Provence Itinerary Part Two: Luberon

July 30, 2020

Filed in: Field Guide

Day two, we set off for the Luberon. While all three mountain ranges are iconic, I think it’s the Luberon that springs to my mind when I think of Provence. Hilltop towns of Bonnieux and Gordes provide lookout to the valley below, and the intensity of the earth in Roussillon draws you in with van Gogh colors.

It was a warm and cloudless day, but a strong wind tapered the heat, sending hats flying off and skirts flying up. We pulled up to the lookout of Gordes, where we met a Parisian couple traveling with the wife’s mother. They kindly offered to take a group photo for us, which Sarah returned in kind. The wind decided to take our skirts for a spin, and the Mom stood next to her, holding down Sarah’s skirt. It was the funniest thing as her cheeky eyes sparkled. “J’ai vu ses culottes,” she snickered, three times.

After drinking in the scene (it is quite majestic), our friends insisted that we take a peak at the Abbaye de Sénaque. There wasn’t really a question of are we going, it was when were we going. So, we wound our way down the mountain side, looking for a picnic spot, preferably amongst the lavender. At the base of the hill, after a few turns too narrow that produced sharp gasps of panic, we again found our friends. Cheeky granny was already out of the car, running towards some wild thyme with shears in hand. Her daughter ran after her, stooping down to clip the herbs, leaving her husband to tell us that we actually weren’t at the abbey yet, and that we needed to keep going. We were just looking for a picnic spot, but they probably thought we were either easily impressed, or nutty, or both.

Winding are way around a few more curves, we bumped our way down a gravelled path clogged with cars like a cork in a bottle (they don’t call traffic jams “bouchon” for nothing). I can’t imagine what it would have been like if tourist season was at its peak. Sarah parked Bert the Bullet and we set up picnic camp under the shade of some trees, leisurely helping ourselves to strawberries, comté, cold chicken, and the other salad fixings.

Packing up the picnic, we parked Bert in the shade and headed off to see the abbey. It is a wildly popular lavender hunting spot, and due to tramplers, trodders, and enthusiasts who pilgrimaged not for the beauty but for the selfie, fences now surround the fields. That does not, however, detract from the beauty. Have a look around, walk through the mini, tourist-friendly fields, and buy some monk soap to support the community.

Our last destination for the day was to wander through a lavender field. Please note: We were, in all of our lavender expeditions, careful to respect the work of the farmers. We did not step on any lavender, nor did we pick any. These may seem like obvious things, but are unfortunately and actually a real problem. If you do go to Provence, please respect the time, work, and art that these growers invest into these fields.

This was the best gem of the whole trip. We had to move accommodations to be closer to the Verdon mountain range for our last day, so we needed to make our way east through the Luberon. However, we did decided to just drive by a tiny, obscure definition of a French village called Oppède-le-Vieux. We almost didn’t find it after driving through Oppède, coming up on a sign that appeared to mean one-way traffic and/or road for villagers only. Sarah put on her Italian driver’s hat (she lived in Italy for 14 years) with the motto, “anything is possible” and pushed Bert the Bullet forward…and I am so glad she did. Bert was excellent, squeezing up hills with roads that were too narrow to merit the title of road.

It ended up not being a quick stop because the charm was there. Oppède-le-Vieux is a medieval village built into a hillside, with the cobbled streets, ancient ruins, and sweeping valley views to match. We climbed and slipped our way to the top, against the gusts of wind that tried to carry away hats and give us Marilyn moments. After a couple hours of Polaroids, uneven stone steps, Elizabeth-Bennett-on-the-cliff photo attempts (and successes), and contemplating a 30-euro pink ten-speed bike, we piled back into Bert for the long trek across the Luberon and into the Verdon.

Driving from Oppède-le-Vieux towards the town of Ménebres, you’ll come across a field of lavender you don’t want to miss. It doesn’t have the crowds of Valensole and is also brilliant at sunset. We walked, filmed, clicked, and swished our way though the rows, with the occasional gasp punctuating a smile as we stepped on the prickly weeds. Sarah pulled out her Bolex (look it up, double 8 cinema camera) for some divine golden hour footage. It was a one-hour stop, approximately, before we looked at the time and realised we had a ways to go before hitting our destination, Riez.

After a little scare in the form of a temporarily-misplaced car key battery (later found laying in the grass), a wrong turn down a dead end (trying to avoid the ditch), we were on our way through Ménebres and across the Luberon. Curvy country roads in the pitch black of the night made for stress-induced squeals on my part; and a straining engine on Bert’s part, as we managed the gear changes on incline and with impatient country drivers on our tail. But we made it.

Itinerary

Gordes lookout point

Abbaye de Sénaque

Oppède-le-Vieux

Ménerbres

Riez

Tips

  • The best time to see the lavender is June through the first week of July. Any later and they’ll have probably harvested it all. We saw piles of harvested lavender drying in the fields at Valensole during our trip, which was July 4-9.
  • The lookout over Gordes can be plugged into Google Maps as “13 Route de Cavaillon, 84220 Gordes.”
  • Make time to stop in Oppède-le-Vieux and the lavender fields by the bridge when you drive towards Ménebres. There are pretty much no other tourists.

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Paris & California strolls; plenty of flowers; stories; and looking for the beauty in the everyday. I hope you'll come along as I take the year to document the entirety of my home state!

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