As we walk down the Rue de la République toward the Avignon Central Train station, the air is cool and crisp. We snuggle into our winter coats to keep warm. Christmas lights are strung over the road and as we pass several bakeries the smell is intoxicating. The early morning sky is lit with red and orange as we stand on the platform where we will catch the shuttle train to the TGV station on the outskirts of town, where our rental car waits. The ride from the central station to the TGV is quick – 10 minutes at most. Outside the front of the shining post-modern train station are several rental car companies. We’ve arranged a car with Europcar today – a cute little Renault Twingo. We’re excited to visit 4 of the most beautiful villages in Provence.
After getting everything squared away and finally getting the GPS working, we set off towards L’Isle-sur-la-Sorgue. We wind our way through the well-manicured, quiet suburbs of contemporary Avignon, past the French equivalent of Home Depot and the large hypermarché. Within 10 minutes, we’ve left Avignon and are traveling the narrow regional roads and smaller towns on our way to the countryside of the Vaucluse area of western Provence.
The Vaucluse area stretches east from the Rhône river and its associated agricultural plains to a mixture of rich agricultural valleys separated by the mountains of the Luberon. A wide and rich variety of fruits, vegetable and vineyards are grown throughout the area. The region is dominated by the underlying limestone geology that contribute to the light colored stone used for so many of the buildings we saw in the area.
We arrived in L’Isle-sur-la-Sorgue within 30 minutes of leaving Avignon. We were fortunate to find a free spot to park right on the main street in the middle of town – something we probably couldn’t have done had it been the height of the summer tourist season (a theme we’d encounter throughout the day). Hopping out and bundling up, for it was still a December morning, we headed off to find a tourist office and a map of town.
L’Isle-sur-la-Sorgue is a small town of about 19,000 people, albeit the largest we would drive through today. The historic center of the town is an island on the Sorgue River, where the river has been made into several canals around and through the city. Narrow, ancient streets wend their way through town. Sometimes a car competes with pedestrians to get through. We can’t imagine what it would be like in the summer time – there must be thousands of people wandering here. Yet today, we are often alone.
Little bridges cross the river and canals. Ducks and the occasional swan doze on the banks. Water wheels are still seen throughout the city with quiet, mossy blades delicately tracing out time in the old city, relicts from silk and paper manufacturing ages ago. We learned that the town hosts the largest flea market outside of Paris on Sunday mornings. Apparently, it is considered the antiques capital of France, with over 300 permanent dealers and another 500 visiting for Sunday’s markets.
Across the river from the old town, we spotted an intriguing old building begging to be investigated. It turned out to be a music school surrounded by a public park. Heaven for a 9-year-old and a fresh chance to run. Ethan was even more delighted when we encountered a lively little puppy that he was able to play with for a moment. Although, as Americans, we don’t always understand the French prohibition against being on the grass in their parks (“Pelouse Interdit”!), there is always ample and well-maintained open space at almost every French park.
Before hopping back into our car and heading east, we stopped into a nice little crêperie in the heart of the pedestrian area to fortify ourselves. The adults order our favorite, the Compléte, which is a buckwheat crêpe with ham, gruyere, and an egg on top. Ethan orders a crêpe with marinated chèvre, ham, honey, and thyme. A delicious, quiet lunch. We are ready to move on and discover other towns.
See photo essay of L’Isle-sur-la-Sorgue here.
Back to the car and east out of town, we continue to the magical town of Gordes, about 15 km further. We move through the countryside along narrow, tree-lined country lanes, passing bare vineyards and fallow fields beside us. The fields are speckled with small stone buildings called Bories. We are blessed with rich blue skies overhead, which are so emblematic of Provence.
Driving here is incredibly easy in our tiny little car. Although, we encounter other cars occasionally, the roads are by no means crowded. All the drivers seem courteous, if most do drive faster than I’m accustomed to. And like all roads in France, there are plenty of signs to guide our way – sometimes, too many signs to be able to read them all while driving!
Fields slowly give way to hills, and the landscape becomes increasingly rocky. Soon, we are climbing and stones are everywhere, from tall fences to barns and buildings and garages – all made of light colored limestone. As we crest a hill and the road veers left, everything drops away and a vast panorama opens before us with the ancient town of Gordes draped over the mountain before us.
We have to stop and get our photos, mouths hanging open in awe at the vista before us. We just pull over along the side of the road with about 3 others cars of people who have decided to do the same. One can’t help but use the word citadel to describe the city of rock built on – perched on – this mountainside, keeping vigil on the fields and farms stretched out below us.
We easily found a parking spot in a little lot just off the central square at the top of the hill. Everything we’ve read has suggested to not even bother trying to drive here and park in the summertime – that one should just take one of the buses and accept the crowds. Not an issue for us on this gorgeous mid-winter afternoon.
