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