WALK­ING IN PROVENCE

Mary No­vakovich en­joys the ex­pe­ri­ence of a slower pace of life, wan­der­ing the breath­tak­ing coun­try­side of Provence on her own two feet

France - - Contents -

Wan­der the hill­sides and vil­lages of Luberon on a re­laxed walk­ing hol­i­day.

Ly­ing on a hammock un­der the shade of an apri­cot tree, I felt no de­sire to move very far. I was gear­ing my­self up for a self­guided walk through Provence – specif­i­cally around the Monts de Vau­cluse and the north­ern Luberon. But on this lan­guid af­ter­noon, I was happy to in­dulge in some lo­tus-eat­ing at Le Mas du Grand Jon­quier, about 8km south of l’isle-sur-laSorgue. As was im­me­di­ately ap­par­ent, this was the sort of farm­house B&B where the only way to leave is re­luc­tantly.

We ar­rived in time for a swim in the won­der­fully ec­cen­tric and enor­mous gar­dens, where there were more ham­mocks and daybeds than you could wave a toy sheep at – and there were some of those too. Din­ner was un­der a vast chest­nut tree draped in chan­de­liers, ser­e­naded by ci­cadas.

Af­ter this gen­tle in­tro­duc­tion, we set off the fol­low­ing morn­ing on our six-day walk through Provence’s land­scapes. Some were fa­mil­iar – laven­der fields, olive groves and vine­yards – while others re­vealed the more rugged side of the Vau­cluse.

The morn­ing’s ob­jec­tive was the exquisitely pretty Fon­taine-de-vau­cluse, reached af­ter a four kilo­me­tre walk along rocky trails through pine and fir woods, whose heady scent had been re­leased by the hot sun. De­scend­ing into the town, I could see a gi­ant mossy wa­ter­wheel lazily churn­ing up the im­pos­si­bly green wa­ters of the River Sorgue.

A wa­ter­side cof­fee at Les Ter­rasses was enough to sus­tain us for the one-kilo­me­tre steep as­cent out of the vil­lage, where we spot­ted the first of many bories – those seem­ingly an­cient con­i­cal stone shep­herds’ huts found in this part of Provence. When the trail reached a plateau, I walked past wild laven­der bright­ened up even fur­ther by clouds of but­ter­flies. A farm just be­yond had the oblig­a­tory laven­der field in full bloom, where a pair of cy­clists had al­ready bagged the shady spot un­der a tree, so we car­ried on bit fur­ther to have our packed lunch by a lit­tle spring shaded by woods.

Se­cluded grounds

There were only another five kilo­me­tres to go along dusty ex­posed roads to reach our next ho­tel, the 18th-cen­tury Do­maine de la Grange Neuve, set in peace­ful se­cluded grounds, south of the tiny vil­lage of La Ro­quesur-pernes. The sprawl­ing gar­dens and ex­cel­lent half-board food more than made up for the sim­plic­ity of the rooms – not to men­tion that feel­ing of ut­ter bliss when you dive into a pool af­ter a 13-kilo­me­tre walk in 30° heat.

It was tempt­ing to spend the fol­low­ing day just loung­ing in those re­lax­ing gar­dens, em­u­lat­ing Bis­cotte, the ho­tel’s sun-loving, floppy-eared dog. But we had a cir­cu­lar walk to do that would take us to Ve­nasque, one of France’s Plus Beaux Vil­lages. Be­fore we reached this hill­top vil­lage, we wan­dered past vine­yards be­fore head­ing down­hill along a stony path that turned into an ex­tremely nar­row rocky chan­nel. As I was gin­gerly mak­ing my way along the rocks, I could hear a man be­low shout­ing en­cour­ag­ingly in French. He wasn’t talk­ing to me, but to his girl­friend who was strapped into a climb­ing har­ness above and was even more

gin­gerly mak­ing her way down un­der the Jou­ve­nal plateau. We had in­ad­ver­tently stum­bled upon one of the most pop­u­lar climb­ing sites in the Vau­cluse, where an in­tim­i­dat­ing wall of lime­stone was stud­ded with climb­ing bolts drilled into the rock face.

