In the Land of Lavender – The Best of the Luberon

In the Land of Lavender – The Best of the Luberon

It was well into autumn when I visited the Lubéron for the first time. Tourists were thin on the ground in the medieval villages perched atop craggy limestone ledges rising from the rolling valleys of this idyllic corner of Provence in the southern foothills of the Alps. I was in a photographer’s paradise! Until I caught my first glance at the lavender fields that are the symbol of the region. By now they were just sad rows of neatly trimmed dull green pincushions ready for the onset of winter.

Lavender Season

Luberon-lavender tourist.

My friend Ligaya strikes the de-rigueur pose in a lavender field.

For lavender, the blooming season starts around the summer solstice, peeks in early July and culminates with the harvest by the end of the month. It took me almost a decade to manage a return visit within this propitious timeframe. But finally, on a recent July morning, I am heading north from Aix-en-Provence at the wheel of a tiny cherry red rental car, the kind that gets laughs in Hollywood comedies about Europe. My co-pilote is a friend, who with impeccable sense of timing, recently announced her visit for precisely this week. This is her first time in the Lubéron. I am delighted to share with her the most spectacular spots of the region.

Picture Perfect Gordes

Luberon-Gorde village.

Gordes is the most visited village of the Lubéron.

Even in an area famous for its abundance of picturesque villages perchés (hilltop villages), the first glance at Gordes is guaranteed to take your breath away. Coming from the south, the narrow road leading to the crest of a cliff suddenly reveals, on the opposite side of the chasm, one of the most spectacular villages ever. Its tall white limestone houses are anchored to the rock face along lanes that wind upward toward the castle and church at the very top of the promontory. Don’t be surprised if the site looks vaguely familiar. It has scored a supporting role in several movies over the time, most notably the BBC mini-series, “A Year in Provence”, and the popular 2006 Ridley Scott movie, “A Good Year”, starring Russell Crowe.

To be honest, the view is the most interesting part of Gordes. We soon leave behind its quaint cobbled streets lined with souvenir shops and continue on to the main event of our itinerary, the lavender fields of the Abbaye de Sénanque.

Sénanque Abbey

Luberon-Senanque vista.

A bend in the road reveals a bird’s eye view of Sénanque.

It’s a slow-going four kilometers (2.5 miles) north from the village, via a steep downhill road cut into the rock face, to Sénanque. Halfway down the cliff, a vantage point reveals a bird’s eye preview of the 850-year-old abbey wedged into the narrow valley floor below, surrounded by it famous purple fields of lavender in full bloom.

Luberon-Senanque church

Our Lady of Sénanque is one of the finest examples of medieval Cistercian architecture in Provence.

Built in the twelfth century by Cistercian monks, Sénanque is one of the finest and best-preserved examples of Romanesque monastic architecture in Provence. The stark beauty of its limestone façade, weathered by the centuries to a pale heather gray, provides a perfect backdrop for the dense rows of purple flowers undulating in the warm summer breeze. This time of year, hundreds of visitors from around the world make their way daily to the abbey, eager to experience first hand and get their own shots of this unique place.

Luberon-Senanque gift shop.

The gift shop is adjacent to the medieval dormitory.

In spite of this influx of tourists, who are welcomed by lay people, the abbey maintains its monastic life, following the medieval cycle of prayer, silence, study and work of the cloistered Cistercian order. In addition to the cultivation and processing of lavender, the monks also keep hives. A wide range of lavender and honey products is available in the gift shop.

The church, reputed for its harmonious Romanesque lines arching toward a gently pointed barrel vault, is open to visitors. Also notable is the absence of main a portal. In keeping with the Cistercian ideals of simplicity, the entrance consists of two modest doors that open onto the side aisle. A guided visit of the adjoining twelfth century cloister and monastic buildings is also possible.

A Blazing Palette

Luberon-Roussillon.

Roussillon owes its vibrant colors to the nearby ochre quarries.

