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In Mayle's footsteps: a village tour of Provence

October 17, 2019 at 12:40 PM

I have always loved the escapism of travel writing and one of the earliest pioneers of the genre, who spawned a generation of imitators, was the late Peter Mayle, author of A Year In Provence. His delightful story of an English couple moving to the South of France and doing up a derelict farmhouse became one of the most successful travel books of all time, an unstoppable bestseller that made Mayle a multi-millionaire. However, Mayle’s enchanting account of idyllic French village life was to kick off a tourist stampede which continues today.30 years on from Mayle’s first days in the Luberon, his novel and subsequent sequels have put this once sleepy part of France firmly on the map.

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With an onslaught of tourists desperate to flush Mayle out and a rush of ex-pats beating a path to the area hoping to recreate the good life for themselves, he sold his beloved Menerbes home and moved to seclusion in America for some years. However, the lure of Provence proved irresistible and he returned in 1999 to an out-of-the-way manse somewhere between picture-book Lourmarin and tiny Vaugines. The house price gap illustrates the phenomenal growth in popularity and price of real estate here; in1989 Mayle bought his modest Menerbes bolthole for £190,000, whereas he sold a subsequent home in nearby Lourmarin in 2011 for €6 million. Mayle passed away in 2018 but the fascination he spawned for la vie Francaise lives on. Having recently spent two weeks in Provence, I was thrilled to find myself wending the same roads and villages so lovingly brought to life by Mayle. With a trusty local guide i.e. ex-pat friend, we set off from our base in Aix-en-Provence to explore Mayle’s backyard, the villages of the Luberon.

Lourmarin

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Lourmarin was our first stop for the famous Friday market. Lourmarin is reputed to be one of the most beautiful villages in France (one of many, I would argue!) and is located around 50kms from Aix and less than an hour’s drive from Marseilles airport. Leaving Aix’s main highways, you quickly find yourself on picturesque, narrow and curling rural roads with deep ditches on either side. On longer, open stretches, tall avenues of plane trees tower overhead; apparently Napoleon ordered the lining of these roads to ensure ample shade for troops on the march to war. The trees were cleverly planted to demarcate curves, crossroads and intersections and most survive today. Passing swathes of poppies in bloom across the countryside, we drove into charming Lourmarin, parking in a rutted field with resident ponies, right beside the spectacular Château de Lourmarin. This imposing stone 12th century fortress was converted into a renaissance castle in the 15th century and provides a stunning first impression for visitors. 

A short path up to the village delivered us to the bustling market which twists through the narrow streets and then spills into the main square. The stalls have an endless caravan of items on offer; incredible food, spices, herbs, fish, meat, fruit and cheeses. Exceptional home linens jostle with stunning clothing, shoes, hats, scarves and more. One memorable stand displayed an astonishing array of handmade wooden kitchen utensils you couldn’t imagine how you’d lived without. Stall holders dangled delicious titbits to sample; unctuous cheeses, sun-kissed olives, fresh baked breads, piquant tapenades. All the while, chickens roasted on a spit, throwing out mouth-watering aromas, leaking onto potatoes greedily soaking up the juices in a baking tray below. 

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Friday in Lourmarin is definitely the place to buy your weekly flowers with enormous bunches of blossoms in every variety. We settled on delicate blush-tipped pink peonies for a mere €10 a bunch. As the market stalls closed and begin to pack down after midday, the sensible shoppers made their way through the curving cobbled streets to the centre of the village, to secure a lunch spot. With tables and eateries on every footpath, most restaurants and cafes do cater to the tourist trade with set price lunches of around €15-18 for staples such as pizza, moules and frites, or variations on salad, all washed down with a carafe of local rosé for about €8. Leaving Lourmarin fortified and satiated, we headed towards Cucuron for a photo opportunity beside one of its main drawcards, the beautiful pool of water in the main square known as the bassin de l’etang.

Cucuron  

The bassin or large pool of water at the heart of the village is an enormous man-made stone pond dating from the 14th century. Cucuron’s bassin featured in the 2006 romantic comedy A Good Year, starring Russell Crowe, an adaptation of the novel written by… Peter Mayle. The spring-fed bassin previously supplied the mill and is home to many fish. It provides a popular centrepiece for Cucuron’s Tuesday market and the restaurants and cafes that mark the perimeter. Cucuron’s streets and houses wind their way up to a ruined castle or ‘keep’ at the highest point, although only the castle’s dungeon remains.

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Driving back to Aix, we diverted to the astonishingly beautiful hamlet of Vauvenargues, nestled at the foot of imposing Mont Sainte-Victoire. The majestic mountain provides a constant backdrop to Provencal life; visible for miles around the region, it was immortalised in countless paintings by Paul Cezanne.

Vauvenargues is tiny and somewhat isolated from passers-by, so we were able to park by the cemetery and meander its small lanes, seeing only a few other people. Wandering around Vauvenargues, time appears to have stood still with poignant memorials to lost sons and heroes of the World Wars proudly displayed. One village ‘son’ who was arrested by the Gestapo and taken to Buchenwald has his own prominent plaque, remembering his sacrifice ‘Mort Pour La France’. 

