The Palais des Papes is a daz­zling display of lime­stone walls and tur­rets

Living France - - Where to Live -

HIS­TORIC CAP­I­TAL

Near the con­flu­ence of the Du­rance and the Rhône on its way to the Mediter­ranean, Avi­gnon has long en­joyed a priv­i­leged lo­ca­tion. In 1309, the Popes set­tled here for po­lit­i­cal rea­sons. They re­mained for al­most 100 years, build­ing the city walls and the im­pos­ing Palais des Papes which dom­i­nates the sky­line to this day. From the old Ro­manesque fortress to the new Re­nais­sance build­ing in Gothic style, the Palais is a daz­zling display of lime­stone walls and tur­rets, guarded by the golden statue of Our Lady of the Doms atop the cathe­dral’s bell tower. It’s a steady climb to the Rocher des Doms above the Palace but worth it for its shaded gardens and fab­u­lous views over the city on one side and the river on the other.

In Avi­gnon, the Rhône splits to en­cir­cle the Barthe­lasse, one of the largest river is­lands in Europe. It is now a pro­tected area – no new build­ings are al­lowed – with recre­ational fa­cil­i­ties and farm­land rich in veg­eta­bles and fruit. There is a bridge but the free navette flu­viale fer­ries you across in min­utes. You can stroll or cy­cle along the towpath, pic­nic un­der the trees, look out for beavers, herons or cor­morants and gaze at the city across the wa­ter at the leg­endary Pont d’Avi­gnon, listed by UNESCO as part of the his­toric cen­tre but stop­ping abruptly half­way across the river. Danc­ing, as in the song, is not rec­om­mended but you can walk to the end past the chapel which once held the relics of Saint Bénézet, the shep­herd in­spired by divine voices to build the first bridge, later dam­aged by war and floods. To­day the Rhône has been tamed, invit­ing vis­i­tors to re­lax on a leisurely cruise be­fore re­turn­ing to the bustling town.

For there’s much to ex­plore in town from the old con­vents and churches to the mu­se­ums, from the se­cluded squares to the pop­u­lar Place de l’Hor­loge or the Place Pie with its ver­ti­cal gar­den and cov­ered mar­ket where a café owner will cook your own pro­duce for lunch for the price of a drink. There are grand bour­geois houses west of the main street, hid­den squares and cob­bled lanes to the east, such as the pic­turesque Rue des Tein­turi­ers (dy­ers), a favourite place to chill out dur­ing the world-fa­mous Fes­ti­val of Per­form­ing Arts held ev­ery sum­mer. Mean­while, craft shops beckon with fra­grant herbs and laven­der prod­ucts and al­fresco restau­rants serve beef medal­lions and rata­touille with a bot­tle of Châteauneuf-du-Pape.

FA­MOUS VINE­YARDS

It’s only a short drive to the il­lus­tri­ous vine­yards, spread­ing lu­mi­nous green be­low the medieval vil­lage and the ves­tiges of the Pope’s ‘sum­mer palace’.

Neil Joyce ar­rived in Châteauneuf-duPape in 2008 with his French wife Béa­trice. “I re­mem­ber a pic­nic in France when I was 14,” he laughs, “I was asked what I’d drink, ‘wa­ter’, I said, but I was of­fered my first glass of mus­cadet. It was a ‘ coup de coeur’ then af­ter many years work­ing around the coun­try, I got the chance to run a wine es­tate bought by my old boss. We called it La Célestière, in har­mony with the Popes. We renovated the build­ings, cre­ated our first vin­tage in 2009 and our 26 hectares of vines – Châteauneuf-du-Pape, plus Côtes-du-Rhône and Vin de Pays de Vaucluse – are or­ganic. It’s all about qual­ity, not quan­tity. We soon got to know the vi­gnerons – I’ve been in­ducted into the brother­hood. And as for Provence, it’s great – sun­shine, scenery, good food and some of the best wines in the world.”

Con­tinue north and you reach Orange, a pretty town with pas­tel-hued fa­cades and bal­conies, a sin­gle nave cathe­dral, a Provençal mar­ket and two im­pres­sive Ro­man mon­u­ments. The Tri­umphal

Arch is nearly 20 metres high with three vaulted pas­sage­ways and or­nate sculp­tures de­pict­ing Ro­man vic­to­ries. It is a World Heritage site, like the Ro­man The­atre where the stage wall is said to be one of the best pre­served in the world, Em­peror Au­gus­tus pre­sid­ing in the cen­tral niche. The acous­tics are es­pe­cially ap­pre­ci­ated dur­ing the Choré­gies, the sum­mer opera sea­son. Not so far away, Vai­son-la-Ro­maine has its own fes­ti­vals and Ro­man ru­ins scat­tered along the River Ou­vèze, while the medieval vil­lage keeps watch on the hill.