Leaving behind the fragrant lavender fields buzzing with honeybees and tourists, we head eastward along a shady country road to Roussillon. Situated atop one of the richest ochre deposits in the world, this tiny hilltop village emerges from a forest of lush green pine trees like a life-size Post-Impressionist painting. The ochre-tinted facades of the houses lined along the maze of narrow cobbled lanes create an astonishing palette of flaming colors ranging from subtle yellows to dark reds, set off by the vivid blue Provencal sky. Other than this spectacular sight, the main attraction of Roussillon is the Sentier des Ocres (Ochre Trail), a relatively easy hiking trail through the former ochre quarries and surrounding woods, which starts just at edge of the village.

After a day of touring the roller-coaster back roads of the Lubéron and taking in its most iconic sites, we leave behind its rugged perched villages to head south into a lovely valley filled with vineyards and olive groves.Our final destination of the day, the charming village of Lourmarin.

Good to Know

  • Getting There – Gordes is located 100 kilometers (62 miles) north of Marseille, 75 kilometers (46 miles) north of Aix-en-Provence and 50 kilometers (31 miles) east of Avignon.. Because of the narrow country roads in the Lubéron and the large influx of visitors during the summer months, driving times can vary widely with the seasons.
  • Visiting – Comprehensive information for visitors to the entire area is available through the official tourism site: Lubéron Coeur de Provence.

Location, location, location!

Abbaye de Sénanque

In the Land of the good life – Château La Fleunie, Perigord

In the Land of the good life – Château La Fleunie, Perigord

Périgord… A word that conjures up medieval castles, precipitous cliffs, intriguing archeological sites and extravagantly rich food. I suspect the good life was born here, as wave after wave of our prehistoric ancestors came to settle in the many shelters conveniently hollowed out of the limestone cliffs by the Vézère and Dordogne rivers. And then there was the all-you-can-eat barbecue potential of the herds of reindeers that roamed the narrow alluvial valleys.

Perigord-Chateau La Fleunie.

Château La Fleunie is a medical castle reborn as boutique hotel.

By the middle ages, our forbearers were building fortresses to keep at bay the hordes of invaders eager to appropriate their good life. And from the bounty of their fertile land, they were creating a gastronomy that evolved into the pride of the region. Truffles and duck confit are traditional fare here.

Many fortified castles still stand on the hilltops, facing each other across the now peaceful banks of the rivers. Others materialize along the back roads that curve up and down the steep hills, when an opening in the foliage reveals turrets and crenellated walls. Some have remained private properties that can only be admired from afar, or historic sites to be visited in passing. But for visitors who yearn for a more personal experience, a number of these beautifully restored châteaux now have a new life as boutique hotels.

Le Château La FLeunie

Perigord - La Fleunie rear wing.

The rear wing of the hotel once housed the stables of the castle.

Little is known of the history of La Fleunie, other than it was built in the twelfth century by the Order of Saint John of Jerusalem, a community of monastic knights (later known as the Knight of Malta), on an estate given to them by the ruler of the area as reward for services rendered during the first crusades. The knights managed to hang on to their château for several centuries, and even enhance it in the fifteenth century (witness the Renaissance dormers). But eventually, local nobility moved in and the surrounding land became a part of their vast agricultural domain. Today, after a complete renovation in 1990 that mercifully preserved its original character, La Fleunie has become a charming 33-room, three-star hotel, secluded within its own 106-hectare (260-acre) estate.

Perigord-La Fleunie reception.

The public spaces have retained a medieval flair.

The first thing that attracts us to La Fleunie, other than the storybook looks of its pale U-shaped sandstone facades and four circular towers topped with sharply pointed slate roofs, is its location. The main purpose of our visit this weekend, Montignac, home to the world famous Paleolithic painted caves of Lascaux and the recently opened Centre International d’Art Parietal (International Center of Rock Wall Art), is only eight kilometers (five miles) away via a scenic back road. And all the other not-to-be-missed sites on our list (troglodyte villages of the Vézère Valley, and medieval gems along the Dordogne River) are all within a 45-minute drive. After a day spent roaming the countryside for prehistoric caves to Renaissance wonders, we enjoy returning to our very own château and relaxing on the lawn with a pre-dinner drink. Life is good at La Fleunie. And it’s about to get better.

