Spring and autumn are the best times to wander through Provence’s best-known regional park and enjoy the lush landscapes and pleasant market towns of the Luberon
There’s no question that the sanest time of year to visit the Luberon is out of season. Those lovely winding D roads are practically empty, rather than thronging with caravans and impatient Parisians on their way to their second homes. The hilltop villages dotted throughout the 600 square miles of Provence’s regional park are delightful and much easier to explore when the crowds haven’t taken all the parking spaces.
Springtime brings vivid colour to the landscape, while in the autumn the vineyards are heavy with ripening grapes and the pumpkin patches are full of bright splashes of orange. Temperatures are comfortably in the 20°s, which is perfect for combining two of the most agreeable activities to do in Provence: walking and exploring the markets. For a civilised travel option, take the high-speed train from London to Avignon and hire a car from the TGV station to get the most out of the region.
The perfect base
There are dozens of charming villages in which to base yourself, but I chose to stay in the region’s capital, Apt, an attractive and bustling market town of about 11,000 people. Unlike many parts of Provence, Apt hasn’t been turned into a French theme park; it’s down to earth, affordable and has one of the best weekly markets in Provence. Pitch up on a Saturday before 10am to have a good nose round the fantastic local produce on offer, as well as the usual provençal souvenirs of patterned fabrics, lavender products and olive oil soaps. The town also has an excellent bookshop that stocks an extensive range of local walking and touring maps. They’re about a quarter of the price of the maps found in specialist travel bookshops in London.
There’s a surprising shortage of decent hotels in Apt, although Le Couvent
makes up for it. This 17th-century former convent has been beautifully converted into a relaxing and friendly guest house run by the energetic husband-and-wife team of Laurent and Marie Pierrepoint. It’s elegant yet a bit quirky, and the walled garden has a wonderfully inviting swimming pool. Doubles and suites range from €90-€120 a night including breakfast.
Apt’s market gave me the perfect ingredients for a picnic lunch of local cheeses, saucissons, rustic loaves and tomatoes that were bursting with flavour. Then it was only a short drive to the beautiful perched village of Bonnieux, where a three-hour circular walk through vineyards, orchards and woods took me to Lacoste and back. Lacoste has one of the Luberon’s most distinctive features: the hilltop ruins of the castle occupied by the Marquis de Sade. Today the ruins are owned by Pierre Cardin, who has been stealthily buying up many of the village’s houses, to the locals’ dismay. He’s also commissioned some interesting modern sculptures that are scattered around the castle’s ruins. It’s an arresting sight as well a great spot for lunch; the broad expanse of the valley lies before you, stretching for miles around.
Just west of Lacoste is another exquisitely pretty perched village, Ménerbes. Here a circular walk edges along the cedar forests that lie at the bottom of the 2,300ft Petit Luberon ridge. Most of the walk is along the footpath that forms part of the Grande Randonnée (GR) network of paths, and the out-of-season stillness was captivating.
The quiet of Ménerbes was in direct contrast with the morning spent in the north-eastern fringes of the Luberon at the lively market at L’Isle-sur-la-Sorgue. It runs every Sunday and should be visited before the crowds arrive at about 11am. The riverside town is well known as a magnet for antiques lovers, and the dozens of bric-a-brac stalls fight for space with the food, clothing and gift stalls wedged along the water’s edge and tumbling into the narrow streets of the old town.
This northern side of the Luberon has some of the region’s most interesting villages, thanks to various geographical quirks. The same Sorgue river that flows through L’Isle-sur-la-Sorgue has its source in nearby Fontaine-de-Vaucluse, home to one of the most powerful resurgent springs in the world. High cliffs form a dramatic backdrop to the huge waterwheels and picturesque restaurants on the riverside.
Carry on eastwards towards the perched villages of Gordes and Roussillon, two of the loveliest landmarks of the Luberon. You’ll find Gordes in the background of many films set in Provence, its distinctive streets spiralling upwards to the old town with its Renaissance chateau. Then head back into the valley further eastwards to the striking ochre village of Roussillon, which sits on the highest of the hills between the Vaucluse plateau and the Coulon valley. Try to time your visit for the late afternoon, when the village’s many shades of ochre look enchanting in the warm light. And, without the high-season crowds, enjoy the peace.
Rail Europe has regular trains between London St Pancras and Avignon.
Europcar offers car hire of a Volkswagen Polo or similar from £29.52 per day.