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The most important landmark here appeared towards the end of our stroll - the superb medieval Chateau de Vauvenargues, which was built on a site occupied since Roman times.

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In 1958 it was bought by the exiled Spanish artist Pablo Picasso, who considered Cezanne his artistic mentor. Picasso did not die here, but was buried in its gardens after his death in 1973. His wife Jacqueline followed 13 years later and rests beside him beneath the shady terrace. The chateau is still owned privately by Picasso’s family. 

Bonnieux

A few days later, we headed to Bonnieux. Built on a plateau above the Luberon, the view from this elevated village is wonderful, looking out across the valley with its criss-cross patchwork of orchards and vineyards. Bonnieux is close to Menerbe, Mayle’s first village and thus it is visited several times in his book. 

Indeed, another Bonnieux landmark, the Chateau La Canorgue starred in Mayle’s film ‘A Good Year’. Bonnieux was a papal town for about 500 years and home to several bishops and ecclesiastical dignitaries. Hence there are plenty of churches to visit including the 12th century, Roman/Gothic 'Vieille Eglise'. There are also some beautiful houses in Bonnieux, no doubt dating back to the relative opulence brought to the town by its papal inhabitants. The colourful shutters contrast with the warm stone buildings to create colourful and vibrant photo opportunities. In the village, the museum of bread-making is a real drawcard. 

Roussillon

From Bonnieux, we drove 11kms to Roussillon, a village that was set to take my breath away. Roussillon – you have my heart! It’s incredibly hard to do justice to the splendour of Roussillon as photographs don’t do it justice. If I had the money to ‘do a Mayle’, Roussillon would be my pick of the Provencal villages to hang my hat; it’s unique, it’s stunning, it’s a world apart! As you approach Roussillon you notice that the surrounding hillside and fields have turned fiery orange-red, thanks in part to a nearby ochre quarry. These striking natural red cliffs contrast with the vivid blue sky and green trees, creating an unforgettable palette combined with the unique ochres, pinks and yellows of Roussillon’s houses. 

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Every street, every building in Roussillon is a photo opportunity. An incredible painted doorway is ‘insta-famous’ and provides a stunning introduction to the next corner, and the next. 

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Numerous artists have been seduced by Roussillon, so you will discover several art galleries and studios here plus of course, excellent restaurants. For all this beauty, you pay a price. When we visited in May, busloads of gobsmacked tourists were being disgorged into the narrow laneways. I can’t imagine what it is like here in June and July, jostling for space. And yet, behind the churches and in some of the upper reaches of the village, you can find quiet solitude to revel in the incredible beauty of the town and its surrounds. 

I could have left Roussillon and Provence then and there, content in the knowledge I would be unlikely to visit any other place on earth quite as beautiful. But we drove on past the famed fields showing early promise of lavender and sunflower extravaganza to our next incredible destination, Gordes. I had read that Gordes was known as the Parthenon of Provence - an imposing edifice born of stone that always attracted its share of attention just for its looks. Gordes IS stunning as you approach it – and stunning once you are in it! Famous painters such as Renoir, Picasso, Matisse and Van Gogh have all put brush to canvas to immortalise it. The town is characterised by buff-coloured dry stone buildings and walls, cascading precariously in layers down a vertiginous hillside. The flat rectangular slabs of rock give the impression the buildings are stacked upon each other like a giant game of Jenga. 

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We spent a few hours wandering the steep, cobbled streets, wondering how anyone navigates them during Winter’s cold sleet! These treacherous stony slopes look relatively unchanged from medieval days, with ancient cart ruts and worn surfaces marking centuries of use. They must have seen their fair share of accidents; overturned wagons, spilt produce and injured residents. 

When Pete Mayle mentioned he had been invited to a party in Gordes, and couldn’t find a car park, I sympathised. The steep streets ensure you have a good walk ahead of you, no matter where you leave the car. This was a town built to protect its inhabitants. The site has been occupied since prehistoric times and there’s a medieval castle at the summit, which served as a fortress from the 10th century. Its spectacular position and incredible histoire have earned Gordes a reputation of privilege with very high real estate prices to match. We gazed into the open door of the 5 star La Bastide de Gordes, part of Quay Travel’s Signature Travel Network and one of the leading hotels in the world situated on one of the most exceptional sites in the world.

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A favourite spot of many celebrities - we could only admire, then walk on past its hallowed portal. Catching the tail end of the weekly market (Tuesday) we did manage to secure a few Gordes bargains, to offset the more expensive purchases from the exclusive designer stores dotting the streets.

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Until next time – à bientôt - when we visit the mother of all markets in L’Isle-sur-la-Sorgue, and discover Les Baux-de-Provence!

Stephanie travelled to France with all travel booked through Quay Travel. Let us put together a stunning itinerary for you too.

We recommend the InterContinental Marseilles - Hotel Dieu when you fly into Marseilles - or try La Mirande in historic Avignon.

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