La Table du Chevalier

Perigord-La Fleunie dining room.

The rustic dining room décor recalls its medieval history.

We are dining at La Table du Chevalier (the Knight’s Table) tonight, which the property’s website introduces as its restaurant gastronomique, the French code word for seriously upscale in both its cuisine and setting. No idle boast in a place where gastronomy has been a way of life ever since overweight ducks were first turned into foie gras.

Perigord-Table du Chevalier asparagus starter.

The cream of asparagus starter is garnished with foie gras.

 

The dining room is formal, decorated with a medieval flair that recalls the property’s history. The ancient beams that hold the soaring ceiling are adorned with brightly colored hand-painted garlands. The upholstery of the high back dining chairs recalls the faded tapestries hanging from on the rough limestone walls. The white linen-draped tables are set far apart to ensure the privacy and comfort of the guests. The stage is set for a memorable meal.

Memorable Meals

Perigord-La Fleunie spring lamb.

The filet of spring lamb is grilled to perfection.

After a lovely amuse-bouche of salmon tartare topped with a swirl of tangy, cloudlike lime mousse, I start with the chaud-froid d’asperges. The cool cream of fresh asparagus is garnished with paper-thin slices of smoked magret de canard (duck breast) and slivers of foie gras. It’s smooth, light and bursting with interesting flavors. I follow with a filet of spring lamb, grilled to medium-rare perfection, and served with alternating dollops of smoky purée of white beans and mousseline of potatoes enhanced with grainy old-style mustard. Brilliant in its apparent simplicity.

Perigord-Table du Chevalier confit.

The confit de canard is drizzled with nuggets of caramelized duck skin.

One of my dining companions, who can never pass up a duck confit, orders the innocuously listed “Confit de Canard with the chef’s potato purée”. It appears as a mysterious mound of smooth potatoes enhanced by chopped fresh vegetable and herbs, drizzled with bits of caramelized duck skin and topped with a crunchy ball of pastry filled with duck essence. A generous portion of boneless confit is concealed under the succulent potato puree. All it takes is a taste to convince all three of us accomplices on this girlfriends’ escapade to order it the following night.

Yes, we so thoroughly enjoy this first dinner that we reserve our table on the spot for the next evening.

The Knight behind the Table

Perigord -Chef Gregory Lafeuille

Chef Gregory Lafeuille.

There was never any question for Gregory Lafeuille, the inspired young chef of La Table du Chevalier, that he belonged in the kitchen. By the tender age of eight, he had declared himself in charge of preparing his family’s desserts, and had already compiled his own notebook of recipes. Fast forward a decade or so, and this Perigord native is pursuing advanced cooking and pastry studies at the Lycée Hôtelier in nearby Souillac. There, he earns himself internships in prestigious local restaurants, including Le Vieux Pont at Belcastel (one Michelin star) and Michel Bras in Laguiol (three Michelin stars), as well as further afield with the Spanish luxury hospitality chain Parador. Back in Perigord, within three year of starting at Le Château in St Geniès, he works his way up to sous-chef. Another brush with stars follows, in London this time, at Chef Marcus Wareing’s eponymous Marcus restaurant in Belgravia (two Michelin stars) before returning home to join La Table du Chevalier. Here, after two years as sous-chef he assumes the top role in 2016, and now dishes out his own style of masterfully prepared, elegantly presented creations rich with the earthy flavors of the Perigord heartland.

Chef Lafeuille’s imaginative cuisine is so popular with local gourmets at well as La Fleunie guests that reservations are a must, especially on weekends.

Good to Know

  • Getting in TouchChâteau La Fleunie, Rue d’Aubas, 24570 Condat-sur-Vézère, France. Contact: e-mail lafleunie@free.fr,Tel: +33 (0)5 53 51 32 74
  • Getting There – Condat-sur-Vézère is located four hours by car southwest of Paris and 2 hours northeast of Bordeaux (Highway A89, exit n°17 Montignac-Lascaux).

A Few Souvenirs

Location, location, location!

Château La Fleurie