The eternal valley
It is popular for good reason, but you can still find a warm welcome and affordable property in Vaucluse, as well as a natural environment, finds Solange Hando
Despite its popularity it’s possible to find affordable property in Vaucluse
Can you feel the sun on your face all day long and catch the intoxicating fragrance of wild woody herbs? Can you see vineyards and villages bathed in golden light, cherry orchards and olive groves and sunflower fields? Are you surrounded by lots and lots and lots of fragrant lavender? Then there is a good chance that you are in Vaucluse, the beating heart of Provence.
Bordered by the Rhône to the west and the River Durance to the south, the department of Vaucluse actually gets its name thanks to another river, the Sorgue, which is fed by the largest spring in France, the Fontaine de Vaucluse. It rises in the heart of the department from a valley that abruptly ends in a cliff face, making it a closed valley, or vallis clausa in Latin.
Vaucluse has been admired for millennia, not just by the 4.2 million tourists who visit annually now but by the great and good of yesteryear, including the Popes and the Romans. Yet it is still possible to come to this lovely patch of south-east France and enjoy life as a property owner.
“The strong community life means it’s easy to integrate,” says Juliette Borg, an estate agent for Leggett Immobilier in the area. “You can join a local club, attend a festival or a cultural event, wander around a Provençal market or chat in a bistro.”
The department has a very pleasant climate, she adds, and a varied landscape in which anyone can find their dream home.
“Properties range from old mills and farms to mountain chalets, modern homes and architect-designed villas,” she says. “Prices are fairly high in the Lubéron but cheaper properties are available across the department. This is Provence at its best and compared to the Riviera, it is much more affordable.”
Vaucluse is also easy to access. Eurostar runs direct trains from London to Avignon or you can fly from London to nearby Nîmes (Ryanair) or in season from Southampton or Birmingham to Avignon (flybe).
Lubéron and Little Venice In the south-east, the Lubéron still echoes to the words of Peter Mayle, whose bestselling memoir A Year in Provence has been fostering Britain’s love of rural France since 1989. It may be busy in the high season but the Lubéron regional park – a UNESCO Biosphere Reserve – is a nature lover’s delight, with challenging hikes or family walks meandering across hills, forests and arid scrubland ( garrigue). The park covers 1,850 km2 from 70m to 1,125m on the peak of Mourre Nègre. There are birds and butterflies, canyons and lakes, drystone shepherds’ huts and five villages designated among the most beautiful in France.
Here, surrounded by vineyards, olive groves and almond trees, is Lourmarin, the animated village where Peter Mayle moved in later life. Them there’s the village of Roussillon, with its amazing ochre cliffs likened to Colorado. Ménerbes, the setting for the film A Year in Provence, is a fortified village perched on a rocky spur while the 1,000-year-old castle of Ansouis looks out over the forest-covered hills. And close to the lavender-rich Cistercian Abbey of Sénanque is scenic Gordes with its cobbled streets and Renaissance castle dominating the plain of Cavaillon.
On the edge of Vaucluse, Cavaillon is the gateway to the Lubéron, famous for its melons and hilltop paths looking over the Durance valley to the Monts de Vaucluse to the north. Then it’s only a short drive to L’isle sur la Sorgue, known as Little Venice because it is almost enclosed by the river and crisscrossed by canals with flower-draped bridges and old waterwheels covered in moss. There are waterside restaurants and cafés and art galleries housed in elegant mansions. But the ‘island’ is best known for its antique shops and fairs which attract an international clientele.
Just out of town, a unique natural wonder might hold you spellbound: after heavy rain, the River Sorgue displays the biggest resurgence in Europe. It’s a steep climb to the source but at the foot of the cliffs, canoes sail on emerald waters and the pretty village of Fontaine de Vaucluse invites you to relax in the shade. This is the ‘closed valley’ which gave its name to the department.
Around Avignon On the left bank of the Rhône, Avignon is the department’s préfecture, a colourful city known for its theatre festival and the old district guarded by restored medieval ramparts. There are cobbled lanes and bourgeois houses, myriad museums and lots of churches. The top attraction, however, is the Palais des Papes, home to the Popes in the 14th century. Fortress and palace all in one, it’s one of the most imposing Gothic buildings on the Continent, dwarfing the basilica rising next to it. The adjoining path takes you up to the Rocher des Doms, a hilltop garden fragrant with rosemary and thyme, overlooking the city on one side.
On the other, the River Rhône and the glistening boats cruise past the Pont d’avignon, the legendary ruined bridge immortalised in the song. Only four archways still stand but, alongside the Basilica and Palace, it is part of the historic centre listed by UNESCO.
If you like nature, the largest river island in the country beckons just minutes away. Barthelasse can be reached over a modern bridge but the free ferry ride is more atmospheric. With orchards, sunflowers, farmland, it’s a lovely spot laced in cycling and walking trails and you might see herons, cormorants, beavers, badgers, hedgehogs and more. The old towpath offers the best views of the Popes’ Palace across the water.
The Avignon Popes were partial to the local wine and a small piece of the neighbouring department of Drôme, known as the Enclave des Papes, is today officially part of Vaucluse as a nod to the fact that the 14th century Popes liked the wine produced there and bought the land.
The vineyards around Avignon still yield the superb AOC wines aptly named Châteauneuf du Pape, 95% red produced mostly from grenache grapes. Walking around the vineyards is a treat and a chance to discover your favourite vintage.
It’s all a world away from the early wines enjoyed by the Romans but the ancient empire left its mark nevertheless. A short drive from Châteauneuf brings you to the city of Orange with its lofty triumphal arch and famous theatre, which hosts the summer opera season and claims to be the best preserved theatre wall in Europe. Both sites are listed by UNESCO. To the north, the quaint community of Vaison-la-romaine has its own Roman vestiges along the River Ouvèze while the old medieval district clings to the hill.
Vaucluse is a select area where new developments tend to be private dwellings built on available plots of land. The property market is buoyant nevertheless, from village houses to detached villas with gardens and pools, their tiled roofs and ochre walls reflecting the traditional style. Most authentic of all are the mas de Provence, the old farmhouses built with local materials, but you will also find some elegant bastides, once home to wealthy landowners.
Avignon has plenty of properties for sale but nothing comes cheap. I found a small townhouse for €294,250 and an 18th-century mansion near a park for €758,000 while apartments ranged from €230,000 to over €1m. The attractive Lubéron hills are generally highly priced with a three-bedroom villa in Lourmarin for €527,725 and another in Ménerbes for €867,000 while a renovated farmhouse in Roussillon was on the market for €1.102m. However I spotted a small house in need of renovation for just €109,000 near Apt, in the quieter and more remote Grand Lubéron.
In L’isle sur la Sorgue, I saw a four-bedroom farmhouse with a large garden for €450,000 while a six-bedroom gîte in Châteauneuf du
With its tranquil waterways, L’isle sur la Sorgue is known as Little Venice
The strong community life means it’s easy to integrate The Lubéron regional park – a UNESCO Biosphere Reserve – is a nature lover's delight
Lubéron regional park
Is anybody dancing sur le pont d’avignon?
Gordes, one of the Plus Beaux Villages de France
L’isle sur la Sorgue
A flower-bedecked house in Cavaillon old town