Af­ter an up­hill hike, Ve­nasque and its ram­parts were a wel­come sight – es­pe­cially the panoramic ter­race at Le Petit Chose, where cof­fee came with views of for­est-cov­ered lime­stone hill­sides. The vil­lage is pure de­light, from its tiny foun­tain in the com­pact main square, to its gal­leries, me­dieval church of Notre-dame and its lit­tle boulan­gerie, that made hefty baguette sand­wiches which we stowed away to en­joy later in the cool of the for­est.

We took a quick de­tour along Ve­nasque’s Es­planade past its two Ro­man tow­ers. From here, there was a marvel­lous view of the Monts de Vau­cluse and the Den­telles de Mont­mi­rail. Mont Ven­toux was there too, ac­cord­ing to the ob­ser­va­tion table, but it was hid­ing its bar­ren peak be­hind a cloud.

Mak­ing a men­tal note to make a proper re­turn visit, we car­ried on down­hill on stony foot­paths through woods to­wards tiny Le Beaucet. Soon I could see the forested hill­sides we had cov­ered ear­lier in the day as the vil­lage – which looked as if it had been hewn into the rock – came into view. As we walked up the cob­bled streets past the ru­ined 12th-cen­tury cas­tle, cats were lazily stretch­ing them­selves by the vil­lage lavoir, which, oddly and en­dear­ingly, con­tained a shelf of books.

Just three kilo­me­tres of up­hill foot­paths sep­a­rated us from the joys of the swim­ming pool and those lovely gar­dens at Grange Neuve. Din­ner on the restau­rant ter­race was a con­vivial af­fair, filled with the flavours of Provence in­clud­ing thin slices of cour­gettes and aubergines filled with goats’ cheese

and served with pis­tou. A post-pran­dial walk along the empty lanes re­vealed the bar­ren peak of Mont Ven­toux in the dis­tance as well as a large aban­doned borie. Back in the gar­dens, I watched bats swoop in the twi­light in hot pur­suit of flies, while ci­cadas made their sound of sum­mer. As far as ru­ral idylls go, this one was working its magic.

Valley views

The rel­a­tively bright lights of Gordes were wait­ing for us on our next day’s walk. Tak­ing a gen­tle up­hill gravel path in the di­rec­tion of St-gens, I would turn around oc­ca­sion­ally and take in wide views of the Vau­cluse valley be­low, with l’isle-sur-la-sorgue and Car­pen­tras vis­i­ble from a height of about 630m.

Abruptly, the ground be­neath me changed from white lime­stone to deep red ter­ra­cotta as we crossed into a dif­fer­ent land­scape. Signs were warn­ing walkers that these were sheep-graz­ing grounds, but nei­ther sheep nor shep­herds were to be seen. Most of what we had walked formed parts of var­i­ous GR ( Grande Ran­don­née) routes, as did this one, which also in­cor­po­rated one of the Vau­cluse’s Vélor­outes. But, like the sheep, all other hik­ers and cy­clists were ab­sent. In fact, we had run into very few peo­ple so far.

This was to change as we made our way through holm oak forests and back into lime­stone ter­ri­tory on a slightly tricky de­scent in the Val­lon de Châteauneuf. At the foot was the un­ac­cus­tomed sight of dozens of cars and scores of peo­ple. We had ar­rived at the Ab­baye Notre-dame de Sé­nanque, one of the most vis­ited tourist sights in Provence. Af­ter en­joy­ing near soli­tude for the past few days, it came as a bit of a shock.

At least you didn’t have to buy a ticket to cast your eyes on the vividly pur­ple laven­der field that sweeps in front of the Cis­ter­cian abbey. With the laven­der in bloom, I had ex­cel­lent tim­ing to catch

one of the most cel­e­brated images of Provence.

Leav­ing most of the crowds be­hind – apart from a dozen or so who fan­cied a brief walk, and even they soon fiz­zled out – we took the rocky path up­hill from the abbey to­wards Gordes. Dry-stone walls soon ap­peared, be­hind which were olive groves and dis­creetly ex­pen­sive houses. Even­tu­ally the path led to another dry-stone wall, this one shel­ter­ing our next ho­tel, Le Mas des Ro­marins. Stepping out on to the ho­tel’s large restau­rant ter­race, I could see that this classy lit­tle three-star had bagged one of the best views of Gordes, another of France’s Plus Beaux Vil­lages. The fa­mil­iar hill­side of houses that makes up this in­stantly iden­ti­fi­able vil­lage – with the Luberon valley and hills just be­yond – could be en­joyed and savoured in peace.

