and go back to the intersection and try again.

At any rate, for our third and final day of driving in Provence, we headed out to the Luberon valley, a region in Provence about an hour northeast of Arles that fully embodies what most people imagine when they think of Provence: vast expanses of gently rolling vineyards and lush olive orchards, soft Impressionist sunlight, and weathered, labyrinthine medieval hill towns spilling down the sides of steep slopes.

We wanted to check out several of these old hill towns that dot the valley, with the aim of visiting as many as we could while we still had energy and sunlight.


Our first destination was Gordes, which has a reputation among Provence connoisseurs as being the region's prettiest hill town. Unfortunately, it's been discovered. But the town acts as if it's only just been discovered, or has at least only just decided to respond to the demand: a large parking lot just below the town and another closer to the center are both manned by two militaristic looking human parking attendants with walkie-talkies, rather than automated parking meters.

And yes, there were probably more tourists than locals ambling about, but you can't blame them. The town truly is staggeringly beautiful, and the views of the vineyards in the valley below are gorgeous. Thick plumes of smoke rising from a few spots on the valley floor from people burning crap (what, exactly, I can't say, because I'm from California, where burning crap in the open air is so illegal) gave Gordes a smokey aroma, and lent the air over the valley a slightly hazy, autumnal quality, despite the unseasonably warm and sunny t-shirt weather.

Gordes' medieval stone buildings cling to its steep hillside like a cluster of barnacles. I guess you could say that about all of these old hill towns, but the views of Gordes when approaching it from the main road into town make for a dramatic entrance.

The town also has this massive and intimidating medieval fortress at the center. We didn't go in, but it's cool to look at from the outside.

Apparently, Gordes was practically a ghost town by the 1960s, but it was rediscovered in the 80s by rich Parisians who started buying up and fixing old, abandoned flats and houses and driving up the real estate prices way beyond what any local could afford. I can't help but wonder if there's any tension between the old natives and the Parisian yuppies.

At one point while sitting on the edge of fountain in the main square, I saw an elderly man looking down from his third floor window at the photo-snapping tourists in the plaza below. I wondered whether that scene was odd or routine for him. There was a time when towns like these weren't tourist magnets, but just rural, middle-of-where country villages where local folks went about their business.


Next up was Roussillon, another hill town just several kilometers from Gordes, known for its massive ochre deposits, which give the surrounding area its smooth, wind-swept landscape of dramatic, oblong outcroppings with their bright red-orange (and occasionally yellow) hue. The town's buildings, as a result, also display this Ligurian coastal village meets Santa Fe color. It's funny how the colors, especially when paired with bright blue or red shutters, really make you feel as if the Mediterranean Sea is just a few steps away.

The town itself is definitely nice, but less visually stunning and picturesque than Gordes. Many of the buildings have been slathered in reddish ochre plaster, and by the looks of it, a lot of them have been restored or scrubbed down recently, making the town appear much cleaner, tidier, and less gritty than others in the region.

Roussillon's big draw is a hiking path that takes you through its ochre deposits and former quarries. Walking through these ochre landscapes feels as if you've been beamed down to some distant, red, alien planet in an old Star Trek episode. The trail itself is nice and lush, and made more appealing with the bright red ochre path. The ochre itself feels like chalk dust when you touch it.

Mining for ochre was a huge industry in Roussillon from the 18th century until the 1930s, and it employed thousands of people. Today it's prohibited so as to preserve the unique landscape.

Some of the shops back up in the town sell little jars of ochre powder, which can be used as pigment for mixing paint. The village definitely seems to be pretty well set-up for the tourists, and most of the businesses there appear to cater specifically to them. There weren't tons of people when we were there, but still a decent amount, with the majority of the visitors in the park speaking French, with a few Germans here and there.

Pont Julien

On the way to the next town we stopped by Pont Julien, an old Roman bridge dating back to 3 BC that crosses the Calavon River. It's really not that stunning of a bridge visually, but it's worth pulling over and hopping out of the car for a look if you happen to be driving by. This thing, kind of unbelievably, was used for car traffic until 2005, when someone evidently realized that it might be a good idea to try and preserve this 2,000+ year old bridge!


Bonnieux was next on our list - another weathered, extremely picturesque medieval hill town, which was thankfully less touristy than Gordes or Roussillon. There were a smattering of tourists here and there, but nothing like the other towns. We mostly just saw locals going about their business, and a pack of old geezers playing boules behind the neo-Gothic church by the village entrance. Plus, unlike the other towns, you could park for free wherever there was a spot in the village, rather than being forced into a special lot for tourists at the start of the town.

Bonnieux's narrow, roughhewn cobblestoned lanes wind up and around the super steep hill like old roots clenching a rock, in a seemingly never-ending series of vertical ascents through occasional tunnels, jagged steps, and hidden passageways, eventually leading to an old stone church at the very top. Once you've made the climb, you're rewarded with spectacular panoramic views over the valley below, as well as the haphazard cluster of terra-cotta tiled roofs in the immediate foreground, and a few windswept cypress trees. The church was closed, but it looked appealingly gloomy and worn down from the outside.

I love how in villages like these you can see multiple layers of restorations and renovations on the facades of the dwellings. You might see a pointed, gothic arch that has been walled in, with a rectangular Renaissance doorway installed just a few feet over, with a doorstep lined with tiles from the 1960s. Or a hole in the facade that's been filled in by stones that are of a completely different size and shape from the rest of the thing.

