An Idyllic Village in Provence – Lourmarin

An Idyllic Village in Provence – Lourmarin

There are two ways to visit the Lubéron, the spectacular corner of Provence in the southern foothills of the Alps. You can “do it” in one day. Drive along its shaded roller-coaster of country roads, following the well documented circuit of its most  breathtaking sites, Gordes, Senanque Abbey, Roussillon, et. al., and be back in time for dinner at a bistro terrace in Aix-en-Provence or Avignon. Or you can go one step better, wrap up your itinerary with an overnight stop in Lourmarin and bask in the laidback joie-de-vivre of this blessed little corner of the world.

A Picture-Perfect Provencal Destination

Luberon - Lourmarin terrace.

The colorful restaurant terraces are an invitation to linger.

Nestled in gently rolling hills covered with vineyards and orchards at the outlet of a small combe (i.e. dry valley between limestone cliffs) that bears its name, lovely Lourmarin is the southernmost village of the Lubéron. A peaceful gem that retains the unique charm of Provencal villages, its tall houses of pale limestone dating back to the Renaissance have long attracted artists and artisans. They have opened interesting boutiques and ateliers along the maze of ancient cadales (cobbled lanes) and handkerchief-size squares that wind up toward the eleventh-century Saint André church. Along the way, bistro terraces spill out of every corner, inviting visitors to linger. After the crush of the hilltop villages, where “most visited of the Lubéron” is often just another expression for trendy tourist attraction, Lourmarin is a charming contrast, a lived-in destination that welcomes its healthy influx of tourists without feeling overrun.

Luberon-Lourmarin.

The eleventh century steeple of Saint André church rises above the medieval skyline of Lourmarin. The more recent Reformed Protestant Church sits at the entrance of the village.

Lourmarin has a long history of making people feel at home. Once an important market center, it was like much of Western Europe, left semi-deserted by the black plague epidemic of 1348. And so it remained for a century, until the lord of the region, Foulques d’Agoult, brought it back to life. He invited the Vaudois (Waldesians), a minority of dissident Catholics that were then mercilessly persecuted in the southern Alps, to resettle in the village. Although the area was not left untouched by the wars of religion, the Waldesians prospered in Lourmarin, their descendants joining the Reformed Protestant movement in the sixteenth century. Their church (circa 1816) sits between the Château and the entrance of the village.

The First Renaissance Château

Luberon-Lourmarin loggia.

The three-tiered galleries of the Gothic loggia surround an enclosed courtyard.

Standing at the edge of a vast prairie, a five-minute walk from the village, the Château of Lourmarin is remarkable in that, while it was built in three stages across four centuries, each wing retained its own individuality. This allows today’s visitor to appreciate the evolution of architecture from medieval fortress to Renaissance castle.

Luberon-Lourmarin great hall.

Located in the Renaissance wing, the Great Hall is decorated with replicas and antiques of the period.

Little remains from the original fortress other than foundations and the north tower, to which is anchored the medieval Gothic “old Château,” built in the fifteenth century. Of this, only the superb loggia with its three tiers of galleries surrounding a spacious enclosed courtyard is opened to visitor. Entrance is through the octagonal tower that connects the Gothic and Renaissance parts of the castle, with a stunning staircase made of 93 stone slabs winding around a central spiral column. This Renaissance wing or “new Château,” with its airy façade and mullioned windows, is the first castle of this style to have been built in Provence. Fully restored and decorated with a mix of antiques and replicas of the furnishings of the era, it is opened to visitors. At entrance level, have a look at the kitchen and the concert room. Then let the staircase lead you up through the various aspects of the life daily life of Renaissance nobility. The Great Hall, a pair of intimate salons and the Ladies’ Chamber are on the second floor. Then on the third floor, see the Gentleman’s bedroom, office and music room. And enjoy the bonus of a bird’s eye view of the village.

L’Ancienne Maison des Gardes

Luberon-Lourmarin balcony.

The shaded balcony peers into the courtyard through a riot of trumpet vines.