Me­dieval cas­tle

Over the years I had cy­cled and driven to Gordes, but this was the first time I’d ar­rived on my own two feet. In just a few min­utes I was in the cen­tre, with its hulk­ing me­dieval cas­tle be­hind me and the lively Place Genty Pan­taly and its foun­tain in front. Pass­ing the at­trac­tive stone build­ings filled with cafés and shops, I headed past the 12th cen­tury church and down the cob­bled lane to­wards a view­point on the east­ern side of the vil­lage. Here, the Luberon stretched out in all its glory, a serene patch­work of olive groves and vine­yards sur­rounded by the deep green hills of the na­tional park.

Af­ter a much-needed swim, there was the plea­sure of din­ner on the ho­tel’s ter­race, where the qual­ity of the food matched the vista. Stuffed cour­gette flow­ers fol­lowed by roast sea bass and spelt risotto were on the menu du marché that even­ing, and were as ap­petis­ing as the sun­set that was mak­ing the vil­lage sky­line glow.

The fol­low­ing day’s walk gave me the op­tion of tak­ing a chal­leng­ing trek through the Gorges de Véron­cle, or a con­sid­er­ably less stren­u­ous de­tour around it. Not re­ally know­ing what I was get­ting my­self into, I opted for the ad­ven­tur­ous walk – not re­al­is­ing quite how much scram­bling and even some climb­ing there would be on the route. In spite of the tough­ness of the walk, I was ut­terly cap­ti­vated by the beauty of the gorge, and I couldn’t help but feel proud that I hadn’t bot­tled it.

An even­ing stroll around Gordes re­vealed the vil­lage’s pleas­antly un­hur­ried side once the day’s vis­i­tors had gone home. We checked out the hand­ful

When the trail reached a plateau, I walked past wild laven­der bright­ened up even fur­ther by clouds of but­ter­flies

of market stalls that had sprung in the square by the chateau be­fore head­ing around the cor­ner to Casa Rosario for large piz­zas on its cheer­ful ter­race.

Af­ter the pre­vi­ous day’s drama, the fi­nal walk of the week was much more man­age­able – even if it did in­volve another gorge, al­beit a much eas­ier one. As we made our way back to the start­ing point near Lagnes, we criss-crossed the riverbed in the cool woods of the Gorges de la Sé­nan­cole, be­fore we hiked up to a lime­stone plateau.

A track took us through woods of pines and chest­nut un­til the land­scape cleared and we could see the Luberon hills be­hind us. Ahead was a large sign salut­ing lo­cal school­child­ren who had planted 4,000 trees to re­place those de­stroyed by a for­est fire in 1989. Another mo­ment in his­tory came up as we reached the Mur de la Peste, a 27km wall built in the 18th cen­tury to stop the spread of the plague. Ig­nor­ing its macabre his­tory, we found it an ap­peal­ing place to sit on and eat our lunch while en­joy­ing views of olive groves and blue hills be­yond.

Ar­riv­ing in Lagnes, we had come full cir­cle. Well, nearly; in­stead of re­turn­ing to Le Mas du Grand Jon­quier, we stayed at its near neigh­bour, Le Mas des Grès, where you could prac­ti­cally smell the laven­der waft­ing over from a huge field next door. The ho­tel’s own­ers, Nina and Thierry, have cre­ated an en­chant­ing place where you can unwind in the gar­dens and by the pool. There was even a cov­ered out­door kitchen where you could make your own pic­nic. But then I wouldn’t have wanted to miss out on Thierry’s su­perb cook­ing, en­hanced by the balmy sum­mer air as we sat on the ter­race. His home­smoked duck breast is worth the jour­ney alone.

Af­ter the thrills of dis­cov­er­ing the Vau­cluse’s wild side, I was back in fa­mil­iar laid-back ter­ri­tory. In­ex­haustible in their beauty, the many faces of Provence had cast their spell once again.

ABOVE: The much-pho­tographed Ab­baye Notre Dame de Sé­nanque and its laven­der; RIGHT: Walk­ing trails are well sign-posted

BOT­TOM LEFT: Mary walk­ing the path through the Gorges de Véron­cle; ABOVELEFT: The café at the Fon­taine de Vau­cluse;RIGHT: View from Ve­nasque with Mont Ven­toux in the back­ground, ob­scured by cloud

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