We meet those who love this part of Provence, including a bestselling author
Made famous by ‘A Year in Provence’, the Luberon offers quaint Provençal villages and balmy countryside. Carolyn Reynier revisits to find out how the author – and the property market – are faring
Some 10 years ago I spoke to Peter Mayle, author of A Year in Provence, about his homes in the Parc Naturel Régional du Luberon. He discovered the area by accident when he and his wife Jennie visited Gordes – “sunset one night, the whole thing was absolutely ravishing”. Fellows playing boules, others sitting in a café, dinner in a lovely restaurant – this is the life, they thought, if we can ever live out here it would be great.
Their first house was near Ménerbes, north of the Montagne du Luberon; their second close to Lourmarin in the south. Peter talked of the changing seasons, winter tastings of local wines in the café, truffles, wild mushrooms and spring vegetables picked two hours before they come to the market. “It’s heaven,” he said.
To find out more about Peter Mayle’s heaven I spoke to Jean-marc Rosier whose agency is in the sunny hilltop village of Gordes. He explained that everything constructed in the commune has to be in limestone with Roman tiles ( tuiles canal), in keeping with the existing architectural style – “a real security from a visual point of view,” he adds.
Gordes’ rich architectural heritage includes a handful of hôtels particuliers, private mansions, often built into the village fabric. “They may be terraced on one side, sometimes on two, but they are very rarely isolated.” He explains that in olden days, these Luberon hilltop villages served a strategic purpose and were constructed as defensive bases.
Arriving below Gordes, you had to cross several lanes and pass beneath high walls from which you could be attacked. Today, househunters can expect to pay from €800,000 to several million euros for a property in the village.
Villas on the plain can be found from €500,000; these must also respect the obligations of stone and terracotta tile construction. Jean-marc says it is one of the rare communes where even agricultural buildings must be built in accordance with these conditions, i.e. with exposed stonework
Those who wish to build would like to see more land released for construction – those who already live here would not
( pierre apparente). “And believe me, it changes the price enormously,” he adds.
The surrounding hamlets of village houses, perhaps with a little outside space, have their own charm. Les Gros, an ancient Protestant hamlet, has a terraced construction with a “certain circularity” forming a kind of defensive micro-rampart. In Les Imberts, lying more on the plain, you find more rural buildings.
Old buildings for renovation are rare and the area’s popularity means demand for building land is strong. Those who wish to build, or who already own land without planning permission, would like to see more land released for construction – those who already live here would not, laughs Monsieur Rosier.
To the east lies Roussillon and its ochre quarries. Following the Second World War there was a rivalry between the artistic sides of the two villages with Roussillon being a bit more bohemian than Gordes, he explains. Gordes decided to go for the solidity of stone; Roussillon opted for the simply aesthetic approach – ochre colours.
You occasionally find tiny village houses squeezed in between two larger ones, with just a small terrace for €150,000-€200,000; and you can find properties with an internal pool worth over two million euros. Either way, the façade will be painted in ochre. “It’s obligatory, like stone is obligatory chez nous,” says Jean-marc.
There are some extraordinary properties in other villages – Ménerbes, Lacoste, Bonnieux. Couturier Pierre Cardin bought and restored the Lacoste château, with links to the Marquis de Sade, which hosts an annual music and theatre festival (this year from 15-24 July). However, some areas may be close to the road and noisy, while others are too ensconced in the Luberon itself. Generally speaking, Jean-marc says buildings with the greatest value tend to be large old former bastides and entirely renovated mas or other stone dwellings built from the local white limestone which takes on a greyish hue with age.
With a substantial percentage of second homes, especially in the upper price bracket, there is a high-end seasonal rental market. However, most villages are closely linked to the busy tourist season so life becomes undoubtedly quieter during winter months with local businesses closing for holidays and maintenance work.