NA­TURE RE­SERVE

In the ‘En­clave des Papes’ tucked away in the Drôme, Richerenches has win­ter truf­fle mar­kets, as does Car­pen­tras also known for its straw­ber­ries and the nearby vine­yards shel­tered by Mont Ven­toux. The craggy foothills, or Den­telles de Mont­mi­rail, are criss-crossed by walk­ing trails and at 1912 metres, the Vaucluse high­est peak is among the most chal­leng­ing climbs on the Tour de France, its bar­ren lime­stone sum­mit fre­quently bat­tered by high winds. But it is also a UNESCO bio­sphere re­serve with rare plants and 120 species of birds.

Nearby at­trac­tions in­clude the laven­der trail in Sault, the im­pres­sive Gorges de la Nesque and the pretty hill­top vil­lage of Vé­nasque, close to the Monts de Vaucluse which rise be­tween the Ven­toux to the north and the Mas­sif du Luberon to the south.

Cavail­lon, the gate­way to the Luberon, is a pleas­ant lit­tle place, fa­mous for its mel­ons, with tree-lined boule­vards and colour­ful lanes dwarfed by the sheer cliffs of the Colline St-Jac­ques. Go up to the view­point and the panorama is sure to hold you spell­bound; the town at your feet, the Du­rance val­ley and moun­tains ris­ing all around.

Cov­er­ing 1,800 km2, the Luberon Re­gional Na­ture Park stretches from the Monts de Vaucluse to the Mas­sif du Luberon: the Petit Luberon to the west, rugged and wild but reach­ing just over 700 metres in the cedar for­est and to the east, the gen­tler slopes of the Grand Luberon boast­ing the high­est point, Mourre Nè­gre at 1,125 metres. Cy­cle, ramble or drive and the scenery is al­ways chang­ing; dra­matic crags, forested slopes, wild gar­rigue or cherry or­chards, the red earth of Rous­sil­lon or Rus­trel (the ‘Colorado Provençal’), the laven­der fields of Sé­nanque Abbey or the dry­s­tone shep­herds’ huts hid­den among pop­pies and golden broom.

But as de­scribed by Peter Mayle, the true heart of Luberon beats in the medieval vil­lages with their red roofs and ochre walls tum­bling down the slopes or cling­ing to the hill­tops. There are steep steps and cob­bled lanes, foun­tains and flow­ers, shaded squares and panoramic views. There you will find some of France’s plus beaux vil­lages – An­souis and Lour­marin and its combe di­vid­ing the Petit and Grand Luberon; Ménerbes on a ridge and Gordes wrapped around a rocky spur. Church bells chime now and then, and the land is fra­grant with rose­mary and thyme. Fol­low the Calavon river east of the Ro­man bridge and the town of Apt greets you with laven­der fields, can­died fruit and one of the best mar­kets in France.

LIV­ING IN LUBERON

Penny He­mery came to France as an au pair in 1978. “I wanted to per­fect my French,” she ex­plains, “then when I met my hus­band Julien, we ran a small ho­tel and gîtes in the north but we en­joyed many hol­i­days in the Vaucluse-Luberon. It was the south of France ‘far from the madding crowd’, and when we came across La Bastide de Voulonne near Gordes in 2005, we fell un­der the spell and within six months, we’d set­tled in. A guest house is hard work but so var­ied and re­ward­ing, meet­ing peo­ple from all over the world and get­ting to know the lo­cals as we visit mar­kets and winer­ies to source our prod­ucts. Healthy food, scenery, cul­ture, fes­ti­vals, quiet coun­try­side, colours and won­der­ful light; this is qual­ity life.”

On the edge of Luberon-Monts de Vaucluse, L’Isle-sur-la-Sorgue is the de­light­ful ‘Lit­tle Venice’ named af­ter the river which sur­rounds it and the canals fes­tooned in flower-draped bridges, mossy wa­ter­wheels and quay­side restau­rants. Its an­tique shops and fairs are sec­ond only to Paris. The River Sorgue takes its source just 15 min­utes from town above the vil­lage of Fon­taine de Vaucluse. There it’s a short but steep climb to peer down into the source but af­ter heavy rain, you might wit­ness the most spec­tac­u­lar resur­gence in Europe. Head back down to the vil­lage to see the work­ing pa­per mill, watch the ca­noes pad­dling on emer­ald wa­ters and as you sip a cool drink un­der the plane trees, look up in awe at the tow­er­ing cliffs bar­ring the hori­zon. For you have reached the closed val­ley, the ‘Val­lis Clausa’ which has given its name to this en­chant­ing depart­ment.

Avi­gnon on the River Rhône

Vine­yards of Châteauneuf-du-Pape

Above: Tri­umphal Arch at Lyon Right: Vil­lage house in Cavail­lon

Ab­baye de Sé­nanque

Above: The hill­top vil­lage of Gordes Be­low: A mossy wa­ter­wheel at L’Isle-sur-la-Sorgue

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