But to me, the best part of Lourmarin is just being there, whiling away the evening, enjoying a leisurely dinner at the terrace of one of the several good restaurants and sipping the fruity local wine. Then under the starry velvet sky, return “home” to l’Ancienne Maison des Gardes (the Old Guard House). Little is known of this quintessential sixteenth century home in a quiet cul-de-sac alley at the edge of village, other than it was once part of its fortifications. But enter through the arched porte cochère (the heavy wooden double doors that once allow access to horse-drawn coaches) and you are in a place that dreams of Provence are made of.

Luberon-Lourmarin breakfast.

A sumptuous breakfast is served on the private balcony.

Centered on a sunny courtyard overrun by riotous trumpet vines in full vermillion bloom, the intimate guesthouse is the domain of Rose Robson, an English woman who came to Provence a dozen years ago looking for her place in the sun and never left. She promptly turned l’Ancienne Maison des Gardes (Chez Rose for short) into five cozy guest accommodations, each opening onto its own shaded terrace. My personal favorite is the Balcony Room. Accessed by an ancient stone stairway rising from a corner of the courtyard, this light- filled room has all the charm an old-fashion Provencal country bedroom (plus a great twenty-first century shower). And, as you’d expect, its own balcony. It is the loveliest perch one could imagine to enjoy in privacy the sumptuous breakfast dished out by Robin, Rose’s gregarious assistant.

With its secluded location within a five-minute walk of everything to see and do in lovely, laidback Lourmarin, and Rose’s delicious blend of English and Provencal hospitality, l’Ancienne Maison des Gardes is an ideal stop-over when touring the Lubéron.

Good to Know

  • Getting There Lourmarin is ideally located in the heart of Provence, at the southwestern edge of the Luberon Regional Park, within an hour’s drive of Avignon, Aix and Arles, and ninety minutes away from Marseille and the Mediterranean coast.
  • Staying There – L’Ancienne Maison des Gardes, Impasse des Gardes, 84160, Lourmarin, France. Contact: email roserobson@gmail.com. Tel: +33 (0) 4 90 07 53 16.
  • Visiting – Markets. The village has a large market every Friday morning, which takes over the tree-lined avenue in the centre of the village, as well as the square above it, and brings merchants and visitors from all around the area. It also has a small but lively farmers (and vintners) market on Tuesday evenings. This is a convivial event attended mostly by local year-round and summer residents. It includes cooking demonstrations by local chefs showcasing local products. The Château can be visited year round. It also stages a number of art exhibits and concerts during the summer. Visiting hours vary with the seasons and are posted on the official website, as is the program of events. The Cemetery – French philosopher and existentialist writer Albert Camus lived in Lourmarin in the 1950 and is buried there.

 

A Few Souvenirs

Location, location, location!

Lourmarin

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

A Provencal Foodies Delight in Roque d’Antheron

A Provencal Foodies Delight in Roque d’Antheron

It’s a flawless spring weekend in the Provencal backcountry, all verdant hills dotted with blooming trees and ancient villages of golden stones under a robin egg blue sky. It’s so easy to lose track of time in these idyllic surroundings that it’s well past midday by the time we get to La Roque d’Anthéron, a tiny town on the left bank of the Durance river.

Provence-Chateau Florans.

Renaissance Château de Florans dominates the old town.

Although well within one-hour’s drive from most key destinations in the area, it remains a sleepy, off the beaten path little charmer best known for two architectural masterpieces: its twelfth century Abbaye de Silvacane and seventeenth century Château de Florans. Once a Cistercian monastery, the Romanesque abbey remains a prime example of conventual archictecture in medieval Provence. Meanwhile, the Renaissance castle, now a private healthcare facility closed to the public, still dominates the center of town.

A foodies’ Lucky Find

Provence-Castellas bar.

The diminutive bar offers only the finest brands.