We walk right down and into the narrow, rocky walkways below the town’s central castle. We weave our way around the cold, shadowy alleys passing hidden bistros and pubs, people pied-à-terre’s, and magnificent vistas peeking out at us from between the buildings. It is amazing how steeply it drops off. We pass workers restoring a house down the hillside. As we pass, they begin to follow us with electric, self-propelled wheelbarrows that must be a huge relief to them. At one time, I imagine mule’s must have made their way through these steep, narrow alleys.
Further down we go until we find a magnificent terrace that open to the valley below. We can see for miles all around us, and bake in the delicious sunlight while walls of carved limestone tower behind us. Caves have been carved into the walls at various places. Benches and seating areas hint that this must be some kind of public park space. What appears to be a stage hints that this must be used of performances in the summertime. We can’t imagine what a breathtaking spectacle a show here in the summer twilight must be like.
Apparently, Gordes is considered a very sought after destination for some, and several movie starts and artists have made their home in the area. It’s not hard to imagine considering is has been named one of the most beautiful villages in France, although there are at least 100 (or more…) to choose from!
See photo essay of Gordes here.
Led by our GPS, we pass all the main signs for Roussillon and turn up a small, bumpy and lonely stretch of farm road. Winding our way through the countryside, past some remote farms, we climb the hill. The first thing we notice when we enter the village is the red and orange color of everything as we enter town, so unlike all the other towns we’ve visited or seen in the distance, they are made of the light colored local limestone. Again, we are able to pull right into a parking space located right in the center of town, and don’t need to use the large tourist area about a 1/2 mile down the hill!
Interestingly, Roussillon is situated in on one of the larger ochre deposits in the world. Ochre is an iron oxide mineral that causes the sediment that it is in to turn various hues of red, orange, purple, and yellow. It is mined to extract the pigment from the sediment so it can be used as a dye in various other materials, such as building paints. The ochre in Roussillon was quarried from the 18th century up until about the 1930’s when more efficient and profitable extraction methods shifted mining to other locations in the world.
As a result, the mining population decreased and the quarry was abandoned. In the 1980’s, a conservation effort was undertaken and the old mine area was developed as a nature and conservation area with trails and interpretive signs. We opted to take a walk along the Sentier des Ocres or Ochre Path (€2.50/adults, children under 10 free). The Roussillon mine is just on the east side of the town, easy to reach and is absolutely spectacular to see. The deep, rich colors are such a surprise and vivid contrast to the surrounding pine trees and especially to the rest of the region. The badland topography of the mine reminds one more of the badlands of South Dakota or eastern Oregon than central Provence.
After our stroll through the quarry, we headed up through the rest of the old city. As soon as you arrive in the village of Roussillon, you will be charmed by its atmosphere. Not surprisingly, the houses of the village are painted like an artist’s pallet from the pigments of the old ochre quarry. A glory of red, yellow, orange and pink façades. Roussillon is considered to be one of the most impressive villages in France and a “must-sees” in the Luberon.
As we meander through the shady, narrow alleys and streets we are led up the hills to a picturesque vista. We were even able to just spy Gordes in the distance. About this time, we noted that the wind was starting to pick up and the temperature cooling off. We had been very fortunate that the mistral winds, which can blow through the area this time of year, were silent and calm today. We decide to head back toward Avignon, making one last stop along the way.
See photo essay of Roussillon here.
From Roussillon, we head off in search of Fontaine-de-Vaucluse and the source of the Sorgue River, about 15 km back to the west. We leave the valley behind and begin winding our way through the hillsides and forests and wonder what may lie ahead. After a short, windy 20 minute drive, we enter the town, nestled into a picturesque closed valley, it is almost dusk. As with our previous 3 visits, we pull right into the center of town and easily park in a half empty lot. While driving into town, we had passed several large, mostly empty parking areas that we imagine must be full in the summertime.
Our very first impression upon entering town is how the landscape and view are dominated by the backdrop of the large limestone cliffs towering over the town and radiating the glow of the late afternoon sun. The town of just over 600 residents seems small in comparison to the towering hillsides. After that, we enter the beautiful, quaint town center with towering trees and a few tourists milling about. There are a few cafes open with a few people out and about, but generally pretty quiet, other than the roar of the river. We’ve read that in the summer the streets are packed and souvenir shops abound. But now – not so much, thankfully.
The town is built around a spring that is the source of the River Sorgue – the same that flows through L’Isle-sur-la-Sorgue, about 10 km to the west. The spring, on the east edge of the town, is the most powerful in France – and fifth in the world – with an average flow of about 90 cubic meters per second.
After an absolutely beautiful stroll through town, including a chance for Ethan to run around and get some more energy out, we acknowledged that it was finally getting dark and that we should head back to Avignon. As we passed out of town and back into the countryside we were treated to the most deep red and orange sunset we’d seen in a while, perhaps that we’d ever seen. As we quietly drove back into town, we were all so grateful for what we’d been fortunate enough to experience that day, including four amazing and diverse towns that were so easily accessible and close, the low crowds of the ’off-season’, as well as absolutely perfect December weather. We couldn’t have asked for a better day.
See photo essay ofFontaine-de-Vaucluse here.