First time I had heard of the famed region was in my living room, sometime in the mid ’90s. I had spotted a new novel on our bookshelf. Knowing each and every title by heart, it surprised me to find a spine that I didn’t recognize. “A Year in Provence”, it read. Being an adolescent who was heavily into science fiction at the time, I didn’t respond to its charming cover and left it unread. And so I remained unaware. Provence was just another word whose meaning was yet to be discovered, until two months ago, when a summer wedding in Cannes gave me the perfect excuse to visit the south of France.
Two couples in a rented Mercedes sedan, with one (out of six full days) reserved for roaming the beautiful hill-towns of the Luberon.
Our starting point was Aix-en-Provence: after a night in the City of Fountains, we set out to tick the towns we’d so carefully listed down in our itinerary off the list, one-by-one.
Stop #1: Lourmarin
We headed north from Aix toward Lourmarin; an easy 30-min drive. Our first stop had an abundance of quaint little terrace cafés that lined the sides of its snaking streets; perfect for people-watching our fellow tourists. We found Café Gaby pretty quickly after following the crowd towards the middle of Place de l’Ormeau. After signalling to the mâitre d’, we found ourselves the occupants of a 4-seater table just by the door, where we began to take in the sights, sounds, and smells while waiting for our plats du jour.
With weather just sunny enough to take nice photos of the chic store fronts and empty doorways (without having to worry about competing with over-eager tourists), it was easy motivation for walking our meal off.
Lourmarin is not a hill-town (unlike the ones to follow) but its narrow, winding alleys are more than enough eye-candy without being too hard on your knees and calves.
Stop# 2: Bonnieux
It was close to 3pm when we decided to head to the car and make our way toward Bonnieux. Knowing that we wouldn’t have time (or energy) do a 7km hike between Bonnieux and Lacoste, it was an inevitable toss-up between the two. Lacoste being another town-on-a-hill (better known for the Marquis de Sade’s castle, now owned by Pierre Cardin, the view from Café de France, and its art school), we settled for Bonnieux.
Bonnieux required more climbing than Lourmarin, which could’ve explained the scarcity of tourists. However, this made Bonnieux a fantastic vantage point for viewing neighbouring Lacoste and the expansive Vaucluse plateau via viewing decks near the old church.
Time felt much slower and it passed quicker than we’d imagined. It provided some timely contrast to the bustling busyness of Lourmarin, and after 1.5 hours of walking, we left to visit the famed Abbaye de Sénanque.
Stop #3: Abbaye Notre-Dame de Sénanque
During my research, I stumbled upon two photos that made me aware of the Luberon: of Gordes from afar during sunset, and another of lush lavender fields at a little Cistercian abbey near Gordes. More research only strengthened my resolve. The Modern Trobadours say it best:
Many images come to mind when one mentions “Provence.” Rosé, bouillabaisse, truffles, sunflowers, colorful fabrics, hilltop villages, and the Côte d’Azur, for example. But none is more firmly entwined with Provence than lavender.
Timing was not on our side, though; harvest season for Provençal lavender is known to be around late June to early August. With our Luberon drive-about scheduled in early August, our quartet thought we’d have nothing to lose if we went to see if there was any left.
With tension mounting in my heart, not even passing Gordes and its lovely sepia-toned houses cascading down its hillside—like a stone waterfall—were enough to distract me. The FOMO was real!
Sure enough, when we arrived there was nothing for us but the disappointment I’d already prepared for. Thank Glob for plan B. We spent barely 5 minutes there before rerouting the Merc’s GPS for Roussillon, which was our back-up destination for when the Abbey proved to be a dud.
Stop #4: That lone lavender field, Murs
Sleepy from the wine and heat, I was readying myself for Rousillon’s ochre buildings when I heard my boyfriend call out from the passenger seat,
“Hey, aren’t those lavender fields?”
Lo and behold, in between barren and overgrown fields, was a larger plot of lilac-hued flowering plants. A lavender field!
We turned a bend and drove by it; it was empty and unlike Sénanque Abbey, there was no fence that could keep us away.
We parked on the side of the deserted dirt road and grabbed our picnic gear and cameras.
After tiptoeing gingerly to avoid stepping on thorns and rocks (or getting stung by bees), we began walking into the purple lanes, just marvelling at our sheer luck. It was then—in the midst of being photographed by our friends— that my then-boyfriend knelt and asked me to marry him.
No wonder they seemed more bummed than I was after Sénanque, and more eager to find a lavender field.
Needless to say, for I could never have imagined a more perfect setting, I said yes.
We celebrated by setting up a makeshift picnic mat and immediately popped open a bottle of bubbly. We soon realized what a bad idea this was when bees eventually came over to celebrate with us.
We packed up quickly to search for a less bee-sy picnic site, which we found after a few minutes on the road back toward the direction of Gordes.
Stop #5: Gordes
We drove back toward our final destination to make our dinner reservation at Les Cuisines du Chateau. I was given the reins to choose where we would be having dinner, but my first choice, La Trinquette, was fully booked. Lesson learned: book at least 3 nights in advance, not the night before! After finding a public parking lot, we walked by the side of the road toward Vielle Ville de Gordes to take in the view as the sunset approached.
We found an empty path that took us down the side of the hill, past a small vineyard, then up many calades into Gordes. We found the restaurant just behind the castle in the middle of town. Dinner was delicious, and we probably had more wine than we should’ve had (but hey, we’re in Provence and wine is water here), but there was more than one reason to celebrate the day. Gordes is just as beautiful during nightfall, when the sun dims its light and the town’s take over, you can see the stone buildings in their grandeur as your eyes adjust to the night.
And so we walked back to the car, with the weather changing rapidly in the absence of the sun’s rays. We headed back to Aix with memories of our Luberon day-tour stored fervently in our brain cases. Definitely a day for the books.