Yet, La Roque d’Anthéron has another, far more current claim to fame, which we discover as pangs of hunger shift our attention from the local architectural heritage to the more mundane issue of finding a restaurant for lunch. The streets are virtually empty during the midday lull, but among the shuttered shops the cheerful red awning of L’Auberge du Castellas catches my eye. The selections du moment (daily specials) listed on a blackboard hanging against the mellow stone façade are all the convincing needed for a consensus. We peer expectantly through open French doors into a small, rustic dining room filled with obviously delighted patrons. Katia, an elfin young woman with a welcoming smile, promptly ushers us to the last available table. The patron saint of foodies has come through once again!

Provence-Castellas asperges.

The daily special Terrine d’Asperges Vertes.

Everything on the menu, Katia explains, is prepared in-house with seasonal products sourced from local artisan producers. Said menu seems simple enough: four appetizers, five main courses and four desserts, including a cheese tray. But this doesn’t make choices any easier. Roasted quail or pike mousseline for starter? Stuffed breast of veal or monkfish for main course? Covert glances at the plates on nearby tables only reinforce the dilemma.

Love at First Bite

Roasted milk-fed lamb and spring vegetable medley.

I begin with the Terrine d’Asperges Vertes, a thick slab of silky asparagus Bavarois bursting with fresh asparagus flavor that has me smitten at the first mouthful. Next comes the succulent Agneau de Pâques (Easter Lamb), a generous portion of milk-fed lamb shoulder, roasted to perfection and served with a medlley of spring vegetables. Dessert is a swoon-worthy verrine of freshly picked strawberries, topped with chunks of meringue and an extravagant swirl of pistachio mousse.

Wine selection comes easier. To complement the decidedly Provencal menu, the small and fairly priced wine list favors the growing regions of southern France. We select a bottle Cuvée Tradition Rose from the nearby Lubéron Château Val Joanis. The fresh blend of Syrah and Grenache grapes, with hints of red fruit and spices subtly enhances the delicate flavors of our springtime meal.

A Passion for Traditional Cuisine

Provence-Castellas strawberries.

Local stawberries with pistachio mousse.

L’Auberge du Castellas is the brainchild of Celine Moulins and her husband Frank (Franky) Villani. After years of working in trendy ski resort and inns of the Provencal Alps, they longed to return to the classic cuisine born from the seasonal bounty of Provence. It is the abundance of high quality local suppliers that influenced their decision to open their restaurant in La Roque d’Anthéron. Celine, who developed her passion for traditional local cuisine as a child at the elbow of her professional chef grandmother, officiates in the kitchen. Meanwhile Franky, also a trained chef, manages the dining room with the assistance of the ever- attentive Katia, and oversees relations with suppliers.

With its memorable food and excellent service, L’Auberge du Castellas is a lucky random choice this time, but from now on it will warrant a detour, and a reservation, whenever I am in the area.

Good to Know

  • Getting there – La Roque d’Anthéron is located 59 kilometers (36 miles) north of Marseilles, 31 kilometers (19 miles) north of Aix-en-Provence. It is easily accessible by road (A51) as well a public transportation (Bus no. 250) from both cities.
  • The International Piano Festival – each year for the past four decades, from mid-july to mid-august, La Roque d’Anthéron is overrun with music and musicians as the host venue for a major summer event in the calendar of European Music Festivals. A number of performances featuring world-class artists and newly discovered talents take place on the grounds of the Abbey of Silvacane, as well as in the spectacular gardens of the Florans Castle, open to the public for the occasion, and other local open air venues.
  • L’Auberge du Castellas, 10 bis Rue de l’Eglise, 13640, La Roque d’Anthéron, France, is open for lunch and dinner Wednesday through Sunday. It is closed Monday and Tuesday, and from late January to early March.
  • The restaurant can seat 18 guests in the dinning room, plus an additional 20 guests on the terrace during the summer months. Reservation are strongly recommended anytime and an absolute must during the International Piano Festival. Contact: email auberge-du-castellas@sfr.fr . Tel.: +33 (0)4 42 50 50 58.
  • In addition to featuring vegetarian options on the menu, Celine can also accommodate gluten-intolerant guests.

A Few Souvenirs

Location, location, location!

La Roque d'Antheron.