Long before Florida became a magnet for retiree there was Provence, where two millennia ago Julius Caesar set up three colonies for the veterans of his legions. Since then this southern region of France has welcomed popes, artists, retired Brits (thanks to Peter Mayle) and increasingly, Chinese tourists. And why not? With its reliably sunny weather (when the Mistral isn’t blowing), hearty cuisine, an abundant supply of wine, and a slow-paced lifestyle, it is easy to dream about having a good life in Provence.
Which is somewhat ironic when this love for the Provençal way of life has completely transformed the region. A huge influx of tourist and retirement money has pushed up the property prices in this once poor region. If you time your visit during the lavender season, chances are you will be sharing everything, from the road to dining options to accommodation with tens of thousands of others. The quaint villages foreigners couldn’t help but fall head over heels for? They have mostly been turned into vacation or retirement homes, where the prices are so outrageous even bankers and brokers are relocating to areas with less sunshine such as the Lot Valley.
You can easily spend a week in the area, but if you are like us and have neither the time nor desire to rent a villa and do the retiree routine of visiting a market at a different village everyday, here are the must-see villages on a tight schedule. Trust me, after a few villages most of them start to become indistinguishable from each other – you should prioritize on visiting the cream of the crop. Yes, the four I picked are well known and touristy and are on everybody’s itinerary, but they are listed as one of “The most beautiful villages of France” for a reason. Likewise, avoid these places like plague if you want to venture off the beaten path.
With apologies to Apt, Bonnieux, Lacoste, L’Isle-sur-la-Sorgue, Ménerbes, Sault, St Remy and Uzès, let’s begin:
Located majestically atop a rocky outcrop in the Alpilles between Avignon and Arles, Les Baux was God’s gift to humanity to be a military stronghold. But even the mightiest fortress was not indestructible, and the village was sacked on the order of the French king Louis XI in 1483. Les Baux enjoyed a second boom when a red mineral was discovered nearby; it was named bauxite by the geologist Pierre Berthier after the former stronghold.
Today the village relies entirely on tourism. Once home to 4,000 people, only 0.5% still remain. Tourism is the only thing that keeps Les Baux from falling into complete desertion. Les Baux’s dramatic setting justifiably makes it one of the most popular destinations in Provence, but don’t come expecting anything more than a beautiful facade. An hour is sufficient enough to cover the entire village including the chateau. Allow another half hour for Carrières de Lumières, a popular light and sound show of classic paintings inside an abandoned quarry (€ 10.5), which we passed up on because we would rather be outdoor.
The best way to enjoy Les Baux is from a distance where you can marvel the village in its entirety. My recommended spot to take a panorama shot of Les Baux is at an overlook a few minutes’ drive north from the Carrières de Lumières on the D27.
Many gorgeous villages deserve your time around Avignon, but the mountainous region of Luberon in the middle of Provence is where you should be if you want to get the most out of your limited travel time. Specifically, head to the “Golden Triangle” in between the three mountain ranges Little Luberon, Big Luberon and Oriental Luberon where some of the prettiest villages in the region are located.
Roussillon’s claim to fame is the large deposits of red ochre pigments found in the clay around the village. Ochre was mined extensively to be used in the textile industry from the 18th century until the 1930s, and the practice is now banned to preserve the village. Today tourism has replaced mining as the main source of income.
Roussillon can easily occupy an entire morning, especially if you arrive on a market day on Thursdays. Perhaps because of its colorful surroundings, Roussillon has attracted a large community of artists and painters, filling the village with galleries instead of run-of-the-mill souvenir shops.
The main parking lot is the easiest place to take a panorama shot of Roussillon.
Slightly north of Roussillon is Gordes, located at the top of the Golden Triangle and a 10-minute drive from the Sénanque Abbey. Settled since Roman times, most of the current buildings were rebuilt after World War II when much of the village was destroyed following a brief period of resistance against German occupation. Like other villages in the area Gordes mostly relies on tourism nowadays. As one of the larger villages in the region, it is easy to get away from the crowd while wandering along its winding streets.
A few hours in the afternoon is sufficient. The best spot to take a panorama is at an outlook on D15 approaching the village from the west. Prepare some food in advance and have a picnic at this spot to take in the view instead of paying for overpriced meals in the village.
Of the dozen villages I have visited, Lourmarin is by far my favorite (or it could be Uzès, but we were in too much of a rush to do it justice). It manages to combine remarkable beauty with a sense of approachability that’s absent in many of its counterparts.
Located at the foot of the Luberon Massif at the southern edge of the Golden Triangle, Lourmarin was settled a millennium ago even without the defensive bonus of being on a hilltop. Without the dramatic setting of sitting on the edge of a slope, Lourmarin won’t immediately grab your attention like when first arriving Roussillon or Gordes. How Lourmarin differentiates is by radiating a homey feeling that you can’t help but fall in love with. That might be one of the reasons Peter Mayle decided to call Lourmarin home for awhile before selling his estate for a whopping €6 million and moved 10 km northeast to an even smaller village called Vaugines.
Even if you don’t share my feelings about Lourmarin, a tangible advantage of staying in this village is the fact it is not a hilltop village, meaning even if you are arriving late at night you don’t have to navigate the mountain roads in the dark. Evening scroll is also easier on flat ground.
Lourmarin’s setting doesn’t offer a panorama shot. The best location to photograph the entire village is a grass field a block south of the Chateau de Lourmarin on D943.