We were both really glad that we stopped in Bonnieux. It had the perfect balance of beauty and grit, and a hugely compelling atmosphere. I'd love to come back and have lunch or a picnic there at a spot where you can savor the gorgeous views.

We skipped Lacoste, the next hill town in the loop, because, really, how many of these damn towns can you squeeze into a single day? Plus, they're all beautiful, you really just have to take your pick. Lacoste is noteworthy because that's where Marquis de Sade lived, but his old castle has reportedly been bought by Pierre Cardin, who some say has spoiled the village's rugged charm.

At this point, later in the afternoon, with the sun coming in at that 4:00 PM angle, the Provencal landscape was at its best. The soft, golden light reflected beautifully against the landscape of autumn-colored vineyards and lush trees, whose leaves were only just starting to show the first hints of fall. Some people go cuckoo over Provence's famed fields of lavender, but I'm excited by the autumnal orange-red hue of the post-harvest grapevines.


After passing Lacoste, however, we did stop in Menerbes, the hill town made famous by British author Peter Mayle, who wrote an uber-popular book about buying and fixing up a small farmhouse there and living in it. I was a bit curious to see what kind of impact his book had had on the town. The main drag is pretty slick, with a few stores that look weirdly high-end for a county hill town like this. Plus, the place has two fairly big parking lots along the road just below the village, indicating that there are times when the place is hit with an onslaught of tourists and they are equipped to handle it. But our little Peugeot rental was practically the only car in the lot, and as soon as you venture onto the small side streets, everything gets appealingly worn down and ramshackle again.

Menerbes sits atop a long, narrow, steep bluff. You can stroll a lengthy, meandering lane that leads from the center of town to the original center, with the town hall and its endearingly spartan clock tower. Walk even further and you get to an old Romanesque church (the interior of which is currently undergoing a total overhaul), and just beyond that, at the literal edge of the town, is the cemetery. Of course, next to the city hall is a high-end restaurant specializing in truffle-based dishes, which, as appealing as it sounds, belies the sort of yuppie haven that the town has become.

God damn delivery truck f-in' up my shot!

But like most of these towns, Menerbes is still very attractive and atmospheric. We probably prefer Bonnieux for its more authentic and rough-around-the-edges feel, and maybe even Gordes for the way its buildings are messily jumbled together, but Menerbes is certainly no slouch.

Oppede le Vieux

Next on our list was Oppede le Vieux, a tiny medieval village with an abandoned castle ruin and an old stone church perched at the top of a steep hill. But what makes this village all the more stunning is its location against the backdrop of a massive and dramatic limestone gorge, which juts skyward from its base in a lush grove of trees and foliage.

The place had apparently become a ghost village by the early 20th century, as the town's inhabitants had been gradually relocating a bit further away (down the hill) from the shadow of the rocky Petit Luberon hills, which lie just to the south. The Petit Luberon block the late afternoon sunlight, which means the town "goes dark" earlier and apparently used to make people's dwellings damp and more prone to moisture-related damage. Provence addicts and prospecting yuppies have apparently breathed some life back into the place, though it's still supposedly an extremely tranquil village.

Unfortunately, our energy level was by that point becoming severely diminished, and Terezia was feeling especially worse for wear since she was still fighting off her lingering cold. But we pressed on regardless and drove there, only to find that unless you're a local, disabled, or spending the night in the village, you're only allowed to park in a dirt lot that felt like it was nearly a kilometer away. We were too exhausted to deal with that, but we drove through the village anyway and got a quick glance at its quaint town square and its one drivable street. It looked seriously appealing, but we really had to start thinking about heading back to Arles, as the sun was going down and we were getting tired, hungry, and grumpy.

Driving in Provence

Getting to the Luberon from Arles looked straightforward on the map, and it actually was for the most part, except for one hurdle: getting past the town of Cavaillon without getting sucked up into its center. Taking the highway from Arles to the ring road that encircles Cavaillon was a breeze. The signage was plentiful, helpful, and logical. And once you're past Cavaillon and in the Luberon, the signage is wonderful again. The problem was that the roadsigns for getting onto the ring road to avoid the town and go around it were entirely unhelpful, listing useless destinations that were either not on our map, or in directions we didn't want to go in.

I should back up here for a second and mention that up to this point, driving in Provence was amazingly easy and hassle-free. Sights and towns were all very clearly signposted, and at no point did we get lost or turned around. We were expecting something like Slovakia, where you can get lost and miss entire cities or towns because of atrociously thought-out road signage. But until Cavaillon, in Provence this wasn't the case.

But in our attempt to get around Cavaillon and continue on to the Luberon, we encountered our first total road sign fail in France. Luckily, as navigator, I went with my gut and just followed the sun and avoided all signs pointing to "Centre ville", and we only ended up going about 10 minutes out of our way, and quickly got back on course. Could have been way worse.

But for those who are new to the area, getting past Cavaillon is a bitch. And we had the same problem trying to get around Cavaillon on the way back. The signs were abysmally unhelpful in the opposite direction too, and trying to avoid getting corralled into the center of town was weirdly confusing and challenging. You see no signs for St. Remy or Arles until after you've found your way past Cavaillon.

From a distance Cavaillon even looks like a place you'd want to avoid - kind of industrial looking, with lots of depressing sprawl and bleak state housing projects - though I'm sure parts of it are really nice. But Cavaillon was the only hiccup in an otherwise fun and super easy series of mini road trips.

Click here to see the full set of photos from this day!

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