Arnaud Rippert, at another family agency, Agence Sud Luberon in Lourmarin, explains that the southern Luberon has Aix-en-provence as its reference point, 30 minutes away, whereas the northern side has Avignon. Although southern villages are also touristy, they are animated ( vivants) all year round. Northern villages like Gordes are pretty and may be better known internationally, but many second homes are only occupied in July and August and Arnaud confirms that it can be a bit dead in the winter.
Lourmarin is well known thanks to the French writer and philosopher Albert Camus (1957 Nobel Prize for Literature; think The Stranger and The Plague), who bought a house here and is buried in the cemetery. You may have heard these lines: “Don’t walk behind me; I may not lead. Don’t walk in front of me; I may not follow. Just walk beside me and be my friend.” That was Camus.
Set back from main roads, it is a quiet village at the start of the picturesque Combe de Lourmarin, the small departmental road crossing the mountain chain to Apt. As Arnaud explains: “It’s at the foot of the Luberon so it’s in a very, very beautiful spot.”
In the same locality, within a radius of
around 10km, other villages popular with buyers include Cucuron, Vaugines and Ansouis. Shops are open year round and the proximity of Aix is a big help. It may be worth looking, too, at Lauris, close to the Durance river, which is becoming more popular, adds Arnaud.
There are many second homes here too (and so a good seasonal let market) but owners tend to come year round, not just in summer. They may live in Paris or London, but they come south every third weekend, and for all the holidays. Marseille Provence airport and the high-speed TGV (Aix and Avignon) are nearby.
The wide choice of property varies from stone village houses to large estates ( grosses propriétés) via modern villas and ancient mas. A village property may come with no outside space (just a pot of basil on the window sill), or could have a terrace, even a garden (very rare and therefore pricier). Expect to pay €300,000€350,000 for a 100m2 village house with terrace. Those with gardens are often larger; Arnaud recently sold one (200m2, renovated, pool in garden of 400m2, two parking spaces) for €1.15m.
Villas of 150m2-200m2 built in a traditional style over the past four decades or so, in a good location, with no work required, and a pool and garden would cost between €600,000 and €800,000. A 170m2 mas at Cucuron with pool in grounds of 6,000m2 recently sold for €650,000. Depending on the condition, Arnaud says you could pay up to €850,000, while the larger estates can easily pass the million euro mark.
Although it is difficult today to find an old tumbledown property for renovation, the area is experiencing a period of “second restorations,” says Arnaud. These houses were originally renovated decades ago and today’s prospective buyer often wants to redo everything.
However, this is not reflected in lower property prices, for two reasons. Firstly – another difference with the northern Luberon – there are fewer buildings in the south. Secondly, folk who buy here have made the choice to buy in the southern Luberon and they don’t sell unless they’re too old, divorce or die, hence there’s not an enormous amount for sale.
In the northern Luberon there is a real second home market. People buy, renovate to their taste, come on holiday for four or five years, and resell. So turnover is quicker whereas in the south it averages around 10 to 12 years – “C’est un micro-marché,” laughs Arnaud.
A not inconsiderable advantage of the southern Luberon is that you are more protected from the Mistral, the strong and chilly wind that hurtles down the Rhône valley. The Luberon chain forms a natural barrier. “Obviously if the Mistral is blowing, it’s going to blow here, too, but much less strongly than in Avignon, the Alpilles or in the north
Luberon,” says Arnaud. And all the southern villages which are backed up against the mountain are, of course, very sheltered from it.
I’ll leave you with another quote from Albert Camus: “In the depth of winter I finally learned that there was in me an invincible summer.” I do hope these Vaucluse villages may lure you to the Luberon so that you can experience both.
Top left: The ancient hilltop village of Gordes, in the northern Luberon Below left: The 12th- century Cistercian abbey of Notre-dame de Sénanque near Gordes, surrounded by lavender fields Top: Ochre facades in the streets of Roussillon (northern Luberon) Above right: The Sentier des Ocres at Roussillon, Below: The village of Lourmarin (southern Luberon)